Pict0138.jpg (126974 bytes) New York Architecture Images-Greenwich Village

First Presbyterian Church Landmark


Joseph C. Wells (chapel 1894 McKim, Mead and White)


48 Fifth Ave., bet. W11th and W12th Streets.




Gothic Revival  









First Church has been a landmark both architecturally and intellectually since its origins on Wall Street in 1716. “Old First” has a rich tradition of being at the forefront of religious and social activism, often with controversy.

As the “Church of the Patriots,” the pulpits and pews of First Church have been filled with passionate voices that have paralleled the nation’s growth. To keep pace with that growth, a decision was made in the 1840s to move uptown to its present location on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. The present Gothic revival building, dedicated in 1846, proved to be an enduring home for First church’s remarkable growth during the twentieth century. The merger in 1918 of First Presbyterian, University Place Presbyterian, and Madison Square Presbyterian provided a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the nation’s best known liberal preachers. First Church’s reputation for progressive thought and action has continued to the present.


First Church moved from its original Wall Street location to its 
current site on Fifth Avenue in the mid-1840s. The building committee 
had decided on the Gothic style, and selected Joseph C. Wells, an 
English immigrant who was one of the founders of the American Institute 
of Architects, as architect and J. G. Pierson as builder for the new 

It is said that First Church is modeled on the Church of St. Saviour at 
Bath, England, and the crenellated central entrance tower on the 
Magdalen tower at Oxford. The dressed ashlar tower of brownstone is 
embellished with a Gothic Revival tracery of quatrefoils. 

A reporter in the New York Herald, January 12, 1846, described the 
interior of the finished church building: 

The interior of the edifice presents a novel and yet a very agreeable 
and impressive aspect. It is of the perpendicular Gothic Style, without 
columns to sustain the long extending arch, which makes the seats in a 
remarkable degree available and unobstructed. This is a new feature in 
modern architecture. The slips [pews] are of black walnut of native 
growth, most beautifully and tastefully carved…. The ceiling is formed 
by a system (if it may be so called) of groined arches, with 
intersecting ribs and pendants forming the keystone of this massive 

Several additions have been made to the church since its construction. 
In 1893, a south transept was added by McKim, Mead & White, and a 
chancel was added in 1919. The chancel’s stained blue glass rose window 
was the gift of Robert W. de Forest, the founder of the American Wing 
of the Metropolitan Museum. Also in 1919 the reredos, painted by Taber 
Sears in 1917, was moved to the new west wall of the chancel and 
repainted. It has as its theme the Te Deum Laudamus, an ancient 
canticle of the Christian church. 

In 1937 the Alexander Chapel, decorated with the Scottish symbols of 
thistle, heather, and ivy, was completed in one of the rooms of the 
South Wing. The chapel’s three stained glass windows depict the 
cathedral on the isle of Iona, the Ionic cross of St. Martin set 
against a Hebridean landscape, and a young Crusader setting forth from 
his Scottish homeland. 

The need for more space for First Church’s program activities led to 
the construction of the new Twelfth Street church house in the late 
1950s. Architect Edgar A. Tafel, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, 
designed a modern building that harmonizes with the Gothic style of the 
church. The exterior of the building was done in Roman brick, colored 
to match the brownstone of the church. A balcony facing Fifth Avenue 
and a pseudo-balcony above it feature a quatrefoil design that is the 
same as that on the church building. In 1960, the church house won an 
architectural award from the Fifth Avenue Association. 

In the 1990s a major restoration of the South Wing was undertaken, and 
the interior spaces were redesigned to accommodate new church programs. 
First Church occupies an entire block on Fifth Avenue between 11th and 
12th streets. The site is ringed by an ornamental fence, made partly of 
cast iron and partly of wood. 


Bergman, Edward F. The Spiritual Traveler: New York City: The Guide to 
Sacred Spaces and Peaceful Places. HiddenSpring Books, 2001 
Fowler, Dorothy Ganfield. A City Church: The First Presbyterian Church 
in the City of New York, 1716-1976. The First Presbyterian Church in 
the City of New York, 1981. 
Willensky, Elliot, and Norval White. AIA Guide to New York City. Third 
Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. 

The Merging of Three Churches

Old First, Madison Square and 
University Place Presbyterian Churches. 

The decision to consolidate Old First, University Place and Madison 
Square Presbyterian Churches in 1918 evolved partly out of a situation 
at the Madison Square Church. The neighborhood around the church had 
been a residential one since its founding in 1853, but by the turn of 
the century had changed to a business district. Membership had declined 
and the senior Pastor, Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, was retiring. In 
addition, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which had erected a 
large office building across the street from the church, was offering 
to buy up the property for further expansion. The church was faced with 
a decision to either remain on the site, or move and combine with 
another congregation. 

A similar situation with respect to the pastorate existed at Old First 
and University Place Presbyterian Churches. Howard Duffield, senior 
pastor at Old First since 1891, was at retirement age, and George 
Alexander, senior pastor at University Place, was too. Both these 
congregations had been experiencing financial difficulties and were in 
serious discussions concerning a merger, when the Trustees at Madison 
Square Church approached them. 

The confluence of these three congregations in 1918 formed at once a 
strong and vital church. University Place had a fairly large 
membership, Old First had a long history and a sizable building at a 
prime location, and Madison Square, with the sale of its valuable 
property, contributed a hefty endowment. This unique consolidation also 
brought together, for a brief time, a collection of five eminently 
talented pastors.

Dr. Charles Parkhurst had been regarded as one of the most powerful and 
influential preachers of his time. A colleague remembers, “I vividly 
recall hearing him preach in later years - his full gray beard, his 
bespectacled but piercing eyes, his close reading of his manuscript, 
the utter absence in his delivery of any trick of the orator, and yet 
his strange fascination which kept his audience fairly on the edge of 
their pews.”

His chief notoriety, however, came in the early 1880s as a crusader 
against a corrupt New York City government - Tammany Hall. On Sunday, 
February 14, 1892, he began his crusade from the pulpit of Madison 
Square Church. He attacked the city administration, charging it of 
allowing saloons to operate on Sunday, against the excise law, and of 
not shutting down houses of prostitution. Dorothy Fowler, in A City 
Church, writes, “He [Parkhurst] then declared that the municipal 
government was rotten and that the officials blocked all efforts at 
reform by protecting owners of saloons and houses of prostitution. He 
declared the officials were a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and 
libidinous lot.” Fowler further states: “He denied bringing politics 
into the pulpit. It was not the concern of the church what 
administration was in power but it was the concern of the church to 
strike at iniquity.”

Parkhurst was not without his critics. The World, The Sun and The New 
York Times all supported the administration. The congregation at 
Madison Square, however, supported Parkhurst's continuing efforts at 
exposing corruption. His crusade spanned a period of about fifteen 

Rev. George Alexander 
Dr. George Alexander had begun his pastorate at University Place 
Presbyterian Church in 1883. He was to replace the retiring minister, 
Rev. Robert R. Booth, who had been in poor health. Alexander had been 
pastor at a mission church in a “disreputable suburb” of Schenectady, 
as well as Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at Union College. In her 
book, Fowler reports that the committee charged with selecting the new 
pastor “reported that he [Alexander] was a man of fine appearance, had 
a good voice and his sermons were not too long.” One of his colleagues 
at First Church, Harry Emerson Fosdick, later wrote, “Dr. George 
Alexander was one of the most admirable and lovable men I ever knew and 
my relationships with him were completely satisfying,” adding, “Dr. 
Alexander was a great personality, more conservative than I in his 
theological opinions, but devoted to a large-spirited, inclusive 
Christianity.” The vast majority of parishioners at University Place, 
and later at First Church, would have concurred. 

Like that of the Madison Square Church, the area around University 
Place Church had become, by the early part of the century, increasingly 
mercantile. In 1916, however, a young assistant minister from 
Baltimore, by the name of Thomas Guthrie Speers, had been appointed. 
Shortly thereafter, in March of 1917, Speers left to become a chaplain 
in the United States Army. About a year later, however, he returned 
from service in France to join the newly consolidated congregation. 

Dr. Howard Duffield had been called to Old First in September of 1891 
from Detroit. Dorothy Fowler reports that Duffield “belonged to an old 
Presbyterian ministerial family; an ancestor, Dr. George Duffield, had 
been a prominent patriot during the Revolution and his father was a 
professor at Princeton. The new minister was a graduate of both 
Princeton University and the Seminary. Initially he declined the call 
to First Church having heard it was not unanimous since the trustees 
were unwilling to assume the burden of paying a salary of $8,000. 
Finally Miss Rachel Lenox Kennedy promised to contribute half of the 
salary. He was installed December 10; he was to remain until the 
consolidation in 1918.”

“In his sermon Parkhurst said that all three merged churches were 
The first service of the combined churches was held November 3, 1918, 
with Dr. Parkhurst preaching. The other pastors present were Dr. 
Duffield and Dr. Alexander. In his sermon Parkhurst said that all three 
merged churches were dead. “There were three parents in this case,“ he 
said, “and they all died giving birth to this church-the New First 
Presbyterian Church.”

All three pastors were of retirement age, and two of them, Duffield and 
Parkhurst, retired soon afterward. A search was on for a new pastor. At 
a meeting on January 8, 1919, of the committee appointed to select a 
new pastor, it was told to those present that Dr. John Timothy Stone of 
Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago had declined, saying that he did 
not want to attend to administrative duties. He had only wanted to 
preach. The realization came that no one pastor could manage all the 
duties required for such a large and vital congregation. Fowler 
reports, “They also told those at the meeting that Harry Emerson 
Fosdick had declined their invitation. He had preached several times at 
First Church (and his sermons had been enthusiastically received) but 
he did not feel he wanted to leave his teaching post at Union 
Theological Seminary to take on the heavy administrative 
responsibilities that would be entailed with the newly consolidated 

In his article, "Fosdick at First Church", for The Journal of 
Presbyterian History, former First Church pastor John B. Macnab writes, 
“The three pastors of the former churches, all of retirement age, 
resigned willingly, and the search for a new pastor of the consolidated 
church began. While the committee established for this purpose was 
working, Harry Emerson Fosdick, D.D., was invited, as were others, to 
preach at services of worship. Dr. Fosdick was a professor at Union 
Theological Seminary in New York and a Baptist. He had joined the 
faculty at Union in 1915, after serving for eleven years as minister of 
the Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey. Since 1908 he had been a 
part-time lecturer at the Seminary on Baptist principles and polity and 
an instructor in homiletics.”

An unusual arrangement was then proposed by the committee. George 
Alexander was to be Senior Pastor, with Fosdick and Speers as Associate 
Pastors. Fosdick would preach at Sunday morning services, while keeping 
his position at Union Seminary. Speers was to preach at Sunday evening 
services and to carry on many of the administrative duties. 
Interestingly, there was a distinct spread of years between the three 
men: Speers was just 28 years old, Fosdick was 41 and Alexander was 74. 

In his autobiography, Fosdick writes, “It was very attractive, I had 
had four years at large without a parish, the thought of having again 
my own congregation, with an opportunity for consecutive ministry and 
the chance to combine the two vocations I had always cared for most, 
teaching and preaching, was alluring. I told the church that I knew 
nothing about Presbyterian law, that they must take full responsibility 
on that score, but that if such an arrangement as they suggested were 
permissible, I would accept.” With Alexander and Speers, Fosdick 
reports that “we made a harmonious team.”

Macnab further writes, “The unusual strategy was approved 
wholeheartedly by the congregation and by the Presbytery of New York. 
The creative plan that made Fosdick the permanent occupant of First 
Church's pulpit indicates the enthusiasm members of the new 
congregation felt for his preaching. His sermons found sympathetic 
ears, and the capacity attendance at his services were assuring 
confirmation to those who had conceived of the plan of a multiple, 
interdenominational ministry.”

As a result of the merger, and in large measure due to Fosdick's 
dynamic preaching, by 1924 the membership at First Church swelled to 
1,800, the highest it had ever been.

A Brief History of First Church

The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York traces its birth 
to controversy and a prison cell in the days long before the First 
Amendment - a time when religion was politics. Its proud history has 
continued in this tradition, as First Church as often appeared in the 
forefront of controversial issues, leading the way in its community, 
city, and country.

On a January Sunday in 1706, Francis Makemie led worship for a group of 
immigrant Scots and Irish in a private home in New York. Makemie was a 
missionary - organizer from the Church of Scotland and was not welcomed 
by Anglican authorities in New York. His punishable crime here, 
however, was the performance of an infant baptism, an “unlicensed” act 
that infuriated Anglicans and provided grounds to jail him. His defense 
(and ultimate acquittal) became the rallying point for a “band of 
eighty” who organized a congregation in his support in 1716.

In spite of opposition from the Anglicans, the rebels eventually 
purchased a plot on the north side of Wall Street near Nassau Street. 
In 1719, thirteen years after Makemie's first service in New York, a 
church opened for worship.

The dissenting protestants grew in numbers and their spirit of dissent 
persisted. In 1722, there was a brief rift in the congregation. The 
Scottish core remained with the rigid and dominating James Anderson. 
The English formed their own group and invited 19-year-old Jonathan 
Edwards, fresh out of Yale, to be their preacher.

Fire, as well as fiery preaching, played a significant part in the 
church's history. 
Inside a year, Anderson resigned, the rift was healed, and Mr. Edwards 
moved on, continuing his path to becoming the guiding spirit of The 
Great Awakening.

In 1740, the fortunes of the Wall Street church were enhanced by 
another anti-establishment hero: George Whitfield, celebrated English 
evangelist and colleague of John Wesley. Only First Presbyterian 
allowed him to preach in New York during his American tours. His 
popularity so greatly increased membership that in 1748 the entire 
church was enlarged and thrived until the British occupation during the 
War for Independence.

English publisher and novelist Horace Walpole referred to the 
Revolution as a “Presbyterian rebellion,” because a high proportion of 
church members served in the Continental Army. The Sons of Liberty were 
referred to locally as the "Presbyterian junta" because a church 
trustee was imprisoned for forming it. Religion was still politics, and 
the issue was protesting colonists vs. Anglican British authorities.

The Wall Street church was closed for seven years during the 
Revolution. When the war ended, worshipers returned to find their 
building in ruins. It had been used by the British as a barracks and 
then a stable, and was irreparably damaged when the British burned New 

Even without a building, the church persisted, and two important aims 
were realized in the immediate post-war period: the rift with the 
Episcopalians (no longer Anglicans) ended - Trinity even offered the 
homeless Presbyterian congregation use of its chapels - and the 
congregation obtained a charter. It became the first religious 
organization to receive sanction from the State of New York. In a very 
real sense, it was “First Church.”

Fire, as well as fiery preaching, played a significant part in the 
church's history. The post-revolutionary building was dedicated in 
1811, but fire took that within a short time. It was replaced, but in 
1835 the Great Fire destroyed most of New York and changed the face of 
the city forever.

After the fire, Wall Street was rebuilt as a commercial area and the 
population moved north. After much debate, “Old First” decided to move 
with the population and acquired the present property on Fifth Avenue 
in the Village of Greenwich (now, Greenwich Village). The new building 
was dedicated in 1846. The 1992 restoration re-established its 

From the beginning, this beautiful stone church and its spacious 
gardens became an enduring visual and spiritual inspiration in the 
city. But serene and green as it appeared outside, the next 150 years 
of First Presbyterian's history were as tumultuous as its past.

The last half of the 19th century was an era of awakening social 
consciousness. The congregation turned its attention to worthy causes 
including homes for the aged, hospitals, the Boys' and Girls' Clubs, 
and loan relief societies. First Church has continued to assist these 
organizations as part of an ongoing mission of community outreach. 

In order to strengthen the Presbyterian base in the residential 
neighborhood of Greenwich Village after World War I, three local 
churches chose to merge. The parties to the merger were First 
Presbyterian, University Place Presbyterian, and Madison Square 
Presbyterian. Thus in 1918, a new single church was created bearing the 
ponderous title: “The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New 
York, Founded 1716 - Old First, University Place and Madison Square 

The three joined forces at the 12th Street building, dubbed “New York's 
Presbyterian cathedral” by Charles H. Parkhurst, retiring pastor of 
Madison Square.

Parkhurst was a crusading civic reformer. He fearlessly took on Tammany 
Hall (“that lying, perjured, rum-soaked, libidinous lot”). His zeal for 
benevolence inspired First Church parishioners as well. Only his 
Anti-Saloon League provoked some dissension.

Upon the retirement of Parkhurst and Howard Duffield, of Old First, the 
consolidated congregation instituted a novel system for their pastorate 
team: Rev. George Alexander, of University Place, as pastor, Rev. 
Thomas Speers as administer, and the popular and liberal Rev. Harry 
Emerson Fosdick (actually a Baptist) as preacher.

Fosdick's sermons were so well attended that all pews were rented. 
According to tradition, one morning the center aisle marble floor 
cracked from the weight of the packed balconies (a crack that is still 
visible today). The Church Tower publication was established to reprint 
his sermons. But in May, 1922, Fosdick crossed a line that few dared 
touch in those days. He preached a sermon challenging the 
fundamentalists (many of whom were Baptists and Presbyterians) and 
asserting that The New Knowledge (Darwinism) was not inconsistent with 
the Christian faith. Suddenly, First Church found it had, in its 
pulpit, a major controversial figure. 

William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalism's leading exponent, was a member 
of the General Council of the Presbyterian Church. With a fiery speech 
at the 1923 General Assembly, he spearheaded a resolution that mandated 
the New York Presbytery to force First Church to conform to traditional 
church doctrine, as fundamentalists saw it.

At the 1924 General Assembly, fundamentalists were unhappy with the 
lack of “change” in Fosdick's preaching. The delegates then struck a 
compromise: Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Baptist preacher, was to become 
a Presbyterian, and thereby “regularize” his position.

Fosdick refused, seeing the compromise for what it was: an entrapment 
by the fundamentalists. He saw that the moment he preached a sermon 
that the fundamentalists disliked, he would be brought up on heresy 
charges. The Session of First Church accepted Fosdick's resignation in 
October of that year. Harry Emerson Fosdick's last sermon at First 
Church was on March 1, 1925. Upon leaving, he praised the congregation 
for its loyalty, tolerance, forbearance, and friendliness. The 
Riverside Church then became his pastoral home, until his death in 

Even after Fosdick's departure, First Church continued to expose itself 
to adverse winds that ruffled its peace. In the 1930s, it supported 
petitions to ordain women. In 1960, it supported the election of an 
African-American to the highest office of the national Church. In the 
1990s, it has faced the controversial issue of the sexual orientation 
of church leaders.

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