When the city-loathing John James Audubon completed his home--actually a working farm--at what would become Riverside Drive and 156th Street in 1842, the estate was surrounded by woodlands, creeks and a small waterfall. That same year Trinity Church purchased land abutting the Audubon property with the intention of establishing a chapel in the "far upper part of the city."
|Audubon's house sat within a woodlands setting. watercolor by William Rickarby Miller, 1857. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Other than Audubon, whose home was year-round, the area was dotted mostly with summer estates around the tiny village of Carmansville. Trinity's venture may have had another goal in mind. Trinity Churchyard at the opposite end of Manhattan was nearly filled. Within a year the new Trinity Church Cemetery had its first burial. Despite its remoteness, the cemetery would eventually be the final resting place of an eclectic collection of millionaires, writers and the famous (and not so famous)--including nearly two dozen Astors, Clement Clarke Moore, and John James Audubon himself.
Trinity Church was less urgent in erecting the chapel. In 1846 Audubon and neighbor John R. Morewood were instrumental in forming the parish of the Church of the Intercession, which initially held services in Morewood's parlor. The following year a quaint Victorian Gothic style frame structure was completed. It was replaced in 1872 by a more substantial, stone building at what would become 158th Street and Broadway.
The Church of the Intercession suffered financial problems in the last years of the 19th century; and in 1903 its wealthy and socially prominent pastor Rev. L. H. Schwab resigned "on account of ill-health," according to The Successful American. Things would soon turn around for the congregation.
On October 27, 1903 The New York Times announced that the vestry of the Church of the Intercession had offered the job to the Rev. Milo H. Gates. Although he had been ordained by Bishop Potter only three years earlier, he had made a significant reputation for himself, having served as rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York, and was currently the rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts.
Five years after receiving its highly popular pastor, Intercession was taken over by Trinity Corporation, making it the sixth of Trinity's chapels in Manhattan and earning it its new name, the Chapel of the Intercession. Immediately Trinity's vestry laid plans for a magnificent new chapel building.
Trinity announced that the current Chapel of the Intercession was "old, out of repair, and regarded as wholly inadequate for the rapidly growing needs of that section of the city." Their choice of sites surprised some and annoyed many.
On April 15, 1909 The Times explained "Just inside the gate of Trinity Cemetery, at Amsterdam Avenue and 154th Street, there is a plot several hundred feet square which has never been laid off in burial lots, but is now used as a lawn. This is practically the only unoccupied space in the cemetery, and lends itself, in the opinion of the Vestry, admirably to the plans under consideration." The article said that attendance at the chapel's services had greatly increased since the arrival of Rev. Gates, making "the almost dilapidated condition of the present chapel-house" unfeasible.
Trinity Church commissioned Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, widely known for its neo-Gothic architecture, to design the building. The project was taken on solely by partner Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and he would later consider it his crowning work.
On Thursday October 24, 1912 the impressive cornerstone laying ceremonies took place. The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society magazine reported "A procession of lay and clerical officials, preceded by the chapel choir and trumpeters, marched from the old church at Broadway and 158th Street to the site of the new building." Several hundred members of the congregation witnessed the event, including Elisha Audubon, daughter of the artist and naturalist. Somewhat appropriately, the rear of the new building nearly abutted Audubon's grave site.
The contents of the first cornerstone had been placed inside the second. Now both were placed into the latest cornerstone, along with a current Bible and "several religious publications."
Goodhue had designed a building of cathedral-like proportions. The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society reported "Its length will be 200 feet; the breadth of the west front including porches, 70 feet; and the total inside width, 57 feet. The chancel, one of the largest in New York, will be 51x37 feet in size. The inside height will be 81 feet."
|The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society magazine published this rendering, based on Goodhue's drawings, at the time of the cornerstone laying. (copyright expired)|
While construction continued, Rev. Gate embarked on his own project for the new building. On September 14, 1913 The Sun reported "When the great Chapel of the Intercession on Washington Heights, which many believe will be the finest example of ecclesiastical art and architecture in New York, if not in the country, begins in a few months to approach completion visitors will probably find its altar the most absorbing within the whole edifice." While the article admitted there was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of its dimensions and general design, it explained "its sides will be concealed beneath a rich bronze vine whose tendrils will grip a mass of relics from every part of the world."
Years earlier Gates had come across a little mountain church in northern Spain. Worked into its altar were bits of ruined sculpture, "relics of the days of the Moors," said the article. Gates was inspired to make the new chapel's altar a reliquary as well. "Friends were notified and leaders in archaeological work, heads of great churches, scholars and enthusiasts in a half dozen countries volunteered their services."
The result was that 1,563 stones were worked into the altar's design--some of them making current day readers wonder about their acquisition. Included, for instance, are a chip of stone from Jericho, one from Mount Sinai, a piece of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and a small chunk of Canterbury Cathedral.
|Goodhue's plan created a complex of related structures and a medieval cloister. The Brickbuilder, April 1914 (copyright expired|
The massive church was completed in 1914. Goodhue had worked in the English Perpendicular style on the main building, taking historic liberties by using pointed Gothic windows along the sides. The often-acerbic critic Montgomery Schuyler, writing in The Brickbuilder, excused him, saying "Mr. Goodhue, as all students of his work know, does not at all aspire to the praise of a purist." Schuyler gave the architect his highest praise when he concluded "It suffices to note the evident fact that the new church is one of the most interesting examples of ecclesiastical architecture in New York, or for that matter in the United States."
|Goodhue departed from the style of the church proper by designing the rectory in neo-Tudor.|
Rev. Milo Hudson Gates was considered, according to The Living Church later, "an authority on ecclesiastical architecture." He later published the Architecture of the Chapel of the Intercession. The New York Times later noted "In its crypt he caused to be established a columbarium, which was believed to be the first provision made in any church for the ashes of communicants who have been cremated."
|The venerable tombstones of Trinity Cemetery provide a backdrop to the church, including that of James John Audubon, directly behind the rectory (bottom).|
Delighted at having found the poet's grave, he led 50 Sunday school children that Christmas morning to decorate Moore's grave. By the time the new chapel was nearing completion the event had become a tradition. On Christmas Eve 1913 the Arizona Republican noted "They will leave the new church at 9:30 o'clock, with banners and trumpeters, and will march, singing Christmas carols, to the grave, where they lay their great wreath."
But Gates had a stern, unbending side as well. He lashed out against Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church, in his sermon on March 26, 1916. Saying she "thought she was writing a Key to the Scriptures," he said she "had not the vaguest idea of what the Scriptures consisted."
|The Brickbuilder, April 1914 (copyright expired|
And when Dora Russell, the wife of Bertrand Russell, published her book The Right to Be Happy in 1927, Gates took to his pulpit to "assail" her, as worded by The New York Times. "The trouble with New York is that too many people here have an unfounded pride in their position, said the Rev. Dr. Milo H. Gates yesterday in a sermon attacking Mrs. Bertrand Russell's book...on the ground that it assumes for men and women rights which they do not have," reported the newspaper.
Saying that Mrs. Russell offered "an utterly false and a dangerous solution," he blasted "In the present generation our so-called best families do not own their positions. They merely chanced to inherit these positions from grandfathers who arrived before the poor immigrant of the present day. But that gives them no right to be unfair."
Rev. Gates held some convictions which went counter to mainstream church teachings. He sought to revive the cult of saints among Protestants, and the revival of ancient customs such as the Rogation Days. He also fervently believed that the Apocrypha be included in the Bible. The excluded chapters, like the Book of Jasher, were not considered scriptural by the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches. Even Martin Luther had deemed them "not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read." Gates strongly disagreed.
He repeatedly brought up the subject in his sermons, including the one on May 2, 1927 when he pressed for restoring the Apocrypha to the Bible. He no doubt shocked some parishioners when he called the Bible "mutilated" and "a disgrace to Protestantism."
|Separating the church from the rectory and related buildings was the cloister, the center of which is seen above The Brickbuilder, April 1914 (copyright expired|
|Surrounding the cloister garden are peaceful, Gothic style arcades.|
The memorial, designed by Lee Lawrie, followed the style of his building, taking the form of a medieval church tomb. The New York Times described "The memorial is in the form of a tomb and bears his recumbent figure...On it is this inscription: 'Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, 1869-1924. This tomb is the affectionate token of his friends. His great architectural creations that beautify the land are his monuments."
|Some of Goodhue's designs, including Intercession, are depicted in the frieze above the tomb --photo by Bertogandara|
Later that year Rev. Gates was appointed Dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral. Under his leadership the membership of the Chapel of the Intercession had grown to 3,500--more than any other of Trinity's chapels. He was succeeded as vicar of the Chapel of the Intercession by the Rev. Dr. Frederic S. Fleming. It was the first of a rather rapid turnover of vicars. Fleming was made rector of Trinity Church in 1932, replaced at the Chapel of the Intercession by Wallace J. Gardner, who was succeeded by the Rev. S. Tagart Steele, Jr. in 1937.
Through it all the Christmas tradition at Clement Clarke Moore's grave went on, growing ever larger each year. On December 25, 1931 The Times reported "Upper Broadway traffic halted last evening just after dusk while about 500 men, women and children carrying lanterns marched over 155th Street, after attending services at the Chapel of the Intercession, to enter Trinity Cemetery, where the throng crowded down the sloping paths of the graveyard to pay homage at the graves of Clement C. Moore, author of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas,' and Alfred Tennyson Dickens, son of Charles Dickens."
Rev. Milo Hudson Gates died on November 27, 1939. Three years later, on June 14, 1942 The Living Church reported "A bronze memorial tablet, marking the graves of the late Very Rev. Dr. Milo Hudson Gates and Mrs. Gates in the Chapel of the Intercession...was dedicated on May 24th, by the vicar of the Intercession, Rev. Dr. S. Tagart Steele, jr. The memorial, designed by Miss Louise H. Southwick, consists of a circle with a cross patee, surcharged with the Gates coat of arms."
The celebration of the 31st anniversary of the building's consecration on June 9, 1946 had one especially noteworthy feature. The New York Times reported the service "included the first official ringing in that chapel of a bell cast in 1700 and presented to Trinity Parish in 1704 by the Bishop of London."
When the 50th anniversary of the consecration was held on June 6, 1965, it was in a much changed neighborhood. From a district of summer estates and then the homes of the well-to-do, Washington Heights held a diverse ethnic and economic population. The once all-white neighborhood filled with blacks and Hispanics, giving the congregation a highly diverse personality.
|The diversity of the congregation is evidenced in this photograph from its website. via http://www.intercessionnyc.org/|
After nearly seven decades as a chapel of Trinity Church, the parish regained its independence in 1976. For the first time since 1908 it was again the Church of the Intercession. The magnificent structure, designated a New York City landmark in 1966, was included on the National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 1980. Today services are celebrated in both English and Spanish.
non-credited photographs by the author