Pinnacles and Onion Domes of New York

Manhattan's Houses of Worship

by Matthew Alderman, appearing in Volume 14


My first significant encounter with the churches of Manhattan came my sophomore year in college, when two of my best friends and I spent spring break in the Big Apple. Our tour included not only the usual hot spots—the Met, Lincoln Center, the diner from Seinfeld—but also the pinnacles of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, the blue gloom of the Dominican church of St. Vincent Ferrer, and one wax Roman martyr dressed like a Roman centurion, colloquially called “the dead cop,” that lay behind glass in a cavernous, moldering German parish in a not-quite-gentrified stretch of the Lower East Side. The grand total was fifty churches in all. Three years later, I moved there.

David W. Dunlap’s From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship taps into a very elemental part of my New York—its oft-neglected churches, synagogues, and temples. In the peripheral vision of my apartment windows is the subject of the book’s final entry, Zion–St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, wedged between two brownstones. I read now that this bit of Manhattan stage-scenery lost a horrendous 784 members in the burning of the steamer General Slocum in 1904. One block over and one block south is St. Elizabeth of Hungary, spiked with faintly Transylvanian pinnacles; I now know it started life nearly eighty blocks south in a building currently owned by a denomination with the puzzling name of the Orthodox Church of the Hispanic Rite. The Church of Our Savior, my usual spiritual home, turns out to be one of the city’s youngest Catholic parishes, despite its Romanesque-revival shell. And it had the novelty, in 1959, of being air-conditioned.

The city is filled with such obscure architectural gems. Dunlop’s guide introduced me to the Lutheran Church of All Nations, a Frank Furness look-alike rich with nineteenth-century terracotta work; the Hanseatic deco experiment that is Trinity Baptist; decrepitly Gothic synagogues; and the now demolished Unitarian polychrome Romanesque riot nicknamed the Church of the Holy Zebra. And there are the humbler storefront churches and brownstone temples—the long-gone Rigging Loft Methodist Meeting Place, something called the Zendo Shobo-Ji that meets in an uptown carriage house, and even one storefront cathedral belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic Church of North and South America.

The names and dates and places alone are a pleasure to read, sometimes even serving to bend Manhattan’s geography to their own ends. Park Avenue Synagogue is not on Park Avenue, and neither is Park Avenue Methodist. South Reformed Dutch Church ended up on the Upper East Side before folding three years later and selling off the building—a magnificent craggy sanctuary resembling Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle before drug-testing—to the Disciples of Christ.

Such Protean recycling abounds in the pages of From Abyssinian to Zion. One church, belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox, started off life as the prim and proper Church of San Salvatore, set up for a congregation of Italian-speaking Anglicans. The Gospel Tabernacle, once the cradle of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is now John’s Pizzeria, its sanctuary/dining room crowned with a gigantic stained-glass skylight. Not all transitions were peaceable—or as tasty. The cheerily out-of-place St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral that enlivens a dull Upper East Side street with its roof garden of ceramic onion domes was feuded over in the courts by two competing groups of Russians at the height of the Red Scare before finally being handed back to its original owners by none other than Felix Frankfurter. Who knew?

From Abyssinian to Zion is a worthy addition to the practical shelf of any ecclesiological tourist. It is a practical, compact volume, which is alphabetized, cross-indexed, and crammed with maps, easily slipped in a pocket for an afternoon of sightseeing. It will appeal heartily to the many species of armchair tourist as well. The antiquarian will delight in the histories and locations of churches long forgotten; the architect will be introduced to a whole new world of uniquely American spires flavored with the emigrant tastes of the old country; and for the simple lover of the obscure charms, it turns the whole island from Battery Park to the Broadway Bridge into, not merely a moveable liturgical feast, but an entire martyrology of wonder and beauty ripe for discovery.