Chasing the endless tangents of New York as I like to do I was brought back the other day to the Church of the Ascension. It’s a spot that has always made me feel nostalgic for some reason, maybe for the simple fact that I used to pass by here several times a week in what already feels like my golden youth. Though it’s more than that alone really: I think there’s something fall like about the building maybe; maybe the color of its brownstone ashlar, or that it kind of reminds me of an English country church, or maybe the fact that Fifth Avenue round here is developed on a scale that still gives a hint of its more cozy residential past. You know, just trying to get home for supper before the sun goes down. Sticking your hands in your pockets and turning up your coat collar as the church bells toll.
The particular tangent that brought me here was reading more about the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who I mentioned the last couple times around. According to the American Institute of Architects, Saint-Gaudens designed the altar relief for the church in the 1880s – though the church itself makes no mention of him in their official history, and another source (ok, it’s Wikipedia) claims it was Saint-Gauden’s brother Louis who designed them. Well honestly, who cares, cause it turns out this church is a mother load of new tangents anyway. So let’s get a tangent hoppin!
The Church of the Ascension formed in 1827 as an evangelical Episcopalian congregation, with their first building (on Canal Street) co-designed by Ithiel Town (aka tangent number one, and hopefully someone we’ll return to someday). When that building burned down in 1839 the congregation wasted no time in choosing a new site, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, and erecting the building that still stands today (the first one in the picture above). That one was designed by none other than Richard Upjohn (tangent number two) and completed by 1841. The English-born Upjohn, at the start of his career here, would go on to much fame for his Gothic Revival churches (like Trinity Church for example, probably his most famous), as well as much credit in general for sparking the Gothic Revival mania that would soon sweep the United States. He was also the founder and first president of the American Institute of Architects in 1857, even if he was British. His Church of the Ascension was purportedly the first church erected on the fairly newly laid-out Fifth Avenue.
The Church of the Ascension’s connection with some big names in architecture didn’t stop with Upjohn though. In the mid to late 1880s they had the interior of the church redesigned by Stanford White (tangent number three), while Stanford’s architectural firm McKim, Mead & White (number four) – probably the premier firm of their day – redesigned the parish house next door. It was during this remodeling that Augustus Saint-Gaudens would have been called in to create the altar relief, if he indeed was called in. (UPDATE: Just noted on the church’s website that they credit Louis Saint-Gauden with the work. Well phew, glad we got it sorted out and glad that little Louis got a little work thrown his way from time to time.) More certain is the fact that a number of stained glass windows were designed by John LaFarge (yep, number five) as well as the massive mural above the alter, “The Ascension of Our Lord,” which is a pretty nifty looking piece. I mean, you gotta love a good Jesus ascension, don’t ya?
The church could afford all this of course because they had a pretty classy clientele, if clientele is the word to use, with names like Astor, de Peyster, Belmont (of subway, and racetrack, fame) and Rhinelander. The Rhinelander family – Julia and Serene Rhinelander specifically – gave the gift that allowed the interior to be “beautified” and sure, let’s go ahead and make the Rhinelander family tangent number six cause hell, why not?
Before the remodeling in the 1880s the biggest event to take place at the church was probably the marriage of then President John Tyler to his much younger second wife, Julia Gardiner (then 24 years old to Tyler’s 54). Due to the age difference, the fact that Tyler was currently the President of the United States, and the fact that Julia’s father had recently died, the ceremony was performed very discreetly, with the news only being broken to the American public after the fact. Julia Gardiner came from the wealthy Gardiner family, born and raised on her family’s privately owned Gardiners Island, off the eastern tip of Long Island, and one of the largest privately owned islands in the country. In fact Gardiners Island is still owned by the Gardiner Family, as it has been for almost 400 years, making it the only American real estate still intact as part of an original royal grant from the English crown. Talk about a tangent! This is the kind of stuff that I go crazy about. I was gonna say that President Tyler could be tangent number seven, but clearly Gardiners Island takes the cake. I mean this might have to spawn a whole new series of exploration. Island by Island? Here I come.