THE HISTORY OF ST. PETER’S CHELSEA 346 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011 stpeterschelsea.org 212-929-2390
St. Peter’s Church in the Episcopal Diocese of New York is familiarly known as St. Peter’s Chelsea. It began its mission to serve the community after being formally organized on May 9, 1831. It grew out of the congregation centered around the General Theological Seminary, which opened in 1827 on Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets on land given by Clement Clarke Moore from his family estate named Chelsea. So many neighbors joined faculty and students in Sunday worship that it became obvious an independent structure was necessary.
The name St. Peter’s was chosen because there were no other churches by that name in Manhattan at the time. The co-founders included the Seminary campus land donor Clement Clarke Moore, James N. Wells (the Wells of the real estate firm of Wells, Gay, and Stribling) and two seminary professors. Additional Chelsea farmland was set aside by Moore to build St. Peter’s and on February 4, 1832, a chapel, the present rectory building to the west of the church, was consecrated.
Moore is best remembered for creating the classic Christmas poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. You may know it as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. That is why St. Peter’s is often referred to as The Christmas Church. His Chelsea estate overlooked the Hudson River, which met the shore where Tenth Avenue is now, and extended from present day 19th to about 28th Street and east to what is now Sixth Avenue.
THE ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIOR DESIGN On St. Peter’s Day, June 29, 1836, the cornerstone for the church building was laid. James W. Smith was the architect, and the perpendicular Gothic design was inspired by a sketch of Magdalen College in Oxford, England done by a vestryman who had visited there. The church was consecrated on February 22, 1838 on Washington’s Birthday. Clement Clarke Moore, who also donated much of the construction costs, became an early warden, vestryman, and musician at St. Peter’s.
The building’s 100-foot clock tower with bell was once the most prominent feature of the Chelsea skyline and when the church was consecrated in 1838, it was one of the tallest structures in New York City. The 2K lb., 47-inch-wide bell in the clock tower was forged in 1839 at the Allaire Iron Works on Cherry St., in New York City. It rings in the key of “E” and you can see rare footage of it up close here: https://www.youtube.com/user/stpeterschelsea
The wrought iron fence and gates, circa 1790, is our oldest feature. They once stood before St. Paul’s Chapel, near the World Trade Center, and were given to St. Peter’s by Trinity Parish in 1846. The larger stones used in the construction of the church are hammered blue Spuyten Duyvil stone, floated down the Hudson River on barges; and the smaller stones are on-site Manhattan Schist, taken directly from the earth beneath the buildings. St. Peter’s is literally “The Rock of Chelsea.”
St. Peter’s was originally planned to be a Greek Revival Church. But, even though the interior was to resemble the simple preaching halls of the 18th century, tastes were changing. Churchgoers were reading Walter Scott, and Gothic designs suggested freedom and encouraged the imagination. So, in the end, St. Peter’s went Gothic and became the first English parish Gothic church building in the U.S., serving as a guide to builders of other churches in this style.
Its vaulting was probably inspired by Christ Church Oxford and St. Luke’s Chelsea in London. But Gothic Revival architecture required divisions of the nave and aisles into arcades, supported by columns, whereas, the preaching-centered church of the 1830s required an unobstructed view of the pulpit. The magnificent pendant vaulting of the ceiling was the ingenious solution. The carvings on the wooden gallery balcony were done by a parishioner as a gift to St. Peter’s. Wood used for 20th Century repairs to the suspended ceiling was recovered from the rubble following fire damage to neighboring The Church of the Holy Apostles.
East of the church is the former parish hall, built in 1871, which we now lease to the Atlantic Theater Company. Recently, two parishioners have made major contributions to the landmarked historic original chapel building now used as the office and rectory. The late Donald Whelan left funds for a major restoration of the rectory. Former parishioner George Hansler donated funds to support a complete re-landscaping of the rectory garden, including a meditation area featuring marble statues and a fountain.
THE STAINED GLASS WINDOWS St. Peter’s is blessed with Tiffany Studios and J&R Lamb Studios patron-funded, memorial windows, which are viewed best from the pews. They are a mix of stained glass and opalescent painted art glass windows. Aficionados of stained glass have come from around the world to see them. They are dedicated in memoriam to departed loved ones of church members, among them some of New York City’s most well-known families, and are in the medieval style of pictorial windows in vogue in the 19th century. Our Tiffany windows feature the techniques that Louis C. Tiffany developed at the turn of the 20th century for adding sculptured depth to glass and for coloring the glass itself, as opposed to painting the color on. The jewel in the collection is the 1900 Call of St. Peter window by J&R Lamb Studios over the altar (out for restoration), inscribed Follow Me and I Will Make You Fishers of Men. It depicts Jesus at the Sea of Galilee, with James and John, calling the fishermen brothers Peter and Andrew to follow him.
THE RELIGIOUS PAINTINGS Below the Call of St. Peter window are pre-Raphaelite reredos gilt paintings featuring life-size Biblical figure processions led by women. On the east side are those from the First Testament, led by Hannah; and on the west side are those from the Second Testament, led by St. Mary. On the wall behind the side chapel lives Our Lord Blessing a Solider and a Sailor, a three-panel, patriotic, life size mural painted on site in 1946 by parishioner, 19th Street resident, WWII colonel and WPA artist Ted Witonski. Other pieces by Witonski are in the collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The New York Public Library and museums around the country.
THE PEWS The pews are original to the building – only the prayer books have changed over the years, with changing ideas about God and faith. The pews have doors, which was the style in the early 19th century. Churches used to earn their keep by charging “pew rent,” a practice discarded at the turn of the 20th century. When the church was not heated, parishioners brought heated bricks to keep in their pews.
THE PIPE ORGANS Two massive, floor-to-ceiling pipe organs grace St. Peter’s interior. The 1838 Henry Erben organ, up in the rear gallery, had bellows that were hand-pumped by the men and boys of the parish. It was rebuilt in the 1870s by L.C. Harrison. Though it is a breathtaking sight to behold, its workings are long gone. However, while the 1892 pipe organ in the east chancel is not currently functioning, it has been deemed operational with repairs needed. It was built by the Roosevelt Organ Company in Manhattan and electrified by Wilfrid Lavallee in 1930. Its electrically powered air supply, meaning no more hand pumping the bellows, was enthusiastically received.
THE CHANCEL AND ALTAR The chancel area of containing the white marble altar is an addition to the original church building. Above the Call of St. Peter stained glass window hangs an elaborate baldachin that once draped the original pulpit. The memorial gospel pulpit on the east side and the memorial lectern pulpit on the west side were gifts to the church in 1883 from the family of Don Alonzo Cushman, the real estate investor who developed most of Chelsea. High above, the Victorian-era, hand painted, gilt stenciled, vaulted chancel ceiling original to the building, features six Apostle shields, which were added in 1884.
THE SIDE CHAPEL The altar at the side chapel is the church’s original communion table, and behind it is the mural painting Our Lord Blessing a Solider and a Sailor. In 1954, the congregation felt this painting was too militaristic and had it hidden from view as a quiet protest against war. The heavy curtain hiding the painting was removed in 2013 during Veteran’s Day Mass after nearly 60 years hidden from view.
THE BAPTISTERY CORNER The elegant baptismal font in the southwest corner was given to the church in 1859 and has been located in many places around the church. Surrounding it is the window Christ Blessing Little Children; a plaque dedicated to Moore and his poem; “The Chelsea Stone” from the fabric of Chelsea Old Church in London, presented to St. Peter’s in 1936; and Virgin Mary prayer candles for lighting, which sit atop a kneeler decorated with a piece of tapestry from the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II at the Abbey Church of St. Peter, Westminster, London.
THE MEMORIAL PLAQUES Around the church are memorial plaques commemorating Chelsea residents lost in WWI and WWII; departed loved ones sponsored by friends and family; and church leaders who served here. The antiquated dedications on the oldest plaques are particularly charming, a favorite being the one for The Rev. Hugh Smith, who died during Sunday Mass in 1849. It famously reads: during the time of morning service he ceased to be mortal and was gathered unto his fathers, in favor with his God and in perfect charity with the world.
OUR ONGOING COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT We have always engaged in outreach efforts. During the first half of the 19th century, St. Peter’s clergy was busy attending to the needs of those affected by the cholera and yellow fever outbreaks, as well as the arrival of thousands of immigrants fleeing unfavorable conditions in Europe.
In the late 19th century, St. Peter’s organizations, run mostly by women, provided employment to needy women, ran an industrial school for boys, and provided many other programs and services vital to the community. At the beginning of the 20th century, when other churches were following the affluent uptown, St. Peter’s stayed to serve the needs of the area.
In April 1912, on the Sunday following its sinking, the RMS Titanic’s rescued survivors who were brought to New York City’s Hudson River piers, and seamen from ships all along the riverfront’s docks, attended a special mass hosted for them by St. Peter’s in memoriam to passengers and crew lost.
The post-WWII era saw St. Peter’s responding to the problems of crime and delinquency in overcrowded, gang-ridden Chelsea with an abundance of teen activities, church youth programs and community social services. Throughout the 1960s, we housed and hosted many of the city’s most active peace, arts, civil rights and unionizing organizations, including the national offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Women’s Liberation. Our outreach in the late 20th century focused on pastoral care to a growing number of New Yorkers with AIDS and their families.
The tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy at the turn of the 21st century rallied the Chelsea community and St. Peter’s congregation did its part towards ministry and fundraising for victims and first responders. Today, St. Peter’s continues to serve New York by sponsoring a Food Pantry that feeds approximately 1800 people each month. We also host numerous neighborhood groups including numerous recovery groups, a weekly senior fitness class, a photographers group and Chelsea Community Church.
We are very proud of The Music in Chelsea community organization concert series that uses the church and dedicates ticket proceeds directly to support the Food Pantry. It features excellent performances by soloists, chamber musicians, ensembles, and orchestras. Tickets are modestly priced at $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. St. Peter’s church is known in the arts community for its excellent acoustics, making it a popular venue for hosting live music, recording sessions and readings. Performers such as Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Miles Davis, 30 Seconds to Mars, The Persuasions, Philip Glass, Tony Randall, Ethan Hawke, Stephen Collins, Blair Brown, Brian Murray, Peter Quinn, Tokyo String Quartet, University College Dublin Choral Scholars and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center have appeared here.
Compiled by Mary Sheeran and Jennifer A. Maguire from: Old Chelsea and Saint Peter’s Church by Samuel Patterson (member, New York Historical Society); Forty Years of Parish Life and Work by Olin Scott Roche; Tiffany Windows by Alastair Duncan; St. Peters-Chelsea 150 Year Jubilee Celebration booklet; 1994 Welcome brochure; Examination by William Stivale, Building Conservator, and Marie Ennis, Structural Engineer, St. Peter’s restoration 2015; Stained glass research by Wayne Boucher and Donald Traser; Pipe organ evaluation in 2017 by Jeremy Cooper, Organ Builder; and master’s thesis by Christopher Jenks, son of former rector Robert Jenks. Chris is a Brother of Saint Gregory, the Executive Director of Fessenden House, and a former preservationist with the New York Landmarks Conservancy. His thesis is well documented with primary sources, including many issues of the parish’s newsletter from the early twentieth century, St. Peter’s Vestry Minutes, parish records, St. Peter’s Association Journal (1880s), fundraising pamphlets and the oral tradition of St. Peter’s. This history is updated or revised as new information is discovered. (05/2019)
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