Since 1808, this congregation has pursued a faithful Christian ministry—on behalf of the city we love, and the world we aspire to serve.
The congregation now known as Fifth Avenue Presbytyerian Church began on Nov. 6, 1808, on the north side of Cedar Street between Nassau and William Streets in lower Manhattan. (We called ourselves The Presbyterian Church in Cedar Street at the time.) Over the next six decades, we would move three times, eventually settling in at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in 1875.
The original congregation of 26 members included Oliver Wolcott, Jr., a former Secretary of the Treasury, and Betsey Jackson, a household slave. Also among our early members were Richard Varick (1753–1831), private secretary to General George Washington and later the mayor of New York City; and Joanna Bethune (1770–1860), remembered as “the mother of the American Sunday School” for her work founding the first Sabbath schools for disadvantaged children.
Our first pastor, John B. Romeyn, was just 28 years old when we called him to the Cedar Street church from Albany. There have been 16 senior pastors since then, all of them (like Romeyn) renowned preachers in their time. In 1867, a young Irish pastor named John Hall so impressed the elders of the church during a speaking tour of the U.S. that they issued a unanimous call and installed him that same year. The New York Times wrote that Hall’s “powerful preaching and wise churchmanship made the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church one of the great religious powers in the city.”
Our first century was remarkably successful. By the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for the church to have to turn away as many as 1,000 would-be worshippers on a given Sunday. But just as important as the service taking place inside was the ministry we were doing outside.
In 1815, members of the congregation established the city’s first free schools, later expanded into the New York Public School System. A Woman’s Employment Society in the 1860s organized a sewing business that generated income for poor and immigrant women. Donations from the congregation helped 19th century Presbyterian missionaries to found hospitals, chapels and schools in the Far East, Latin America and the Middle East.
Over our 200-year history this church was instrumental in the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary, the American Bible Society, New York Presbyterian Hospital and numerous mission boards. We’re also the church that created Dial-a-Prayer.
This handsome, Victorian Gothic church, constructed of New Jersey red sandstone, has presided over Fifth Avenue and 55th Street since 1875. It predates many of our historic neighbors, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1878), the Park Avenue Armory (1880) and the Plaza Hotel (1907).
This was an undeveloped site in a residential neighborhood when the congregation purchased it in 1873. When it came to choosing an architect, the renowned George B. Post (who designed both the New York Stock Exchange and the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue) was a contender. But the project was awarded to a little known, 37-year-old German émigré named Carl Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer’s engineering skills are evident in the technological innovations he introduced. Wooden louvers installed beneath the pews allowed warm air to rise into on winter mornings from steam pipes in the basement. On warm days, enormous blocks of ice were delivered to the basement, where fans blew cooling air upward. The Sanctuary did not have modern air conditioning until 2003.
The interior of the Sanctuary follows strict, Reformed Protestant precepts, with an emphasis on the spoken word. The pulpit is the focal point of the space, with the choir loft and organ above and communion table below. Unlike most Gothic churches, the Sanctuary contains no right angles. The floor slopes, the pews fan outward, and the balcony surrounds all that is below, bringing the entire congregation within clear sight and hearing range of the preaching and music ministry. There are also no Biblical figures or saints, reflecting an iconoclastic austerity prevalent among 19th century Presbyterians.
With a steeple rising 286 feet high, our church was the tallest building in Manhattan when it was dedicated in 1875. The clock tower still employs the original clockworks, which are wound once a week by hand. There are no bells or chimes up there; when the church was built, St. Luke’s Hospital was housed in what is now the Hotel Peninsula, and there was a concern that church bells might disturb the patients.
In 1935, Time magazine declared that “this grand house of God is often called the Cathedral of Presbyterianism.” This magnificent space hosted the 1910 wedding of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (an event attended by his father and some 500 of his Rough Riders), the 1965 recording of A Concert of Sacred Music by Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and dance legend Frankie Manning's “rollicking three-hour memorial service” (New York Times) in 2009.
The rest of this story is coming soon ...