When building began on the site of St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1858, New York City’s Catholics complained about how far out of town it was. The cathedral fills the block between 50th and 51st Streets, Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue.
In mid-Victorian times the area was barely populated; now it’s in the midst of “the most expensive street in the world”, directly opposite the Rockefeller Center, from where it’s possible to gaze down on the 333-feet-high spires of James Renwick Jnr’s very conventional English and French Gothic Revival church.
The church, built of brick faced with white marble, was dedicated in 1879, and the towers added in 1888; Charles T Mathews designed the Lady Chapel addition which was finished in 1906. It was eventually consecrated, having being declared free from debt, on October 5th 1911: it had cost, up to that time, around $4 million.
The impact of twentieth-century development on its surroundings is stunning. Yet, inside its dark portal, the seductive darkness of soaring Gothic arches provides a dramatic sense of entering a different world with different priorities to the world outside.
Over the years it has been the centre of solemn events not only for New York’s Catholics but for its wider population: here in June 1968 Edward Kennedy eulogised his dead brother Robert, the New York Senator; here also were ceremonies to remember the victims and heroes of 9/11.
Somehow, the thick walls and dark glass shut out the noise of Manhattan. Here is a haunting, dignified, echoing space in which to rest and be thankful.
I’ve visited New York City repeatedly, and even if I’m only there for a day or two I always try to visit St Patrick’s.
The St Patrick’s Cathedral website is at http://www.saintpatrickscathedral.org.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘The Big Apple: the architecture of New York City’, please click here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.