Church Hopping LIVE: Church of the IntercessionArts, Church Hopping, Columns, Featured, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on September 5, 2011 at 6:00 am
Pretty much anything that could go wrong with the live Church Hopping event to the Church of St. Anselm in the Bronx went wrong—and then God proved He’s in control of everything. I figured God only gives you one miracle per day, and I wondered what would happen once we left St. Anselm’s for the second church, the Church of the Intercession in Washington Heights. Well, let me just say that God spoils me.
There were people sitting outside the stoop at the Church of the Intercession, so we were able to get into the church and suddenly found ourselves transported to Gothic times. There was a long, gray corridor enclosing a serene courtyard. Unlike the Church of St. Anselm with its rounded archways and domed ceiling, the Church of the Intercession had pointed arched windows and sharp, groin-vault ceilings. When we entered the sanctuary, it was much larger than the one in which we’d previously been. It had an austere personality.
As we marveled at the intricate Tudor Revival ceiling and magnificent stained-glass windows sprinkling colored light on the ground, a little girl around eight or ten years old approached us.
“Would you like me to tell you about the church?” she asked. I have to admit, I was a little surprised. Part of why I do this Church Hopping column is because I think most of us never received a background in religious art. We miss out on so much symbolism that could enhance our worship experience. In fact, I’ve found that most Christians I know aren’t even interested in discovering the beauty of church architecture. The day after the tour, a friend approached me to let me know he hadn’t come because “architecture isn’t my thing.” And yet here was this precious little girl sent by God to tell us about the architecture of the church.
After her tour, we met a church worker who lived at the church and agreed to take us to the crypt. As part of my talk on the Church of the Intercession, I’d told the Church Hoppers that there are monthly jazz nights in the crypt and they were adamant that we had to see the crypt before we left. Personally, I was a little creeped out, picturing piles of skulls everywhere. It turned out, the crypt was another stunning example of Neo-Gothic architecture. Our impromptu tour guide told us Rihanna shot a music video there, photographers often rent it out for fashion shoots, and “Law & Order” frequently films there. It was sad to discover that this beautiful, historic church has to rely so heavily on renting out the crypt to make ends meet. In the 1980s, Washington Heights got swept up in the crack epidemic and today crime is still high in comparison to other neighborhoods of Manhattan, meaning those who can afford to live elsewhere often choose to do so.
We emerged from the crypt and into … a cemetery. Church of the Intercession is known for its cemetery, where many famous people are buried (see below). The church worker said many people come here wanting to see the final resting place of John James Audubon. I have to admit I was one of them. When I planned this live Church Hopping event, I hadn’t known its connection to Audubon. In the three months I’d been planning the tour in my free time, at work I’d been editing a beautiful edition of frameable Audubon prints. It was a huge surprise to have my two worlds collide.
By then, our stomachs were growling and our guide suggested a diner nearby. The Church Hoppers and I voraciously chowed down on pancakes, burritos, grilled cheese, and club sandwiches and got to know each other better. They were such a talented and cultured group with fascinating life stories. “What church are we going to next?” they Church Hoppers asked, excitedly. Sadly, the Church of the Intercession was not only our last stop of the day but also the last Church Hopping tour of the summer.
I’m so thankful to everyone who supported the July 2011 and August 2011 Church Hopping Live events by praying for it (in particular, my mom), supporting it (in particular, Maria Fee and Lily Armstrong), advertising it (Redeemer Presbyterian and City Grace), leading the architecture talks (Brian Fee, Dario Cano, Paco Cano), telling their friends about it, emailing me words of encouragement (in particular, Jordan Green and Michael Bobo), opening up their churches (St. Bart’s, St. Patrick’s, St. Anselm’s, and Intercession), and showing up and participating in the tours (you know who you are!). Of course a big thanks go to Burnside Writers Collective and its readers for supporting this column for three years.
A lot of people have been asking me when the next Church Hopping Live event is. I don’t have any immediate plans, but if you would like to nominate a church or location, leave a comment below.
Church: Church of the Intercession
Location: 550 W. 155th Street, on the border of Harlem and Washington Heights, New York City
Architect: Bertram Goodhue and Calvert Vaux
Architectural style: Gothic Revival/Neo-Gothic/Victorian Gothic, Tudor Revival
History: John R. Morewood held the first church service in his parlor in 1846, when he and ornithologist John James Audubon wanted to attend Episcopalian services near their homes in the Carmansville (Hamilton Heights) area of Harlem.
The following year, The Chapel of the Intercession was built on 154th Street and Old Tenth Avenue (now called Amsterdam Avenue). Reverend Abercombie was elected the first rector of The Chapel of the Intercession, followed by Reverend W. M. Postlethwait, who then went on to become a chaplain at West Point. This first church was built in a Victorian Gothic style, but was very simple and just made out of wood, and so after three years the church abandoned this location for a new one.
A few blocks north in Washington Heights, at 158th Street and Grand Boulevard (now called Broadway), the second Chapel of the Intercession was built. Unfortunately, as with Hughes’ Folly at St. Patrick’s, the financial cost of construction sometimes strains a church more than economically. In the case of Intercession, a large enough population of the congregation was upset about the move to Washington Heights that when they withdrew their financial support the sheriff took possession of the building because the church just didn’t have the money to pay for it. By then, Reverend Doctor E. Winchester Donald had come on board, and was able to turn things around so that they could buy back the church.
By 1906, though, the church was still in financial troubles and decided to become part of the Trinity Church Corporation. Trinity Wall Street Church had plans to build a church on the cemetery property so new Intercession rector Reverend Doctor Milo Hudson Gates worked with them to have Intercession be that new church. Who did they hire to build this new church? None other than Bertram Goodhue, who went on in 1917–18 to build St. Bart’s, where we went on our first Church Hopping LIVE event!
The cornerstone of this third Chapel of the Intercession was laid in 1912 and the church was consecrated in 1915. In 1966, the National Landmark Status Committee gave the church landmark status. In 1976, the Chapel of the Intercession was renamed the Church of the Intercession. The United States Department of the Interior placed it on the National Register of Historic Places on July 24, 1980. It is part of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
Exterior design: While Neo-Classical architectural style is associated with liberalism, Neo-Gothic architectural style is thought to be more traditional. Reverend Doctor Gates was heavily involved in working with architect Goodhue in the design of the church. Up until that point, the church was considered closer to more liberal Protestantism than conservative Episcopalian, and Gates worked with Goodhue to establish a more Catholic style to the new church building.
The Church of the Intercession features a large tower, a structure prevalent in many Gothic Revival churches.
Interior design: The multitude of windows is another feature that points toward the church’s Gothic Revival style. The stained-glass windows are arched and decorative. They allow light to fill the church.
There are beautiful carvings within the interior church, a decorative feature of Neo-Gothic churches.
On both sides of the church are rows of columns.
The ceiling in the sanctuary is pointed upward, a stark contrast from the dome ceiling we saw at St. Anselm’s. The ceiling here is an intricately carved dark wood in a Tudor Revival style.
One for the birds: Born to a French naval officer and his French chambermaid mistress, John James Audubon (1785–1851) was raised first on his father’s sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue (now called Haiti) and then in France. At eighteen, he moved to the United States, where he caught yellow fever and was placed in a boarding house run by Quakers. When he got better, he began studying and drawing birds. The author and illustrator of Birds of America lived up in the Carmansville (Hamilton Heights) section of New York City and wanted an Episcopalian church to attend near home and was influential in founding with John R. Morewood The Church of the Intercession.
Blast from the past: You can still see the part of the original Chapel of the Intercession today. The outline of the roof can be seen at 154th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Buried here: The church’s architect Bertram Goodhue considered the Chapel of the Intercession his finest work and requested to be buried here. Architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie, with whom he collaborated on St. Bart’s (among others and whose best known work is the statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center), made a Gothic-styled tomb, where representations of Goodhue’s buildings arc over his body. He is buried in a wall vault in the north vestry.
The Trinity Church Cemetery, associated with the Church of the Intercession, is the final resting place of many famous people, including John Jacob Astor (the first millionaire in the United States), John James Audubon (The Birds of North America), Ralph Waldo Ellison (Invisible Man), Alexander Hamilton (the guy from the milk commercial), Clement Clarke Moore (“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Jerry Orbach (“Law & Order”), and George Templeton Strong (lawyer and diarist).
A New York tradition: For more than 100 years, the Church of the Intercession has been holding the Clement Clarke Moore Festival. The service, which takes place the Sunday before Christmas at 4 pm, includes a reading of Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Clement Clarke Moore (1779–1863) was a professor at Columbia College and gifted land to the General Theological Seminary, where he also taught. He helped Trinity Church found St. Luke’s in the Field in Greenwich Village, where he served as pastor.