In 1628, the Dutch Reverend Jonas Michaelius conducted the first service of what came to be known as the Collegiate Church of New York in a gristmill on South William Street in the newly-formed town of New Amsterdam. Today, that same congregation still stands proudly in a marble building on the corner of West 29th Street and Fifth Avenue, not far from where it all began four hundred years ago. With its New Amsterdam beginnings, Marble Collegiate Church is the oldest Protestant organization in America and has had a continuous ministry since Reverend Michaelius first organized the worshipers.
Although it is technically the same congregation and even the same basic church, Marble Collegiate Church today is strikingly different from the Dutch Reformed Church of early-17th-century New Amsterdam. The multi-cultural, all-inclusive attitudes of Marble, however, betray a certain “Dutchness” in their inclusive and accepting nature, and the value placed on simplicity of decoration and simplicity of theology is still inherently Dutch Reformed.
Marble Collegiate Church now resides in a beautiful marble building (the name Marble came about as a way to differentiate it from the “other” church that was once on 29th Street) that was designed in the mid-19th-century by architect Samuel A. Warner in Neo-Romanesque Gothic style. When the first cornerstone was laid for the church in 1851, the northernmost city limits were at 23rd Street, and the new church on 29th Street and Fifth Avenue was on a dirt lane near a dairy farm, surrounded by livestock and muddy in rainstorms(!). To keep out the livestock, the church erected a cast iron fence – most of which still stands today, surrounding the marble building.
Warner designed Marble with some architectural marvels for the time, including cantilevered balconies that looked as if they were free-hanging, with no visible means of support. Marble was the first church in America to have this type of balcony, and parishioners enjoyed good sightlines and better acoustics because of this new way of building. The 215-foot steeple is topped with a traditional Dutch weather vane that has an image of a rooster, alluding to the Biblical story about the cock that crowed three times after the apostle Peter denied Christ. The church bell has tolled the death of every American president since Martin van Buren in 1862 (coincidentally, van Buren was one of five American presidents with Dutch ancestry, the others being Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and George H. W. and George W. Bush).
Marble’s interior originally was in keeping with Calvinist tradition, which emphasizes simplicity of decorating and a lack of images. There were no images or icons of Christ and no crosses or crucifixes, which is consistent with the Calvinist teaching. The walls were white and the windows were clear glass. However, as Fifth Avenue became the famously wealthy “go-to” street in the later 19th century and the area around Marble got more posh and manicured, Marble caved to the changing styles and painted its walls burgundy and gold in 1891. In 1900 and 1901, two of the clear glass windows were replaced with stained glass Tiffany windows depicting Bible scenes, though still not including crosses or images of Christ. Since then, all ten windows have been replaced with stained glass, and one of them today does depict Jesus on his cross. There are still, however, no crucifixes in the Sanctuary and the only other cross ever displayed is a cross made out of lilies that is put out annually at Easter time.
From its perch on Fifth Avenue, Marble Church has seen some important moments in New York history in its one hundred and fifty years. The original mahogany pews with swinging doors to limit the draft, which are still in use, remind of the time when Fifth Avenue and 29th Street was the epicenter of the “Who’s Who” of New York City in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The pews still have their brass number-plates from the days of reserved seating and some pews even have shelves which were used to keep top hats.
The funeral procession of President Abraham Lincoln went past Marble’s doors as it made its way up Fifth Avenue on April 25, 1865. Twenty years later, on August 8, 1885, the funeral procession of President Ulysses S. Grant also went past Marble. In the 1960’s, Marble hosted a series of fashionable weddings of American celebrities and notables. On November 19, 1961, Lucille Ball was married to her second husband, Gary Morton, in a service at Marble. On August 17, 1963, Johnny Carson, who had been hosting The Tonight Show for almost a year, married Joanne. On December 22, 1968, a grand Christmas wedding took place when Julie Nixon married David Eisenhower in an over-the-top wedding at Marble, when Richard Nixon was President-Elect but not yet seated in the White House. The most over-the-top wedding Marble has hosted was officiated by then Senior minister, Dr. Arthur Caliandro in 2002 when Liza Minnelli married David Guest. The guest list was star-studded with Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross – to name a few!
A visit to Marble Collegiate Church is worthwhile if you are a New York local or if you are visiting New York for an extended time. Tours are often given after Sunday services, which begin at 11 AM on Sundays. After your service and tour, keep the spirit of the early-20th century alive with a stop at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a circa-1929 sandwich shop that serves delicious old-style egg creams. While you walk along Fifth Avenue, picture the street during its prime in the early-20th century.
Meet you on Fifth Avenue,