This is actually the third Trinity Church to stand on this site. The first version was destroyed in the fire set by fleeing colonists in 1776 to thwart British occupiers (it ended up razing one-third of the structures in Manhattan). The second was poorly constructed, and its roof collapsed in a heavy snowstorm. But the third was a keeper and is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, Gothic Revival buildings in the United States.
Designed by Richard Upjohn, the religious structure can be seen as the stone and mortar embodiment of a theological movement that was sweeping the Anglican Church at that time, one that attempted to invigorate the Church by harkening back to its Catholic roots. Specifically, it paid heed to the idea that the Church needed a strong hierarchy to survive. So instead of creating a boxy, continuous space, like so many churches of the period (and like St. Paul’s further down Broadway), Upjohn used self-consciously medieval features designed to underscore the sacred nature of the clergy’s space, including a chancel. Normally, in a Gothic cathedral, the chancel (which is the area behind the altar, reserved for the clergy and choir) is marked off by railings, but that idea was quite controversial in Democratic New York, so Upjohn created a subtle solution, raising this area a few feet above the ground to give the feeling of an exalted place, without prominent barriers in place. Other Gothic features include the towering 280-foot spire, which was the tallest structure in the city until the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge were built; the flying buttresses; and the lovely stained-glass windows. The doors were modeled after Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence and were designed by noted American architect Richard Morris Hunt, though the sculptures on them were done by Austrian immigrant Karl Bitter. You can see the latter’s self-portrait in the knoblike head sticking out of the lower right hand corner of the door; above him is Richard Upjohn and above that Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed the base of the Statue of Liberty).
Don’t miss touring the graveyard, which holds the remains of many Revolutionary War–era New Yorkers. Among the notables are Captain James Ludlow, who uttered the famous command, “Don’t give up the ship” in the War of 1812; he’s buried in the tomb that looks like a ship, on the southern side of the church, surrounded by a fence made from captured British cannons. Behind Lawrence and to the right a bit is the most famous tomb here, that of Alexander Hamilton; beside Hamilton is the grave of steamboat designer Robert Fulton.
The church runs a brief tour daily at 2pm (a second Sunday tour follows the 11:15am Eucharist); groups of five or more should call [tel] 212/602-0872 to reserve. The small, on-site museum is closed until 2016 for renovations.
- Pauline Frommer