First Church moved from its original Wall Street location to its current site on Fifth Avenue in the mid-1840s. The building committee had decided on the Gothic style, and selected Joseph C. Wells, an English immigrant who was one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, as architect and J. G. Pierson as builder for the new church.
It is said that First Church is modeled on the Church of St. Saviour at Bath, England, and the crenellated central entrance tower on the Magdalen tower at Oxford. The dressed ashlar tower of brownstone is embellished with a Gothic Revival tracery of quatrefoils.
A reporter in the New York Herald, January 12, 1846, described the interior of the finished church building: The interior of the edifice presents a novel and yet a very agreeable and impressive aspect. It is of the perpendicular Gothic Style, without columns to sustain the long extending arch, which makes the seats in a remarkable degree available and unobstructed. This is a new feature in modern architecture. The slips [pews] are of black walnut of native growth, most beautifully and tastefully carved…. The ceiling is formed by a system (if it may be so called) of groined arches, with intersecting ribs and pendants forming the keystone of this massive structure. New York Herald, January 12, 1846
Several additions have been made to the church since its construction. In 1893, a south transept was added by McKim, Mead & White, and a chancel was added in 1919. The chancel’s stained blue glass rose window was the gift of Robert W. de Forest, the founder of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. Also in 1919 the reredos, painted by Taber Sears in 1917, was moved to the new west wall of the chancel and repainted. It has as its theme the Te Deum Laudamus, an ancient canticle of the Christian church.
In 1937 the Alexander Chapel, decorated with the Scottish symbols of thistle, heather, and ivy, was completed in one of the rooms of the South Wing. The chapel’s three stained glass windows depict the cathedral on the isle of Iona, the Ionic cross of St. Martin set against a Hebridean landscape, and a young Crusader setting forth from his Scottish homeland.
The need for more space for First Church’s program activities led to the construction of the new Twelfth Street church house in the late 1950s. Architect Edgar A. Tafel, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed a modern building that harmonizes with the Gothic style of the church. The exterior of the building was done in Roman brick, colored to match the brownstone of the church. A balcony facing Fifth Avenue and a pseudo-balcony above it feature a quatrefoil design that is the same as that on the church building. In 1960, the church house won an architectural award from the Fifth Avenue Association.
In the 1990s a major restoration of the South Wing was undertaken, and the interior spaces were redesigned to accommodate new church programs. First Church occupies an entire block on Fifth Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. The site is ringed by an ornamental fence, made partly of cast iron and partly of wood.
- Bergman, Edward F. The Spiritual Traveler: New York City: The Guide to Sacred Spaces and Peaceful Places. HiddenSpring Books, 2001
- Fowler, Dorothy Ganfield. A City Church: The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 1716-1976. The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 1981.
- Willensky, Elliot, and Norval White. AIA Guide to New York City. Third Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.