When First Church moved from its original Wall Street location to its current site on Fifth Avenue, the building committee decided to build in 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. The sanctuary is said to be 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 of the New York Herald described the interior of the newly built church: “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.” (January 12, 1846).
Several additions have been made since the original construction. In 1893, an extension reaching Eleventh Street was built on the south side. Designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, it was known as the “New Chapel.” The stained-glass windows, some the work of Tiffany, were installed in the sanctuary between 1893 and 1916. A chancel was added in 1919, and the reredos, painted by Taber Sears in 1917, was moved to its new west wall and repainted. Its theme is the ancient canticle, Te Deum Laudamus. The rose window of stained blue glass was the gift of Robert W. de Forest, the founder of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, and his wife.
In 1937 the Alexander Chapel, was built within the Eleventh Street structure, named after the first pastor to lead the consolidated church, Dr. George Alexander. Decorated with the Scottish symbols of thistle, heather and ivy, its stained-glass windows depict the cathedral on the island of Iona, the Ionic cross of St. Martin, and a young Crusader setting forth from his Scottish homeland.
The new Twelfth Street church house, abutting the north wall of the sanctuary, opened in 1960. Architect Edgar A. Tafel, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed a modern building that harmonized with the Gothic style of the church. The exterior of the building was faced with brick that matches the color of the church’s brownstone, and quatrefoil designs match patterns on the older building. The Fifth Avenue Association gave it an architectural award. In the 1990s the interior of the Eleventh Street structure was redesigned to accommodate new programs, and it was renamed the South Wing. An ornamental fence, made partly of cast iron and partly of wood, rings the front of the church and its yards on Fifth Avenue.
First Church is the only church that occupies an entire block fronting on Fifth Avenue other than St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Fiftieth Street.