Trinity Church, New York

 In Economy, Explainer, fiction, history, writing

I’ve become a bit obsessed with New York’s Trinity Church over the last few years. It’s hard not to, when you’re writing historical fiction based around Wall Street. If you don’t know it, Trinity Church stands on a hilltop at the junction of Broadway and Wall Street. Today its spire is dwarfed by skyscrapers, but in the early 1800s, the church’s 200-foot spire dominated the landscape.

Three churches have stood on the spot. The first was founded by Anglican New Yorkers in 1696, and finished the following year. Back then, the church faced west, towards what is now the Hudson River. It was a rectangular building with a gambrel roof of wood shingles and a small porch. The most striking feature of the church was its steeple, which reached 172 feet, far higher than the buildings around it. There’s an old legend that Captain William Kidd lent runner and tackle from his ship to hoist the stones during construction.

But the church burned to the ground in New York’s Great Fire of 1776, which started in September 21 at the Fighting Cocks Tavern at Whitehall Slip, and swept up the north shore of the island, leaving nearly a third of the city in ashes.

It took four years to build its replacement.

The builders turned the church around, making it face the way it does today, down Wall Street towards the East River. A map of the period indicates that the cemetery wrapped around the church, extending north from Rector Street to Thames Street, and west from from Broadway to Lombard Street, now Trinity Place. But the building lasted only fifty years before a heavy snowfall in the winter of 1838-39 buckled the support beams of the roof.

From the Trinity Church Website:

An architect named Richard Upjohn was hired to repair the building, but recommended demolishing the structure and constructing a new church. Upjohn, a fan of Anglo-Catholic liturgical style and English Gothic architecture, designed a church that looked like a 14th-century English parish church. Trinity Church, consecrated on Ascension Day 1846, is considered one of the first and finest examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in the United States. With a 281-foot high steeple, Trinity was the tallest building in New York City until 1890.

Bertram Hartman, Trinity Church and Wall Street

This last iteration of Trinity Church still stands today. It’s significantly longer than its predecessors, so that it has divided the churchyard in two. The larger part of the yard, extending northwards, used to run all the way to Thames Street.

Today, the northern end of what used to be the yard is occupied by The Trinity Building at 111 Broadway. I have read, but can’t confirm, that the building first built on that site was a business venture by Trinity Church, and was the first building in New York devoted entirely to commercial tenants.

The graveyard’s occupants, by the way, include Alexander Hamilton, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler Church, Philip Hamilton, William Bradford, Franklin Wharton, Robert Fulton, Captain James Lawrence, William Alexander, Lord Stirling and Albert Gallatin.

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