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Choosing the Architects and the Architecture

Special Riverside Church Supplement

Published by the Columbia Daily Spectator to celebrate the church's opening in October 1930.

Special Riverside Church Supplement, part 2


      Given the immensity of their project and their desire to set Riverside apart from the nearby Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Rockefeller and Fosdick decided to forego a design competition when selecting architects. They instead solicited ideas from individual architects which were then discussed with other members of the church advisory building committee. “Since, as Rockefeller wrote to Fosdick, it was considered professionally unethical to commission designs from several architects at the same time, he privately commissioned plans from individual architects one at a time, paying each in full before beginning discussions with the next candidate.”[1] Rockefeller turned first to the renowned firm of McKim, Mead and White but considered their design’s inclusion of an apartment building (to contribute to the church’s finances) distasteful. He offered to pay the firm extra money to remove the apartment building and submit a new design but they declined.


     Rockefeller next approached Charles Collens, a partner in the Boston firm, Allen & Collens, and the New York-based architect Henry C. Pelton, who had worked on the Park Avenue Baptist Church in 1922- their sweeping but modern Gothic vision won out. Rockefeller paid for Collens and Pelton to visit France and Spain to comprehensively study Gothic churches before returning to the United States to finalize their designs.[2] Riverside was modeled mainly on French Gothic structures, especially the Cathedral at Chartres, and the altar even includes an exact replica of the famed labyrinth etched into the Chartres floor.[3] Having also encountered a wide range of Romanesque churches during their European tour, Collens and Pelton decided to pay homage by incorporating 11th-century Romanesque architecture into Riverside’s small Christ Chapel with its stained glass windows chronologically depicting the life of Jesus.[4]


     Fosdick notes in his autobiography that while Chartres was the main inspiration for Riverside’s design, “one who studies in detail the church’s iconography will see that it reflects the interests and judgments of the modern world as well as the cherished values of ancient Christian heritage.”[5] This is evident in the mixture of historical, religious and contemporary figures (like Albert Einstein) in the church’s sculptural elements and stained glass windows. There is the Woman’s Porch at the northwest corner of the church’s exterior, featuring notable females from the Bible like Mary and Martha; there are, across the seven bays of the Caen stone chancel screen, an array of personages including Hippocrates, Erasmus, Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, Florence Nightingale, Leonardo da Vinci, and Johann Sebastian Bach (to name a few); and, in the stained glass aisle windows of the nave are depicted an incredible range of scenes from religion and history, including a music-themed window that features Africans and American Indians playing drums, a Chinese king, a Hindu Vina, Orpheus alongside Beethoven composing, Luther singing hymns at home, a Victrola and even Italian choral singers.[6]

[1] Andrew Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 75.

[2] Dolkart, 75-6.

[3] Matthew A. Postal, “The Riverside Church; Designation List 313; LP-2037” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, New York, 2000), 1.

[4] A Visitor’s Guide to the Riverside Church (New York, 1930), 14-15.

[5] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1956), 191.

[6] Publications Committee of The Riverside Church, “Architecture and Symbolism of The Riverside Church.” Special Issue, The Church Monthly, 1930, 50-1.