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A Space for the Community (Not Just to Worship...)

The Riverside Church: A Cross-Section Showing the Building by Floors

The architects' original cross-section, showing the building by floors- features include the Church school, women's classroom, young people's social and meeting room, and a men's library and reading room.

1084 Middies Graduate at Riverside Church Tomorrow Midshipmen's Inscription of Gratitude at the Riverside Church

A token of appreciation from all the servicemen who were welcomed at Riverside throughout WWII.


     Fosdick’s third condition for accepting the pastorship at Riverside, that the building be large enough to support community programs, played a significant role in the church’s design. Spaces like a gymnasium, classrooms, chapels, and kitchens were considered equally as important as the pews and altar where mass would be celebrated because Fosdick (and Rockefeller) wanted the Riverside Church to be a hub of activity all week long, not just on Sundays. The founders of the church cared deeply about the spiritual welfare of its congregants but also privileged their economic and social well-being. “The economic depression which hit in 1929-1930 practically coincided with the opening of the church and one of its first problems was the unemployment and consequent need which was widespread among members of the congregation and in the neighborhood.”[1] Given its financial and spiritual resources, (Rockefeller donated more than $8,000,000 of his own money) the church became a refuge for so many people, especially in those early years.[2]

     A Time magazine article from October 6, 1930 describes the varied spaces within the skyscraper church: “Dr. Fosdick proposes to give this educated community a place of greatest beauty for worship. He also proposes to serve the social needs of the somewhat lonely metropolite. Hence on a vast scale he has built all the accessories of a community church — gymnasium, assembly room for theatricals, dining rooms, etc., etc. ...In ten stories of the 22-story belltower are classrooms for the religious and social training of the young, from nurslings to college scholars. One floor is for the Women's Society's sewing room, another for the Women's Bible Class.”[3] The scale of the church may have seemed staggering at the time but there was never a dull moment at Riverside as congregants instantly made use of the various floors and rooms Fosdick and Rockefeller had provided for them.

     Riverside’s community spaces were especially used during the trying years of World War II. Despite Rev. Fosdick’s impassioned, outspoken pacifism and opposition to the war, Riverside’s doors were always open to servicemen stationed in New York and to volunteers for the war effort. “… [T]he church opened its facilities to a Sunday evening vespers service for the Naval Reserves Midshipmen’s school”[4] and the men spent much of their free time at Riverside exercising in the gymnasium, attending dances and social functions, and even graduating from their training courses there. “A notice that ran in the bulletin of the Riverside Church throughout the war years welcomed any military personnel who were worshipping with the congregation, encouraged them to sign a guest register designed especially for them, and informed them of Dr. Fosdick’s willingness to write a personal note to anyone they desired back home, informing that person of their visit to Riverside.”[5] The Midshipmen were so grateful to Riverside for being their home away from home throughout the war that they inscribed a message of thanks in the stone at the back of the nave to commemorate the kindness and hospitality shown to them during such a difficult period.

[1] Mary Wood, “A Descriptive Analysis of the Group Life within the Riverside Church” (master’s thesis, Columbia University School of Social Work, 1945), 7.

[2] Andrew Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 73.

[3] "Riverside Church." Time 16, no. 14 (October 6, 1930): 71.

[4] James Hudnut-Beumler, “The Riverside Church and the Development of Twentieth-Century American Protestantism,” in The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, ed. Peter J. Paris, et al. (New York:  New York University Press, 2004), 27-28.

[5] Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, “Preachers for All Seasons: The Legacy of Riverside’s Free Pulpit,” in The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, ed. Peter J. Paris, et al. (New York:  New York University Press, 2004), 72-3.


A Space for the Community (Not Just to Worship...)