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Limestone and Steel: Constructing a 'Skyscraper Church'

Riverside Church Construction

This photograph from July 1929 documents the construction of the church, notably the modern steel framework that would be encased by stone to preserve the architects' Gothic vision.

Riverside Drive and Riverside Church With Grant's Tomb in Background, New York City

This postcard looks north on Riverside Drive at Grant's Tomb on the left and the Riverside Church on the right.

"All that was new in the experience of building skyscrapers in New York City was available to the architects and builders of the Riverside Church, in which the tension of the medieval and the modern is held together in harmony."

                                                                                                    -John Wesley Cook[1]

      The choice to build the church with a steel framework surrounded by Indiana limestone was controversial. Rockefeller did not want his Riverside Church to get bogged down in a tedious and expensive construction process like the one plaguing St. John the Divine so he embraced modern building principles and encouraged his architects and the builder, Marc Eidlitz, to do the same. Many architectural critics were furious with this decision, most notably Walter A. Taylor, a lecturer in architectural history at Columbia, who wrote angrily in an issue of American Architect, “There can be no objection to the use of steel in this church edifice. But with our future historian we ask why, in the name of all that we like that is honest and sincere in religion, this structure should announce to the world in the eloquent phrases of apparent massive piers and buttresses, in the fine rhetoric of nicely detailed colonettes and finials, that its structural system is that of a stone building? Why should the man on the street, who has not seen the building under construction, be deluded into thinking that the sweeping ribs and impressive buttresses are self-sustaining under the loads of the vaults and the tower?”[2] Whereas St. John the Divine was being built using the materials and methods faithful to the “true” Gothic style, Taylor and other critics of Riverside’s design felt that the church was deceiving spectators with its cold steel core hidden behind a seemingly traditional stone façade.

     Although so much of Riverside’s construction was completed using state-of-the-art materials, one should recall that wooden scaffolding was still employed in the early days of the church’s building, and a huge fire in 1928 devastated Fosdick, Rockefeller, and the architects. Fosdick recalls “a spectacular blaze that called out tens of thousands both in the city and across the Hudson in New Jersey to view the sight. The wooden scaffolding, which then filled the nave, had been set afire by a carelessly strung electrical wire, and the result cost us nearly a year of extra waiting before the damage was rectified and the church completed. One good result of our misfortune was a new law, making wooden scaffolding illegal and requiring steel.”[3] The construction was set back significantly by this historic fire but thanks to Rockefeller’s seemingly limitless supply of funds, rebuilding resumed quickly and the church opened to the public on October 5, 1930, with Fosdick celebrating the first mass before an enormous crowd of at least 4,000 people.[4]

[1] John Wesley Cook, “An Architectural History of the Riverside Church,” 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), 148-9.

[2] Walter A. Taylor, “A Criticism of The Riverside Church, New York,” American Architect 139 (June 1931), 32-33, 68, 70, 72.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1956), 190.

[4] "Visiting Throng Sees River Side Church Opened." New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962), Oct 06, 1930, 12.