By Dorothy M. Jeffries
Just as New York has an abundance of cultural events, it has an extraordinary range of spaces to accommodate them—many of which are houses of worship. These particular structures are as much a part of the city’s fabric as are symphony halls and art museums. Ecumenical spaces allow for a wealth of music concerts, art happenings and theatrical shows to happen throughout the five boroughs, but they’re also destinations in and of themselves.
The architecture hearkens back to other eras and traditions in a melting pot that mirrors the diversity of the city’s residents. All styles are represented–from the French Gothic (both the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin and the Park Avenue Christian Church were modeled after the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris) to the southern Italian Romanesque with Moorish influence (Temple Emanu-El) to a simple universal design that purposefully removed any particular nationalistic style (Islamic Cultural Center of New York).
These architectural wonderments—some of which are official city landmarks—give visitors the opportunity to roam through vast cathedrals, admire an array of stained glass windows and ornamentation, including works by the esteemed designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, and even walk amid a labyrinth adapted from the maze at Chartres. Visitors can learn how deeply connected these structures are to the development of New York City through guided and self-guided tours and in-house exhibitions.
“Before the age of the skyscraper, slender church spires towering over Manhattan’s streets formed the city’s skyline,” says architectural historian Anthony W. Robins. “Yet even though no longer dominating the air, New York’s sacred sites still define much of the city’s character – from the monumental cathedrals of St. Patrick and St. John the Divine to the churches and synagogues, mosques and temples dotting the city’s neighborhoods. Thousands of buildings tell the stories of the myriad communities they have served across four centuries of New York’s history – the Friends Meeting House in Flushing dating to 1694; the 1767 St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan where George Washington worshiped; the Stanton Street shul, a 1913 “tenement synagogue” on the Lower East Side; the 1977 St. Peter’s, the “jazz church,” tucked beneath the Citicorp tower in Midtown. The city is truly blessed with an abundance of such treasures.”
Dig deeper into the integral role of sacred spaces in the history and culture of the city with David W. Dunlap’s “From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.” Though this book is focused on Manhattan, its broad message resonates throughout the boroughs.
Dunlap’s mission was to give readers “a window into a splendid architectural, artistic, cultural, spiritual, and social legacy, an image of its physical form and a record of the lives that have shaped it.” It is apropos not only of the buildings’ structures, but of the venues they provide for many of the city’s arts events.
A sampling of the events people can find at houses of worship include organ and chamber music recitals, orchestral and vocal performances, and early music and contemporary music concerts. Voices of Ascension, Pomerium, C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, and Cantori New York are just a few of the arts groups that perform in these spaces.
Dunlap also pointed out that in times of rapid commercial and residential construction, the sacred cityscape, like New York itself, has never seemed more precious.
—Dorothy M. Jeffries is a marketing consultant with a deep affection for the arts and New York City’s sacred spaces.
This NYC-ARTS collection is a guide for finding arts events (many of which are free) that take place in New York’s houses of worship and for discovering the rich heritage of these landmark buildings. Click on each venue to learn about concerts, tours, special services, museums, and more.