The Architecture of St. Vincent de Paul: A True ‘Classical Revival’ Gem
The report is a request for evaluation of the Church of St. Vincent de Paul at 123 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, submitted to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on March 10, 2011. The purpose of the report is to present research and a description of St. Vincent de Paul in order to gain protection of this significant church through Landmarks designation. The report was prepared for Save St. Vincent de Paul by Mary B. Dierickx, Historic Preservation Consultants, Mary Dierickx, Project Director, and Sandra Levine, Consultant Architectural Research and Historic Preservation.
Information in this report derives from site visits and research at collections, libraries and institutions in New York, by the consultants. Both consultants meet and exceed the Secretary of the Interior’s Historic Preservation Professional Qualification Standards for Historic Preservation and Architectural Historian, and who specialize in New York City architecture. The building was analyzed based on the NYC Landmarks law which states that a landmark must have “a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation…” in order to be designated. The characteristics of the church were compared to the law and to those of existing designated landmarks. The characteristics analyzed include, but are not limited to: significance of architects, significance of owners and tenants, importance of history, workmanship, embodiment of style and type, influence of style, type and design on other properties, rarity, impact on urban fabric, and cultural significance.
The Church of St. Vincent de Paul meets the requirements for New York City landmarks designation. It was designed by Henry Engelbert in the Romanesque Revival style and dedicated in 1869. In 1939, a new limestone façade in the Classical Revival style was designed by Anthony J. DePace that lowered the entrance to street level. The original brownstone façade remains intact behind the newer one. The church was the first fully integrated Catholic parish in the city. It has been the site of a number of notable events, including the wedding of Edith Piaf and Jacques Peals, at which Marlene Dietrich was the attendant. The church is significant for its outstanding social and cultural history and for its unique architecture, an outstanding 1869 church with an excellent and rare example of a 1930s Classical Revival style façade designed by a noted 20th century church architect.
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has found St. Vincent de Paul eligible for listing the State and National Registers of Historic Places noting “an outstanding intact example of the Neoclassical style specifically inspired by Roman architecture. It retains a high degree of integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association…”
St. Vincent de Paul was founded by Annet Lafont, a member of the French missionary order, the Fathers of Mercy (Peresde la Misericorde,) three years after the order arrived in New York City to serve the French-speaking community. The order’s first church was built in 1841 and stood on the northwest corner of Canal Street and Broadway. Fifteen years later, the church followed its congregants uptown and bought a building site on West 23rd Street.
The Chelsea area had a large French immigrant population in the last half of the 19th century and through the early 20th century. The church became the center of that community. The first French Hospital moved to the neighborhood in 1888, from 14th Street to West 34th Street, to serve the large French population. The French Hospital moved eventually to West 30th Street in 1929, where it operated until the 1970s. The École Maternelle Française was located within the London Terrace complex in Chelsea.
The New York Times in 1906 described the French colony in New York, stating that about “26,000 sons and daughters of sunny France are mingled with the nearly four million inhabitants of the American metropolis….” Many of the French cultural organizations were located in the west 20s and 30s. The Times described the social center as the clubhouse of the Cercle Française de l’Harmonie on West 26th Street. A battalion of the Guards of Lafayette was headquartered on West 25th Street. Father Lafont’s Orphanage of St. Vincent de Paul began behind the church on West 24th Street and then moved to West 39th Street. There were a number of food-related organizations in the areas well, including L’Art Culinaire, on West 28th St., Cuise Cosmopolite on West 33rd St., and Cuise Philanthropique, on West 31st Street.
The architect Henry Engelbert was commissioned for the new church. The structure was described in The New York Tablet of June, 1857:
“The church will be in the Roman style of architecture, with two towers and a center pediment, with the statue of St. Vincent de Paul in front; which will all be in brown stone; the spires will be of cast iron, and the sides and rear of brick; the roof will be covered with slate…the basement will be divided into six school rooms, and a chapel with 400 east; the church will seat about a thousand…the probably cost will be about $100,000. The designs were furnished by the architect H. Engelbert…”
Some of Henry Engelbert’s church interior remains. The impressive interior has colossal Corinthian columns, a double entablature, a barrel vault, and wooden wainscoting. It is further embellished with murals possibly executed by Angelo Magnanti, who designed and executed rooms in the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. and a set of stained-glass windows that appear to have been designed by Gabriel Chenes, who worked in the studios of noted stained-glass and ceramics artists, John LaFarge. The original stoop was rebuilt and the brownstone base was filled out in 1911. At the same time, the vestibules were rebuilt.
The present limestone façade was constructed in 1939, to replace the deteriorated brownstone of the original façade and to celebrate the centennial of the establishment of the order of the Fathers of Mercy in New York. In a ceremony in the newly renovated church, 1500 people heard Cardinal Spellman praise the order. The centennial of the establishment of the church was in 1941.The neighborhood continued to house a French population, although not as large as in the 19th century. In 1939, the WPA Guide described the Church of St. Vincent de Paul and the French Hospital as evidence of the once large French population in Chelsea. There were some interior renovations to the church in 1939, including the installation of a new electro-pneumatic organ whose 1983 restoration was marked by an inaugural concert by Pierre Cochereau, the titular organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
By 1960, the Fathers of Mercy were no longer associated with the church and it became the property of the New York archdiocese. Its current parishioners come from some 65 nations, including the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and many other francophone African countries, as well as Haiti, Belgium, Switzerland, Lebanon and France.
St. Vincent de Paul has long been the spiritual home to New York City’s French-speaking Catholics. The bonds between France and New York have been strong over the years, especially after the French Revolution, when French Catholics settled in New York. The city’s first Catholic Cathedral was designed by a French architect, Joseph Francois Mangin, who also designed New York City’s City notable City Hall. St. Vincent de Paul reflects the powerful influence of French taste on New York City style that began in the 19th century with French Second Empire and neo-Grec styles and lasted through the 1930s, with Art Deco. Francophile New York society women such as Anne Vanderbilt and Anne Morgan (the center of an exhibit at the Morgan Library in 2010) worked themselves and encouraged others to work in French military hospitals during World War I and helped pay to rebuild devastated French villages. French artists helped develop New York as an international art center.
Equally significant is St. Vincent de Paul’s history of racial tolerance and activism. The founding priest was Annet Lafont, a French member of the missionary order, the Fathers of Mercy. Establishing a Catholic church where their native tongue was spoken, to address the exodus of French immigrants to French-speaking protestant churches, from the beginning Father Lafont, embraced the revolutionary idea of racial equality. As the first white man in the Northern states who dared to open a Catholic school for blacks, he asserted of black youth, “They must receive the same moral and mental training as the white children.”
When white families threatened to remove their children from St. Vincent de Paul’s School, Father Lafont opened his own house to instruct black pupils himself. He was supported with funding from Haitian Pierre Toussaint, the former slave who became the successful hairdresser to the elite. Father Lafont’s establishment of a Catholic school for children of African descent coincided with the racial integration of his church, well in advance of such progress in the rest of the city by at least 70 years.
- 1841 St. Vincent de Paul, the first church in New York City intended to serve the French community, was consecrated at 16 Canal Street
- 1840s It is believed that the first mass in the U.S. to bring together black and white Catholics was celebrated at St. Vincent de Paul Church. The first parish school for black children was established at St. Vincent de Paul.
- 1845 The first Society for the Holy Rosary in New York was established at St. Vincent de Paul. The French Charitable Society of the Ladies of St. Vincent de Paul, the parent of all St. Vincent de Paul charities, was founded at the church.
- 1857 The current site was purchased for a new church building on West 23rd Street and Henry Engelbert was selected to design the new building.
- 1869 The new church is dedicated.
- 1911 Minor renovations are made to the stoop and vestibules.
- 1939 A new façade in the Greek Revival style, designed by noted church architect, Anthony J. DePace, is constructed in front of the earlier façade which remains intact. This is the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the order of the Fathers of Mercy in New York.
- 1941 Centennial of church of St Vincent de Paul.
The Church of St. Vincent de Paul was designed by Henry Engelbert in the Romanesque Revival style and dedicated in 1869. In 1939, a new limestone façade in the Classical Revival style was designed by Anthony J. DePace.
Henry Engelbert (dates unknown) emigrated from his native Germany in 1848 and first appears in city directories in 1852 as a partner in an architectural firm with John Edson. Toward the end of their partnership, Engelbert & Edson were responsible for the First Baptist Church (1856, demolished) on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and the East 35th Street in Manhattan and St. Mary’s Abbey Church (1856) in Newark, both of which were modeled on buildings erected in southern Germany during the preceding two decades. From 1857 to 1879 Engelbert worked independently designing many types of structures for sites throughout Manhattan and the Bronx. Among his important commissions were Roman Catholic churches and institutions, including the College of Mount Saint Vincent Administration Building (1857-59) in Riverdale (a designated New York City Landmark). With this connection, he received the commission to design the Church of St Vincent de Paul in 1857. He also designed the Grand Hotel, 1232-1238 Broadway and West 31st Street, a New York City Designated Landmark, and 408-410 Broadway and 80-82 White Street located within the Tribeca East Historic District. He also designed 330 Bowery, which was originally built as the Bond Street Savings Bank and until recently was the home of the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, a designated New York City Landmark.
Anthony J. DePace
Anthony J. DePace (1892–1977) was a 1912 graduate of the New York University Evening program in Engineering andArchitecture. He worked as the chief draftsman for Alfred C. Bossom 1916-1921 and in 1922 in the office Cass Gilbert. He then became a principal in the partnership, DePace & Juster, a firm that stayed in existence until 1947. His significant works include 640 Fifth Avenue, for which he was received an award, 1100 Park Avenue and Columbus Hospital (later renamed Cabrini Hospital, now closed). Throughout his career, he worked closely with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, designing Our Lady of Grace Church in Brooklyn. He designed Mount Carmel Church in Elmhurst, Queens, the Regina Pacis Votive Shrine in Brooklyn, St. Roch’s Church and St. Theresa Church in the Bronx. He also designed Harlem Hospital in Manhattan. He was a life member of the American Institute of Architects. One of his drawings was included in Modern Church Design, a text book of churches, in 1932. Two of his Bronx churches, St Theresa of the Infant Jesus (1970) and St Roch’s Roman Catholic Church (1931) were featured in the AIA Guide.
The freestanding, one-story, Classical Revival style church sits on a small stone base. It stands out as a handsomely proportioned classical jewel on the mixed commercial and residential 23rd Street. The limestone front façade is topped by a large triangular pediment with a modillioned cornice and a frieze with SAINT VINCENT DE PAUL carved in the stone. There is a cross at the top. The gable is supported by four graceful fluted Corinthian pilasters. There are three pedimented entrances at the ground floor. The center is marked by a broken arched pediment and a statue of St. Vincent de Paul in the center. There are decorative wooden doors in all three entrances. The second floor is dominated by a large rose window with stained glass. This is flanked by two double-arched stained glass windows. There is an engraved panel on the rear (north) façade with the dates 1857-1869. The building is intact. There is a protective glass in front of the rose window, but the window itself is intact. Even the two bronze lanterns flanking the entrance remain. Inside the church there is an accessible crawl space where the intact Henry Engelbert 1869 façade can be seen.
St. Vincent de Paul is one of the few Classical Revival style churches remaining in New York City and one of the only 1920s-30s churches designed in the Classical Revival style. Nearly all of the individually designated 20th century churches are Gothic Revival or Romanesque Revival in style, plus a few Colonial Revival churches.
The Church of St. Vincent de Paul meets the requirements for New York City landmarks designation. It is significant for its architecture and cultural history. It is a good example of one of the few 20th century Classical Revival style religious buildings in the City, and as an unusual example of an intact 1857 church with important stained glass windows, designed by Henry Engelbert, who designed several NYC landmarks, with a 1939 façade by Anthony J. DePace, a noted church architect. It has a unique and influential place in the social and cultural history of New York. St. Vincent de Paul was the first fully integrated Catholic church in New York City. It has served as a focal point of life in the varied French community in the city, drawing together Francophone residents and visitors from all over the world. New York City has a long history of connection to French architecture and culture much of which is embodied in the Church of St. Vincent de Paul. The church’s architecture and its cultural history together exhibit the special character and special historical and aesthetic value that make the building eligible for designation as a New York City landmark.