Our Sacred Spaces

Our Sanctuary and Kirkland Chapel are sublime settings for worship, sacred music and prayer.

Constructed in 1875, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is the largest Presbyterian sanctuary in Manhattan, and among the largest and most historic in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church was designed in the Victorian Gothic style by the architect Carl Pfeiffer (1834–1888). Pfeiffer was a little-known, 37-year-old German émigré when he was selected to design this church. Ten other architects were considered, including George Post, who designed the New York Stock Exchange and the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Theological Perspectives

The interior of the Sanctuary was designed to follow strict, Reformed Protestant worship precepts, the most important being the emphasis on the spoken word. The pulpit is the focal point of the worship space, with the choir loft and organ above and communion table below.

There are no Biblical figures or saints depicted in the Sanctuary, reflecting an iconoclastic austerity prevalent among 19th-century Presbyterians, who believed no one should be venerated other than God. One exception is the woodcarving on the front of the pulpit, which features the symbols of the four Gospel writers—Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle). The images are arranged in a quatrefoil (four leaf) design that is common in Christian architecture.

The openness and lightness of the Sanctuary render the modern Gothic decoration more comforting and accessible, suggesting a God who is present in the lives of the people.

Unique Architectural Features

The Sanctuary is actually a building within a building. Neither its walls nor its windows directly face the street outside. They are nested within the rectilinear exterior of the church.

Unlike most Gothic churches, the interior of the Sanctuary contains no right angles. The floor slopes, the pews fan outward, and the curvature of the balcony surrounds all that is below, bringing the entire congregation within clear sight and hearing range of the preaching and music ministry. From the lowest point of the center aisle to the highest reaches of the ceiling, the Sanctuary is 63 feet, one inch high. The center aisle is 100 feet long from the pulpit to the glass doors.

Wooden louvers installed beneath the pews once functioned as a 19th-century heating and air conditioning system. When opened, the louvers allowed warm air to rise from steam pipes in the basement. On warm days, enormous blocks of ice were delivered to the basement, where fans blew cooling air upward. The Sanctuary did not have modern air conditioning until 2003.

Woodwork & Windows

Most of the carved woodwork is original. Thistle features prominently, a tribute to the Scottish roots of the Presbyterian Church. The New York firm of Kimbel and Cabus designed the woodwork using ash, a durable, light-colored wood that has taken on a darker patina over time.

The 230 pews on the main floor and in the balcony were sold to members at auction when the church was completed in 1875. The sale generated more than half a million dollars.

The stained glass windows were designed and executed by John C. Spence of Montreal.

The Clock Tower

The clock tower of the church stands 286 feet high. In 1876, when the tower was completed, it made Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church the tallest building in the city (eclipsing Trinity Wall Street Church by just five feet).

There are no bells or chimes in the tower; when the church was built, St. Luke’s Hospital was located across 55th Street (where the Peninsula Hotel now stands) and there was a concern that church bells might disturb the patients. The original clockworks are still in good working order nearly 140 years since they were installed. The clock is not electrified and must be wound by hand once a week.

The attic and clock tower are open to visitors during special tours several times each year. Check our Adult Education calendar for upcoming dates, or contact [email protected] for information.

The Entrance

Above the Fifth Avenue entrance is an exquisite mosaic of Venetian glass by the American artist Eugene Savage (1883–1978). The mosaic, depicting iconic images from the Hebrew Scriptures, was added during a renovation in the early 1960s.

With the construction of the Church House in 1925, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church gained a second worship space that has become as vital to the congregation as the original Sanctuary.

The Chapel and Church House were designed by the New York architect James Gamble Rogers (1867–1947). Trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Rogers was best known for his Gothic-style Harkness Tower and Memorial Quadrangle at Yale University. He was the favored architect of the New York philanthropist Edward Stephen Harkness, who provided the funds for construction.

The Chapel is named for the Rev. Dr. Bryant M. Kirkland, who served as senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church from 1962 until 1987.

Design Philosophy

Kirkland Chapel exhibits a different design philosophy from our Victorian Gothic-style Sanctuary.

In contrast to the curving lines of the Sanctuary, the interior of the Chapel is rigidly organized as a long, narrow, rectangular space. At the front is a semi-circular apse with a raised pulpit on one side and a lectern on the other. In a pre-Reformation (Roman Catholic) church, the center of the apse would contain an altar, where the priest celebrated the Eucharist. Following the Reformation, however, seats for ministers replaced the altar. This simple change in design accentuated the Word rather than the Eucharist as the central act of worship.

Another obvious difference between the Chapel and the Sanctuary is the presence of Biblical figures in the stained glass. When the Sanctuary was built in 1875, Presbyterian churches continued to follow strict, post-Reformation precepts that disapproved of images of saints, angels and prophets. Worship was to focus on God, and God’s Word, alone. By the time the Chapel was built, however, sentiment favoring the presence of Biblical figures had increased, particularly in the aftermath of World War I.

The Windows

The window at the north end of the Chapel depicts the four Gospel writers, the 12 apostles and other disciples. This window is electrically back-lit, because the building next door blocks natural light.

At the south end of the Chapel, above the balcony, is an exquisite window featuring Christ surrounded by seven archangels. This window was fully restored in 2011. The silvery light passing through on a sunny day gives you a sense of how natural light (which originally permeated three sides of the Chapel) created a mystical feel to the worship space.

The Paintings

The Chapel features three starkly different images of Jesus.

The first, John Howard Sanden’s Portrait of Christ, has hung on the west wall since 1980. The portrait was a gift of the artist, who created it (using a live model) before an audience here on Sunday mornings. The second work, Praying at Gethsemane, by the Chinese artist He Qi, was added to the east wall in 2010 during a visit by the artist. John August Swanson’s Last Supper, on the west wall, was added in 2012.

These diverse images are intended to reflect the multi-cultural dimensions of the congregation, and of Christianity itself.

A Versatile Space

Because it is a smaller, more intimate space than the Sanctuary, Kirkland Chapel is a popular venue not only for Sunday worship, but for midweek Lenten and Advent services, weddings and memorial services as well.

The hardstone surfaces of the interior, with its resultant echo, make the Chapel superb for the performance of organ and choral music. The church hosts concerts here several times a year, including our traditional Advent and Lenten concerts and an end-of-the-school-year performance by our Children's Choir.

Our impressive Sanctuary organ dates from 1961, although important components of it reach much farther back in our history. So let’s start at the beginning.

George Jardine & Son built the congregation’s first organ in 1855. It had just 40 stops and a three-manual console. We were among the first Presbyterian churches to embrace congregational hymn singing, and the Jardine organ was a big part of this evolution. When we moved into our current Sanctuary in 1875, Jardine rebuilt the organ, adding a large, wooden 32' Diapason stop to the pedal, which we still use today.

In 1893, an Odell organ replaced the Jardine. We don’t know much about this organ except that, like its predecessor, it was operated with steam power.

In 1913, E.M. Skinner, perhaps the foremost American organ builder of the early 20th century, built a new Sanctuary organ, including the immense organ case that rises three stories high. Those golden pipes are real, but not in use, except as a decorative covering for the working pipes.

The choir loft Skinner built into the case was much smaller than it is today, large enough for just a quartet of singers. In 1961 Austin Organs, Inc., of Hartford, Connecticut, rebuilt the organ, expanding the loft to accommodate a choir and instrumentalists. Several ranks of pipes from the Skinner organ also were retained.

The Austin organ has five keyboards (including a pedal keyboard), 32 foot-pedal stops and 7,034 pipes, a combination that gives the instrument a rich and powerful voice.