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Architecture in Art: Johann Berthelsen’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 5th Avenue

October 28, 2022
Johann Berthelsen's St. Patrick's Cathedral, 5th Avenue

Johann Berthelsen’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 5th Avenue

This week’s Architecture in Art features St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the heart of midtown – this view is from the corner of 49th street & 5th Ave. It sits directly across from Rockefeller Center, and is said to be one of the most visible symbols of the Catholic Church in the United States. The Diocese of New York was founded in 1808, and St. Patrick’s was founded shortly after to serve the city’s growing Catholic population. Their original church in Lower Manhattan, now known as St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, was completed in 1815.

Drawing of St. Patrick's, 1890 (source: Library of Congress)

Drawing of St. Patrick’s, 1890 (source: Library of Congress)

As for this plot of land… the earliest traces show it being acquired by a reverend in 1810. The Jesuit community built a small college and church, but it was soon sold to the Diocese of New York. Interestingly, the Diocese experienced financial difficulties through the first half of the 19th century – the site was essentially abandoned in 1815. It wouldn’t be until 1940 that the church would be reopened, albeit briefly… the mortgage was foreclosed on the following year and the small church was sold at auction; tragically, the pastor was said to have died as a result of the stress of the situation.

St. Patrick's, present day (Photograph by Mike Peel - www.mikepeel.net)

St. Patrick’s, present day (Photograph by Mike Peel – www.mikepeel.net)

A sole young Reverend, Michael Curran, raised funds to buy back the church and did so successfully – the debt was finally paid in 1853 and the site was selected for a new, large cathedral to replace “Old” St. Patrick’s. Construction began in 1858, but was halted until 1865 due to the Civil War; it was finally completed in 1878. At the time, the “city” was predominantly the lower part of Manhattan Island, so the massive church dominated the area… when the 100m spires were added in 1888, they were the tallest structures in the city and the second tallest in the United States (behind Philadelphia’s City Hall).

It’s still the largest decorated neo-gothic-style catholic cathedral in the country, as it accounts for the entire square block from 50th to 51st and from 5th to Madison Ave., and can accommodate 3,000 people!