Dedicated a hundred-and-thirty-six years ago, the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Saint Nicholas on the corner of Forty-eight Street & Fifth Avenue (photographed above by Berenice Abbott) was for many years regarded as the most eminent Protestant church in New York. The Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church is the oldest corporate body in what is now the United States, having been founded at the bottom of Manhattan in 1628 and receiving its royal charter from William & Mary in 1696. Now part of the Reformed Church of America, the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church is actually a denomination within a denomination, and the remaining Collegiate Churches of New York tend to preach a sort of “Christianity Lite”. (The famous Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking and one of the paragons of the “finding a religion that doesn’t interfere with your lifestyle” school of thought, was the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church at Twenty-ninth & Fifth, where Donald Trump is a member of the congregation).
The first regular Calvinist services were held in the loft a grist-mill not long after the foundation of New Amsterdam in 1624. In 1633, Dominie Everardus Bogardus arrived from the Netherlands and built a small wooden church on Broad Street between Bridge and Pearl streets (across from where Fraunces Tavern now stands). This was replaced by stone church of St. Nicholas built inside Fort Amsterdam in 1642 (destroyed by fire in 1741). In 1693, the Dutch congregation moved to a peach orchard on Garden Street (now Exchange Place) where they built a church “by far the most substantial and the finest yet built in Manhattan”. The coats of arms of the church elders (and perhaps of other prominent families) were burnt into the glass windows by Gerardus Duycknick (father of the artist of the same name), and heraldic paintings may have decorate the walls as well. A year later, the members of the congregation sent silver coins to Amsterdam for the casting of a baptismal bowl which was used well into the late nineteenth century. (I wonder where this bowl is now?).
In 1729, the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church erected a second congregation on Nassau Street between Cedar and Crown streets (Crown was renamed Liberty Street after New York became an independent republic in 1783). The bell of the Middle Dutch Church was donated by Col. Abraham de Peyster. North Dutch Church followed in 1769, and Middle Church moved to Lafayette Place in 1844 after their old church was leased to the federal government for use as a post office because of its spaciousness. (Supposedly the king’s army had temporarily converted the building a riding school for the Dragoons during the Revolution). The de Peyster bell was moved from Middle to St. Nicholas after it was dedicated in 1872.
The land on which the Church of St. Nicholas stands was purchased from Columbia University in 1857, but it was many years before construction commenced. A lecture room opened for worship services on Christmas Day in 1866, and the cornerstone of the church was finally laid in July 1869. St. Nicholas was the largest of the Collegiate churches and its location on Fifth Avenue attracted many of the well-to-do families of the neighborhood, both of Dutch ancestry and otherwise. (In fact, a letter to the editor of The New York Times was published in May 1896 complaining that, while “there was nothing spared” in the celebrations of the two-hundredth anniversary of the royal charter, “none of the speakers of that evening was in a direct line a descendant from Holland, but rather from France and other foreign countries”). The church was completed in a lively gothic style in a humble Newark sandstone, and with a playfully steeple of exaggerated size. While the presbyterian nature of its Reformed Calvinist polity allows no bishops, because of its scale, social prominence, and location, St. Nicholas was often thought of as “the Protestant Cathedral of New York”.
Regrettably, financial mismanagement forced the Church of St. Nicholas to close its doors in 1947 and the Dutch cathedral of New York demolished in 1949. Just as the independence of India in 1947 presaged the collapse of the British Empire throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, so did the destruction of Saint Nicholas presage the dissolution of the old order in New York. An office building for Sinclair Oil, rather bland yet relatively inoffensive, was constructed in its place and remains there today.