A Tribeca Palimpsest from Days Gone By

New York’s City Hall has stood, majestic, since the start of the War of 1812, its design by Green-Wood resident John McComb, Jr.,  little changed save an Alabama limestone cladding added in the mid-1950s over the original buff sandstone rear facade and the front of Massachusetts marble.  McComb’s name is seldom recognized today, his only other surviving creations in Manhattan being Gracie Mansion (1799), the Mayor’s official residence now situated in the north end of Carl Schurz Park at 89th Street and East End Avenue, Castle Clinton (1808), the fort at the Battery and Hamilton Grange (1802), Alexander Hamilton’s country estate recently moved to yet another site in St. Nicholas Park in substitution for its original nearby emplacement.

McComb (1763-1853) had a distinguished career in New York and Princeton, NJ. Besides residences and churches, he designed lighthouses at Montauk, NY, Eatons Neck, NY and Cape Henry, VA all three of which survive to this day.

A peculiar palimpsest of one of McComb’s most magnificent designs sits on the corner of Canal and Laight Streets, though, hard by the southerly side of the Holland Tunnel entrance.  The roar of the truck traffic and stench of fumes overwhelm one’s senses as one stands by a simple blue-green street sign.  St. John’s Lane survives to this day, paved with Belgian block, a narrow two-block long thoroughfare connecting Canal with tiny Beach Street.   Until 1918, the lane ran along the rear of St. John’s Chapel, a Trinity Parish Episcopal Church whose membership in the early 19th century was select and upper crust.


St. John’s faced the genteel St. John’s Park, and its communicants counted the likes of George Templeton Strong’s family, and many members of polite downtown New York society in the earliest decades of the 19th century when upper-middle class houses lined Greenwich, Washington and other downtown streets as well as Broadway itself.  Columbia College frequently held assemblies and commencements in the sanctuary in the decades before and after Strong’s matriculation at what had been known as King’s College in colonial times.  The College was located on College Place (now West Broadway), near Barclay Street.   John Ericsson, inventor of the Monitor ironclad (several of whose officers are permanent residents of Green-Wood (http://www.green-wood.com/2012/the-monitor-150-years-later/), lived on adjacent Beach Street at #36, which survived well into the 20th century.  The gates to the park were kept locked and access afforded only to local residents.   A 1914 article in the New York Times documents the former bygone gentility of the neighborhood. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0F12F93A5B13738DDDAE0894D0405B848DF1D3   St. John’s famous spire is memorialized in a mosaic plaque in the Canal Street subway station on the 7th Avenue line:


Taken from I.N. Phelps Stokes The Iconography of Manhattan Island (Vol. 3, Addenda Plate 11-c) are the pre-construction sketches McComb did of the Church (the lower set of drawings, NOT the upper, which is the Old Dutch Church in Fulton Street, demolished 1875)

McComb sketches of St Johns from Stoke v 3 plate 11 c

One of McComb’s most magnificent homes still stands at  Battery Place: Here is The Isaac Watson House, built in 1799 and used for many decades as the Shrine to Saint Elizabeth  Seton who had lived there with her family as a girl.


James Watson House

Here is the house many decades after its construction.

Here, now, is the St. John’s Chapel in all its glory, inside and out, with views of the park in the days when City Hall Park (then know simply as City Park) was the only significant public (and not so safe!) green space in town.




Society moved uptown gradually in the 1820s, 30s and 40s, first to Bond Street, Washington Square and Astor Place, then further north to Union Square and Gramercy Park, thinning the ranks of the church  quite dramatically.  Gradually, the nieghborhood filled with warehouses and factories, and in 1867 Trinity Parish (which owned both the park and the church) sold it to “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Hudson River Railroad for a massive downtown freight terminal. The undesirable influences of grade-level freight operations spread in every direction, and a neighborhood of once patrician dwellings was converted to a crazy quilt of ramshackle buildings and giant lofts.  Here is a photo taken as the park was demolished, leaving the dignified Chapel an orphan in time.


Here is a map of the environs after the freight terminal was constructed.  The darkened area on the right side of the termnal site is the church, and behind it sits St. John’s Lane.



And here are two other maps, after, and before, of the same site:



St. John’s congregation left for good in the 1890s and the structure was torn down in 1918. It was cleared during a road-widening scheme for New York City’s Varick Street.. one highly controversial at the time.  City officials were cognizant of the landmark importance of the old steeple and wished the portico to remain, projecting into the widened street and vaulting the flanking pedestrian sidewalk.  Ever aware of maximizing parish income from its extensive real estate holdings, Trinity Parish instead decided to demolish the building and put the site to other income-producing purposes.

John McComb Jr.’s name may have slipped out of common parlance decades ago, but his memory is preserved at Green-Wood Cemetery where his grave and those of his family lie on a Chapel Avenue  hillside, demarcated by a simple obelisk.  Canal Street’s roar is far away…


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