The Chelsea Stone
Restoring St. Peter’s Chelsea
Guest post by Romy Ashby
One of my favorite neighborhood places is St. Peter’s, the pretty old stone church on West 20th between 8th and 9th Avenues where it has stood since 1837.
It has a wonderful history, and I love the sight of it on misty nights when the tower all but disappears, leaving just the glowing clock. In nice weather I like to sit on the steps in the evening and read a book. Sometimes the mysterious black-and-white churchyard cat emerges from the shadows, at the magic hour before dusk, to examine the glass bowls set out for her at the side of the rectory. That’s a moment when I can feel flooded with quiet love for New York, and all feels right in that little corner of the world.
I love the interior as much as the outside of the church--the original pews with their little doors and latches, the Tiffany windows, the wooden balconies, the two magnificent organs, both built by prominent local organ builders of the day, Henry Erben and the Roosevelt Organ Company.
The church bell in the tower was made locally as well, by the F.A. Allaire ironworks company, and the original mechanism that turned all four clock faces at once, made by Seth Thomas, is still in place, although the clock now works on a computer. Reverend Stephen Harding, the interim pastor of St. Peter’s, has climbed up into the old tower to make little videos and then posted them on YouTube so all the world can see its marvelous secrets.
Pastor Harding is one of eight FDNY chaplains, and he personifies the welcoming kindness of the church itself. When he first came in 2013, he saw how bad the old church was feeling, with some of the symptoms hazardous. “The plaster underneath the balcony started to crack in a significant way, and the ceiling in the corners of the church were starting to fall,” he told me. “So I said to the vestry, ‘We have to do something, whether it’s fix the plaster so that it doesn’t drop on anybody and kill them, or fix the piers. It doesn’t matter. But we have to start.’ The vestry approved the hiring of William Stivale, who had done the work on our bell tower in 1990 and actually saved it, because it was about to fall apart.” Now that the four piers have been safely restored, the original tin roof of 1837 is about to be replaced.
“St. Peter’s has a pitched roof,” Pastor Harding explained, “and underneath the roof there’s an attic, and then there is the church ceiling with a catwalk over it. So when we’re in the church and we look up, we see the church ceiling, which is actually suspended from the roof. The worst-case scenario would be the plaster getting wet and then drying, adding an enormous amount of weight to the load the roof is holding, and then falling.”
The other vital project getting underway is the repointing of the stones--made of Manhattan Schist from Spuyten Duyvil--which means scraping out the old mortar and replacing it so that the stones don’t shift. Pastor Harding said he hopes that a high school or college group looking for a project might take on the restoration of the Henry Erben organ under supervision. “It’s a mechanical instrument, which means there’s no electricity in it,” he said. “You push here and something happens over there. It’s the one that Clement Moore played when he played the organ at St. Peter’s.”
Almost everything about the old church needs restoring or repair, and the same goes for the rectory next door. A little over two million dollars has already been raised so far, and Pastor Harding has said another thirteen million is needed.
Sometimes I volunteer in the church rectory, doing whatever task is at hand, and recently I’ve been going through old papers forgotten for decades in the time capsule of an old file cabinet. I’ve found all kinds of interesting things jumbled together there.
Beautifully printed 19th-century bulletins, flyers and newsletters from the ‘60s and early ‘70s announcing fights against evictions in Chelsea, anti-war events, a feminist costume ball, a theatrical performance called “Shades of Lavender” benefiting an early gay rights discussion group, and a demonstration planned before the Brazilian Consulate on Fifth Avenue to demand the release of Judith Malina, Julian Beck, and other members of the Living Theatre from prison in Brazil.
I found receipts from 1959 and 1960 for every imaginable church expense. For incense from the Ave Maria shop at 11 Barclay Street, hymnals from the Church Hymnal Corporation at 20 Exchange Place, furniture from the Lehigh Chair Company at 106 Duane Street, sheet music for William Byrd’s “O Magnum Mysterium” from H.W. Gray at 159 E 48th Street, letterhead from the Speed-O-Lite Offset Corporation at 121 W. 17th Street.
Beanies from Magnus Craft Materials at 108 Franklin Street, deposit slips from the Chelsea National Bank, and receipts for palm leaves sent over from the Kervan Company at 119 West 28th Street, where a huge new Hilton Hotel now stands. There were too many to list. In 1960, everything was bought and mostly made locally. I felt a pang looking at all this tangible evidence of the kind of self-sufficiency being championed by Jane Jacobs at that time.
Not long ago, on my way to the rectory, I stopped into a clearing-out sale at La Lunchonette, the charming little restaurant on 10th Avenue and 18th Street there since 1988. It closed recently, not because the owners wanted to close, but for the now unremarkable reason that the landlord had sold the building to a developer. It will be demolished along with several others--including two little ones on 18th Street once photographed by Berenice Abbott--to make way for a new condo building. I bought a few glasses, just to have something to remember it by, and left feeling terribly sad that La Lunchonette and the pretty buildings of that corner will no longer exist. Sometimes living in New York can feel like being in a state of perpetual mourning.
I asked Pastor Harding if he too notices how much of the city is disappearing. “Yes,” he said. “And it seems overnight. I grew up in the city in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I’ve been living here since 1980 as an adult. And some days I walk in Manhattan and I think I’m in a theme park.” One of his reasons for taking on this huge project to restore the church building is so that St. Peter’s can once again be a force for good in the neighborhood. “We aren’t just making a museum out of it,” he said. “Our mission for the next four and a half years is to connect with our neighbors and the neighborhood.”
One of his ideas for how to raise money was to create the Adopt a Stone from St. Peter’s Campaign, where one can adopt a stone for $25, $50 or $100, and take stewardship of preserving an actual part of the church. Shortly after he told me about the idea, I excavated from the old filing cabinet a fragile collection of letters, papers and clippings. A printed sheet entitled “The Chelsea Stone,” dated “Advent—A.D. 1936,” caught my eye, announcing that a fragment of stone from the Chelsea Old Church on the Thames in London had been brought to New York and set in a wall of St. Peter’s (where it is today). The occasion was written about in the New York Sun. Then I read a letter dated October 23, 1946, sent to the rector of St. Peter’s from the incumbent of Chelsea Old Church in London, which was destroyed by bombing in 1941. “Its quiet beauty and charm, and its great historical interest drew many thousands of visitors to it before the war,” he wrote, “including many from the USA.” A decision had been made to rebuild the church, and what he wrote next I found particularly moving:
“We understand that the Government, through the War Damage Commission, will contribute largely to the cost of rebuilding, but it seems clear that a considerable sum of money will have to be raised by us, over and above whatever we may receive from this source. Historical and sentimental ties bind together your parish and ours, which the piece of stone from our Old Church, built into the fabric of yours, is a symbol: and it is on these grounds, as well as on those of the many strong bonds between the peoples of the USA and of Britain, that I am venturing to write this exploratory letter to enquire whether you feel that the people of your Chelsea would be willing to assist the people of ours to rebuild our famous and beloved Old Church.”
As part of a historic district, St. Peter’s Chelsea is landmarked. But such a designation doesn’t come with funds or guarantees. It may be safe right now from a fate like that of some of the churches demolished in recent years to make way for condo buildings, but were it to crumble, anything could happen. The only sure way to guarantee St. Peter’s safety and longevity is to restore it to health, and we hope that many people will be willing to assist in rebuilding our own famous and beloved old church. As Pastor Harding put it, “Our footprint is one of the only connections that exists to Clement Clarke Moore’s apple orchard. Here’s something you can do to keep this link to Clement Moore’s Chelsea alive,” he offered: “Help us preserve St. Peter’s by adopting a stone. Your participation in this campaign will help us repoint the walls of the church and keep it standing.”
To adopt a stone, visit the contributions page on the St. Peter’s Chelsea website or text xmaschurch to 50155. If you would like to make a larger contribution please contact Fr. Harding at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Romy Ashby is the author of several books, most recently Stink. She also writes the blog Walkers in the City. You can find her at her website, RomyAshby.com.