Seeking a Song’s Meaning

I retreated. So did the spouse.

On a recent January weekend, the spouse and I went to the Trinity Retreat Center. The Center’s fifty-five acres of pretty New England countryside ninety miles from our Brooklyn home abut the Housatonic River and, cliché-like, require crossing a covered bridge a few hundred feet before entering the property.

The Center is affiliated with the Manhattan church often called Trinity Wall Street. Trinity Church sits at the western edge of Wall Street, and a Trinity Church building has been at this site since 1697. The first building was destroyed in minutes on September 21, 1776, in a fire that consumed much of New York City. A new structure was dedicated in 1790, but it was razed in 1839 after a heavy snowfall damaged the roof.

The present Trinity building, designed by Richard Upjohn, was completed in 1846. In all its incarnations, the church has been surrounded by a two-acre graveyard, although the cemetery preceded the church. The oldest tombstone is that of Richard Churcher, who died in 1681 at the age of five. This churchyard has a monument to Revolutionary War martyrs and the curious gravestone of Richard Leeson, who died in 1794. His marker has dots in a series of boxes. A hundred years later, the code was broken and revealed the redundant cemetery message, “Remember Death.”

Tourists come to the graveyard to look at the burial plots of famous Americans, with Alexander Hamilton’s monument most visited. (A smaller monument stands over Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who died in the shadow of the approaching Civil War in 1854.) I have read but have not seen that people leave money, usually coins but sometimes bills, at Hamilton’s monument to honor the creator of America’s financial system. A church custodian collects it daily for the church to use in its service to the poor.

I have been told that Trinity Church’s leaders can still be buried in the churchyard, but if so, that is unusual. In 1830 the city forbade creating new burial south of Canal Street, where Trinity sits, and as the city spread northward, new cemeteries were banned in most of Manhattan.  However, Trinity owns a cemetery about ten miles north of the church at Broadway and 155th Street, which I believe is the only active cemetery in Manhattan.

The church building remains much the same today as when it was built. Certainly the wonderful description in the 1930s The WPA Guide to New York City is still accurate:

“The church is constructed of dark brownstone in a free rendering of perpendicular English Gothic. Although only 79 feet wide and 166 feet long, the building is so beautifully proportioned that it holds the attention, even in its present setting, enclosed as it is by high office buildings that would dwarf any lesser structure. Graceful porches project beyond its wide side entrances. The main entrance, at the foot of Wall Street, is in the base of the rectangular tower fronting the nave. The tower is surmounted by an octagonal spire with a cross at the top. For years, the spire, attaining a height of 280 feet above the steps, served as a landmark. Both the tower and the spire are of brownstone ashlar, and are exceptionally fine in workmanship.”

Trinity was New York’s tallest building until 1890. A saying had it that while the church’s spire reached for the heavens the front door reached for Wall Street, for from its inception Trinity was the home of the distinguished, well-bred, and wealthy.

Although the Dutch had ceded New Amsterdam to the English in 1664, thirty years later the Dutch still had a strong presence in what was then New York. Trinity was established in 1697 as a place for the English to worship other than in Dutch churches. Englishmen responded and joined the new congregation. The names of important early members of Trinity live on in the names of nearby streets such as Vesey, Duane, and Reade.

In 1705 Queen Anne cemented Trinity’s preeminence by granting the church the land west of Broadway from the present Fulton Street a mile or more northward to almost Fourteenth Street. With this act, Trinity became perhaps the wealthiest Anglican, later Episcopalian, parish anywhere.

That wealth took a while to develop as the land remained largely undeveloped in the eighteenth century, but as Manhattan pushed north in the 1800s, the land was divided into lots, generally 20 by 100 feet, and leased. (Queen Anne also granted Trinity the right to all unclaimed shipwrecks and beached whales, but I know nothing that indicates that the blubber and flotsam and jetsam were of great importance to the church.)

In the mid-nineteenth century, after the construction of the present building, Trinity’s management drew critics. While English New York was religiously tolerant when the original building was erected, the Anglican church was an established one. Taxes from the members of all the denominations built the church. However, New York’s revolutionary constitution disestablished the Anglican church. Without state support, only private funding built the 1846 building, and as a result Trinity had some financial difficulties. The church cut back on its missionary work and aid to the poor. Knowing that the church was land rich, prominent citizens were shocked by this. Government hearings and investigations were held that showed that many Trinity lots were leased to rich people at low rates, with the Astor family especially benefiting from this practice. When this came to light, officials said that lands should be stripped from the church so that they would better serve the public interest. Trinity responded to the outcry by selling some of its lands and resuming its level of good works.

(continued January 23)