Architecture at St. Paul the Apostle
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
In 1872, under the leadership of Fr. Isaac Hecker, CSP, The Church of St. Paul the Apostle decided to undertake a massive expansion. After original plans drawn up by a French Architect with the input of Fr. Hecker were described as resembling a "heathen mausoleum", by Paulist Father Alfred Young, who, despite his inexperience with construction, was placed in charge of the project, acclaimed architect Jeremiah O'Rourke was recruited to design the new church. O'Rourke's designed a red granite church in a plain Gothic style, combining Hecker's desire for open space and European influences with the more traditionally American decorative details Young desired.
However, after the Great Financial Panic of 1873 caused the project's budget to be slashed, the Paulist Fathers decided that, in order to save money, they would have to alter O'Rourke's initial plan. They switched to recycled materials, straying from classic Gothic style, and accidentally preserving some New York City History. The gray stone you can see on the church today was salvaged from the then-recently demolished Croton Aqueduct. The gray granite stairs, meanwhile, were rescued from Edwin Booth's recently closed Shakespearean Theatre, which had suffered significant losses both due to the financial crisis, and the fact Booth's brother had assassinated President Lincoln some 10 years before.
St. Paul's Under Construction
It took many years for the financial situation to improve, and in 1876, the Paulist Fathers decided to temporarily halt construction on St. Paul's until it improved. When it resumed, Fr. George Deshon was appointed new supervisor of the project, replacing Fr. Young. Fr. Deshon had been a professor of military engineering before joining the preisthood, and, much to the O' Rourke's chagrin, insisted on making many changes to the original design, in order to facilitate more efficient construction and suit his own tastes. After Deshon brought in a series of consulting artists to redo O'Rourke's interior designs and himself altered the design of the roof, which had been a special pet project of O'Rourke's, the architect left the project in protest. Father Deshon took over as lead architect for the remainder of the project, and made many more changes, favoring a simple exterior and ornate interior.
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Since the time of the church's completion in 1885, scholars have been unable to exactly define the style. The exterior blends Gothic elements with the Roman Basilica style Fr. Hecker originally wanted, and possesses a "fortress"-like quality, which stands out among the chuch's more ornate contemporaries. Meanwhile, one of Deshon's consulting artists, Stanford White, used white marble, onyx, alabaster, and gold from Africa to construct the alter, while another artist contributed three large bronze statues, creating a much more ornate interior, which contrasts with the Gothic elements and relatively simple exterior design.
Simply put, St. Paul's defies classification. Regardless of definition, however, the collaboration, and occasional dissonance, of contrary voices throughout the construction of the church, along with innovative responses to budget constraints, led to the creation of one of the most historic, distinctive, and beautiful churches in Manhattan, which has been happily serving this community for over a hundred years.
For information on the decoration of the church, check out this post about the art at St. Paul's.