From the Baroque to the Everyday

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The New York Sun

We all have favorite blocks in the city, the ones we go a little out of our way to visit. I could write a short book on my favorite New York blocks. For now, I will mention one.

Great blocks don’t need great buildings. They need buildings of different types, styles, dates, functions, materials, and scales that spontaneously harmonize along streets and sidewalks enclosed just so, creating comforting enclaves or public rooms. But a great building, or two, doesn’t hurt. West 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues contains one of the city’s most beautiful churches and a gorgeous office-loft building designed by Stanford White.

Near the west end of the block, on its south side, is the surprising St. Francis Xavier Church. I don’t know where else in the city such a monumental church has been tucked so tightly into a sidestreet setting. Nothing announces this building’s overwhelming presence until you’re practically right in front of it. The impact — especially when the front door is open and you can see inside — is unlike any other architectural experience in Manhattan.

Our city is rich in Gothic churches, less so in classical churches. Among the latter, this is one of the best, a Baroque riot with the unlikeliest of designers. Patrick Keely, most of whose 500–700 Catholic church designs were in Gothic, could scarcely have been expected to turn out something like this. It was built between 1878 and 1882, which is also unusual: There was little architecture of this kind in New York then, nor would there be again for several years. The street front is dominated by a massive enclosed, arcaded porch, above which is a sumptuous composition of balustrade, a statue of St. Francis, a niche topped by a broken entablature topped by a broken pediment. All of this was set within a massive blind arch with rusticated voussoirs, all rising within a surface framed by mountainous quoins rising to a monumental pediment with raking cornices, properly filled in with sculpture — and it’s really hard to see because it’s on so tight a site. Inside there is a splendid high-domed crossing, hemispherical apse, and elaborate murals of the sort seldom found in New York churches.

I’ve read that Stanford White, who joined McKim, Mead & White while Keely’s church was under construction, loved the church and visited it often. In 1888–89, White’s Judge Building, home of the popular humor magazine of that name, rose on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.Though a loft building that contained presses as well as offices, and not nearly as flamboyant as the church, the Judge has a richness that seems somehow akin to the church. Maybe it’s the rich quoining that rises 10 stories on the sinuously curved 16th Street corner, or the stupendous overhanging cornice (the church is a study in overhangs), or the lushly wreathed oculi on Fifth Avenue that make it seem as if White was acutely aware of the church down the block as he designed the Judge.

There’s much more to the block — another 1,000 words would do it. But two masterpieces are enough for one day.

The New York Sun

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