Little Italy’s Gothic Cathedral

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The New York Sun

The defining style of the Victorian era in Britain and America was Gothic Revival. The medieval town, the pious peasant, and the chivalrous knight, romanticized beyond any historical reality, were viewed as the antithesis of the dirty, overcrowded, overbusy modern metropolis. The roots from which the Gothic Revival grew were the same roots from which the 19th-century’s nature worship grew, and those two strands of romance sometimes came together, as in Central Park.

We are accustomed to date New York’s Gothic Revival to buildings like Trinity Church in the 1840s, but Gothic forms were not unknown here before that. A case in point is the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral, spanning the block between Mott and Mulberry streets along the north side of Prince Street, in Little Italy.

St. Patrick’s was the city’s first Catholic cathedral, built from 1809 to 1815. The building we see today is substantially altered from its original appearance, the change a result of rebuilding after an 1860s fire. At that time, architect Henry Engelbert deviated from the original design by Joseph François Mangin. If that name looks familiar, it’s because he was one of New York’s earliest professional architects, and co-designed our City Hall. Nonetheless, the façades of the cathedral are still discernably Mangin’s design, and it is interesting to look at it in relation to such works of the mature Gothic Revival as James Renwick Jr.’s Grace Church (at Broadway and 10th Street), which was completed 31 years after St. Patrick’s.

The first thing you will notice in such a comparison is the extraordinary intricacy and, well, grace of Grace Church in contrast to the sense that the architect of St. Patrick’s had some stock Gothic forms but didn’t really know how part related to part. Mangin was a French-born military engineer who worked in “Saint Domingue” until Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave revolt led to the dispersion of the French colony, with Mangin ending up in New York. In 1796 he was made city surveyor, and in 1798 his Park Theatre, for many years the city’s most famous theater, opened, on Park Row. City Hall, with 18th-century French style exterior, was completed in 1811.

We associate not only Gothic Revival with the 1840s, but also the mass immigration of the Irish. Old St. Patrick’s foreshadowed both phenomena. Certainly this was the first building in New York City to be designed in a fully Gothic style. I don’t think we know whether it was Mangin’s idea or that of the diocese. The Gothic was invented by the Church for its own purposes, and while we think of Episcopalians as having been ahead in the mature Gothic Revival (Trinity Church, Grace Church), the Irish Catholics of New York must have liked the idea of having a French architect design a church that bore none of the decadence of the Italian Renaissance, as the 19th century’s Gothicists would have called it.

In 1858, Archbishop John Hughes laid the cornerstone of a new St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Fifth Avenue. By then the Gothic Revival had, as the new cathedral would show, achieved majesty. And by then Irish immigrants comprised a third of all New Yorkers.

The New York Sun

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