Old New York

Woolson loved to find those places in America that revealed traces of a forgotten past. As Henry James said of her, “She stays at home, and yet gives us a sense of being ‘abroad’; she has a remarkable faculty of making the New World seem ancient.” She particularly liked old church yards, whose gravestones were intriguing remnants of a world long vanished. In New York, she found in St. Paul’s Chapel (today part of Trinity Cathedral) a gold mine of American history. The building still stands, the oldest one in continuous use in the city of New York.

St. Paul's

“Old St. Paul’s is a quaint structure more than a hundred years old, begun in 1763 and finished in 1766. At that time its architecture was unequaled throughout the country and even now, among the numerous superb Gothic churches scattered through the land, there is a charm about old St. Paul’s peculiar to itself. In 1768 a field of wheat waved on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, the locality being so thinly settled that there was scarcely any discernible road so far out in the country. This wheat field was the site of St. Paul’s chapel, and at the time it was selected there were many who laughed at the absurdity of erecting such a costly edifice so far out of town. At the open dedication the Governor, Sir Henry Moore, added the military band of Fort George to the simple choir, and all the dignitaries of the town participated.

“In 1789 a new order of things began in the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, at the City Hall; after the civil ceremonies the General and his friends went over on foot to St. Paul’s and attended divine service, and here for years the new President and his wife, Lady Washington, were invariably seen in their square pew on Sunday, and the General’s diary for this time regularly contains this entry: ‘Went to St Paul’s chapel in forenoon.’ The pew where Washington sat is now designated by an old heraldic picture of the arms of the United States hanging on the wall above it. In St. Paul’s Church, also a grand sacred concert was given in honor of poor General LaFayette where he revisited this country in 1824. We say ‘poor’ with a pitying shudder over the satin sheets in which the gratitude of the country wrapped him whenever he went, and the processions and speeches to which he was compelled to submit from one end of the land to the other. It is a wonder he lived through it!

“One of the legends connected with St. Paul’s is that one summer afternoon a horse strayed into the church from the meadow behind, and gravely walked up the broad aisle as far as the pulpit to say his prayers. Standing on Broadway and looking down dingy Vesey street, one can scarcely realize that under those stone blocks and pavements the meadow lands spangled with buttercups stretched down to the river with only a few trees to break the view of the Jersey hills beyond. Land was not valuable then. Some one offered to present to the church six acres at the corner of Broadway and Canal Street, but the vestry refused to accept the gift, inasmuch as the field was not worth fencing in!

“Wandering among the old gravestones in the churchyard we find many names associated with colonial times, with the revolution and the early days of our republic. Here, in vaults sunk beneath the pavement, rest the ‘old merchants of New York.’ who if they should come forth and gaze through the iron railings into Broadway, would be as much astonished as poor old Rip Van Winkle when he came back from the Catskills. And speaking of names, here is one of the most ancient on a memorial tablet in St. Paul’s: ‘Rip Van Dam!’ Did anyone ever hear of a more astonishing title? It is of no use to tell that he was a staid, dignified burgher of pious and portly presence. His name is against it, and we will not believe it. No one but a regular rip-and-tear sort of fellow, a very dare-devil, a roistering, rollicking chap, would ever have borne such a name as those three significant mono-syllables, ‘Rip Van Dam!’”

–“New York,” “[From Our Special Woman Correspondent],” The Daily Cleveland Herald, Jan. 10, 1871. [This excerpt appeared as one long paragraph, which I have broken up for ease of reading.]

2 Comments

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  1. Interesting! When we went to St. Paul’s it was to see the place that became a refuge for the emergency responders working in the World Trade Center wreckage. They had an area with a cot and other items set up in it to demonstrate how it was used. I don’t remember seeing where Washington sat — sure would have liked to have known about it.

    Nevertheless, Woolson’s comments about the history of the church are very enlightening.

    Bert

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