The St. Thomas church we now see is not the first St. Thomas on 5th Avenue. Its predecessor, St. Thomas by Richard Upjohn, stood on the same spot from 1870 to 1905. Nestled among 5th Avenue’s most spectacular Gilded Age mansions, it was the parish of the wealthiest—where the Vanderbilts themselves came to worship. The church was the location of many spectacular weddings and funerals, including one of the most sensational weddings of the Gilded Age: that of beautiful heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough—and the first cousin of Winston Churchill. That church went up in flames in 1905, to be replaced less than a decade later by its next incarnation.
The present-day St. Thomas, built in 1913, was designed by the partnership of Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (the architects behind the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Saint Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue) of the distinguished architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson. In a subtle contrast with the Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Episcopal St. Thomas is much more restrained in appearance. Ironically, the glorious St. Patrick’s was attended by Catholic maids, servants and laborers while St. Thomas was the place of worship of the New York’s wealthiest and most powerful elites.
The architects chose to design St. Thomas in the French High Gothic style; it’s easy to see its resemblance to its historic inspirations. The French Gothic style of architecture emerged in 12th-century France and remained a mainstay until the 16th century—the age of the Renaissance. Gothic architecture is characterized by verticality, pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, tracery, light, airy interiors, and elaborate decoration. All of these elements can be seen in St. Thomas.
The architects, insisting on a purist, medieval approach, built the church strictly according to High Gothic principles: stone on stone and without the use of steel reinforcement. Even though St. Thomas is a church, its proportions are that of a cathedral, with the nave soaring upwards of 95 feet.
The interior of St. Thomas is truly breathtaking. Light is filtered through magnificent stained glass windows designed by James Humphries Hogan. The windows feature medieval tracery—an architectural solution by which the windows are divided into sections of various proportions by stone bars or ribs of molding—allowing for a large window size. The interior focal point is an 80-foot high carved stone reredos (a screen or decoration placed behind the altar). One of the largest reredos in the world, it features elaborate sculptural decorations by Lee Lawrie.
The entrance, in accordance with High Gothic tradition, is richly adorned with stone carvings. Approaching the church, one can see the central rose window and the 15-story bell tower—a medieval vision in modern-day New York City.
St. Thomas’ acoustical properties match its design. The sounds of organ music coupled with the sights of the magnificent Gothic interior create an experience that elevates the spirits and transcends the times.