The City of Buffalo, New York, also known as the “Queen City of the Lakes,” was incorporated as a city in 1832 and by 1851 had what some believe to be its first architectural landmark established with the consecration of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Located only a few blocks from Lake Erie and also strategically placed at the western end of the Erie Canal, St. Paul’s represented the “progressive spirit of the young city” that was enjoying growing prosperity from its pivotal location between the farmlands and resources of the west and the markets and industry of the east. By 1866, St. Paul’s become the Episcopal Cathedral for the newly established Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, a function it has continued to perform ever since.
As Chris explained during our last post, we recently took part in Explore Buffalo’s ‘Masters of American Architecture’ walking tour in order to see two of Buffalo’s downtown religious treasures, so this post will share the second house of worship we visited that day, which is St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. The original congregation of St. Paul’s in Buffalo, New York originated 197 years ago in 1817. Approximately two years later in 1819, the Holland Land Company, which basically owned everything west of the Genesee River at the time, gave the congregation of St. Paul’s the right to be the first permanent site for religious purposes in the newly growing village of Buffalo. For several years the new congregation of St. Paul’s struggled to make ends meet, but with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, a very large influx of new residents began to find a home in the quickly growing city. An expansion took place at St. Paul’s original location, but only a few years later they had already outgrown it. Due to the constant need for more space, the congregation began to splinter and several members organized a new, independent congregation now known as the Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue. Plus, the brand new Episcopal congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church had formed downtown as well and they were beginning to build a brand new church. Feeling their superiority being threatened, work began to build a completely new St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Due to his renowned reputation after building New York City’s Trinity Episcopal Church, architect Richard Upjohn was hired for the job. A triangular piece of land was chosen between Church, Pearl and Main Streets which resulted in Upjohn’s design to be asymmetrical. It was also very important to the church members that the new design adhere strictly to the principles of Episcopal ecclesiology, which is the practice that dictates architectural requirements for ‘High Church’ ritual. Furthermore, it was also essential that the new church be in the Gothic style. With all of these considerations in hand, Upjohn presented a plan which was quickly approved in 1849, ground was broken in 1850 and the church was officially consecrated in 1851. However, while the congregation was formally moved in, work on the two towers was not officially completed until 1870.
At this point, Chris and I have walked in to a lot of churches and I have come to know the architecture of these places pretty well. St. Paul’s is very unique in the fact that it is not in a cruciform pattern (shaped like a cross) the way a lot of churches are. In fact, the asymmetry of the place definitely starts even before you walk in, since the front door feels a bit like a side door. Built of Medina sandstone, St. Paul’s exterior really is quite beautiful and definitely holds its own amongst all of the great architectural buildings in downtown Buffalo. Once inside though, the first thing that jumped out at me was the blue and brown hammerbeam ceiling and from there my eyes worked their way down the nave and I then saw the very blue ceiling in the chancel above the altar, with several stars also painted on it (perhaps to represent the heavens?) If the effect was to get people to quickly notice what many consider to be the most important area of a church, it definitely was working. We of course were also immediately drawn to the assortment of stained glass windows which would make any church jealous. We learned that there is actually quite a variety of artists represented, some of whom are Henry Holliday & Co. of London, England; Henry Wynd Young Studios; Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany; John Hardman & Co. of London, England; and Tiffany Studios. Chris and I really had a very difficult time keeping up with our tour group while we were in St. Paul’s since we HAD to see everything and I think we both felt very rushed to see everything we could in the time we were allotted.
However, what we were looking at inside was not actually original to architect Richard Upjohn. In 1888, nearly a decade after Upjohn had passed away, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral exploded and the ensuing fire took everything with it. Using gas to heat the interior of buildings had only been invented in the 1850s and at the time was actually quite dangerous. By the 1880s, gas heating was the norm and was becoming a utility most people could not do without. However, while it may be hard for us today to wrap our heads around, the gas company did not always do a very good job regulating how much gas was actually flowing from site to site. The fluctuating gas pressure and lack of proper monitoring of gas regulators in other locations across the city was already being reported on by the local Buffalo media. On May 10, 1888, an explosion giving off enough force to shatter the windows and doors of St. Paul’s Cathedral out into the street was actually one of forty different fires and explosions throughout the city reported that day. Keep in mind what fire departments were like back then, so by the time fire fighters arrived on scene, the interior of the church was already destroyed. Three hours later the flames were finally extinguished. A few months later, Robert Gibson, a renown architect in his own right when in 1883 he beat out architect H.H Richardson for the commission for All Saints Cathedral in Albany, was hired to restore the damaged building. By 1890 the church was repaired enough to reopen.
What completely flabbergasted Chris and I is that in one of the transepts of St. Paul’s is a piece of art work which dates back to the 14th Century. According to our tour guide, the piece is a triptych created by Jan Pollack or John of Poland, who lived in Munich, Germany and was active as an artist from 1480 to 1520. The piece of art was donated to St. Paul’s by Norman and Harriet Mack in 1943. While it is not known how the Mack’s came to own such an old piece of art, Pollack’s center painting is of the Three Magi visiting the Blessed Mother and Holy Infant, while the left and right panels are symbols of the Blessed Virgin. While staring at this artistic treasure, we were given the pleasure of meeting the historian of St. Paul’s, Martha Neri, who also informed us of a little unwritten piece of history about this work of art. Apparently, the Macks were pretty wealthy socialites in Buffalo at the time and actually were quite friendly with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Martha informed us that when the Macks donated the work of art to St. Paul’s, Mrs. Mack also had a small ‘Lady Chapel’ created within the church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. After hearing about Mrs. Mack’s donation and contribution to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Martha reports that FDR himself wrote a letter to Mrs. Mack praising her for the donation. Mrs. Mack then requested to have the letter framed and hung in the chapel. However, the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Austin Pardue refused this request stating he did not approve of the war and he did not like FDR. Chris and I got quite a kick out of this story and thanked Martha for the information.
By this time Chris and I had already been left well behind by our tour group and we needed to catch up. We scrambled around the church to take a few more pictures and then headed out the door and began to run down Pearl Street. About an hour later, after our tour was completed, Chris and I decided to walk back to our car by walking through Cathedral Park, which is a very small park right next to St. Paul’s. As we were walking we came across a sign which explained the history of Ararat and Mordecai Noah. Chris and I had completely forgot that right here in St. Paul’s Cathedral the stone to memorialize the creation of the new Jewish homeland on Grand Island known as Ararat had been displayed. If you would like to read more about his fascinating story, Chris and I visited the former sites of Ararat which you can read about right here.