Savvy Untapped readers know that Hogwarts exists in New York City, in the form of the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea. As explained in Benjamin Waldman’s post from 2011, the General Theological Seminary was established in 1817 as a training ground for future Episcopalian priests, and in 1827 construction began on the Seminary’s Chelsea campus. This campus was enriched in the 1880s by a series of graceful Neo-Gothic structures designed by Charles Haight, which ring the perimeter of the institution’s serene inner quadrangle. This Oxford-style complex is one of the hidden treasures of the city. But there is more to the General Theological Seminary than that.
I was preparing a walking tour of the High Line and its environs with some friends, and I wanted to take images of the General Theological Seminary’s courtyard. A seminarian granted us access to the courtyard, and then invited us to the roof of the complex’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd where he and his friends traditionally gathered to watch Fourth of July fireworks and imbibe. How could we say no?
After ducking through the nave of the chapel, we began to climb a series of wooden stairs leading up to the General Theological Seminary’s belltower. Towards the beginning of our ascent we could see the see the mechanism for controlling the 15 bells of the tower, the oldest existing set in the country
After a series of increasingly scary staircases, we climbed a narrow ladder and were immediately surrounded by an utterly unique cityscape.
The view from the General Theological Seminary’s roof doesn’t offer you the traditional pleasures we’ve come to expect from midtown observatories—phalanxes of skyscrapers and traces of Central Park teasing you through the grid. Neither, however, is it the low-rise roofscape of Greenwich Village and Brooklyn as seen from Lookout Hill in Prospect Park. Instead it is a uniquely scrappy mix of rowhouses, streaks of public housing and loft buildings, and skyscrapers peering down the business district in the east 30s and 40s. There are some unique sights—for example, the profile view you get of the Flatiron to the east hides the structure’s unique shape, making it appear like any other turn-of-the-century office building. The brown cliff of the London Terrace apartments to your immediate north is quite dramatic. The Maritime Hotel to the Southwest flaunts its silver ’60s kitchiness in the face of the surrounding red bricks. And to the west you can catch glimpses of the High Line meandering around 10th avenue.
Nonetheless, the view from the General Theological Seminary is remarkable not because of the individual structures you can see from it, but the diverse mix of structures that comprise it. Housing projects, offices, parks, rowhouses may not be a particularly glamorous mix, but one which conveys a wider spectrum of urban life than the over-iconicized vista provided by the Brooklyn Promenade or the Empire State building. This is appropriate, perhaps, for an Episcopalian Seminary, whose liberal theology has always been more at home with the diversity of modern life than the idealistic, and hence intolerant, perspectives of other church branches.
Of course, the most unique aspect of the view from the General Theological Seminary’s tower is the tower itself – it isn’t every day that you find yourself on an exposed bell tower in Manhattan with a 360 degree view in all directions. Unfortunately, however, that is an experience that can’t really be conveyed in words or pictures. Try stopping by the General Theological Seminary some time, and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to experience it for yourself!