During Open House New York Weekend, the Untapped Cities team, led by the intrepid photographers James and Karla Murray, went to climb up the clocktower of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a stunning Gilded Age religious site that was the tallest building in Manhattan upon its dedication in 1875. With a steeple height of 286 feet, the red sandstone building would be the first structure in New York City to surpass the height of Trinity Church, though the credit is often erroneously given to the Brooklyn Bridge (in 1883) and later the New York World World Building (in 1890), which became the world’s tallest building at the time. The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is older than nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The original 19th-century clock, made by E. Howard & Co. of Boston, is still in use and was recently restored. The clockwork in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is one of two by E. Howard & Co. still operational in New York City, the other being in the former New York Life Insurance Building at 346 Broadway. We were led up to the clocktower by Derek Maddalena, director of facilities at the church. We first arrived at the Sanctuary attic, located six stories above the main floor. Inside this space you can see the attic beams and Sanctuary curves. The clock tower is accessed through the church’s Sanctuary attic.
The clock is original and is not electrified and must be wound once a week by hand. You can see the crank in the photographs. It still works perfectly and has not needed any major overhaul since it was installed over 143 years ago. The pendulum of the clock is located inside a wooden box in a tower level below the actual clock mechanism. Here, a box of weights is kept in order to calibrate the clock. There are no bells or chimes in the clock tower because when the church was built St. Luke’s Hospital was located across 55th street and there was concern that church bells would disturb the patients.
The pendulum box
The wood shed that houses the clockworks
The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church sanctuary itself is six floors high, with no right angles. A Victorian Gothic ceiling, also curved, as well as the curved balcony and pews, brings the eye towards the pulpit with the four manual and pedal organ that was installed in 1961. The two first versions of the organ were actually water powered, and according to the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, “a steam engine pumped water to a tank above the tower’s E. Howard & Co. clock, then the water flowed by gravity to a basement cistern, operating the feeders of the bellows.”