Built in 1766, St. Paul’s is New York City’s oldest public building in continuous use as well as Manhattan’s oldest surviving church building. After Manhattan fell to the British in 1776, a raging fire set the city ablaze. Nobody knows for certain whether the fire was an accident or an act of arson by retreating patriots, but a quarter of Manhattan’s buildings perished in the Great Fire of New York. Yet the fire mercifully spared St. Paul’s Chapel.
This wasn’t the only catastrophe survived by the chapel. Following the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001, the Chapel miraculously survived without so much as a broken window. Though debris from the falling Twin Towers destroyed most of what lay in its path, the old sycamore tree on the northwest corner of the property shielded the church from damage. Though the tree burned down in its valiant final act of protecting the chapel, its root was later preserved in a bronze memorial by sculptor Steve Tobin.
Modeling the edifice after London’s St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church, architect Thomas McBean designed St. Paul’s Chapel in the Georgian style. The altar is the work of Pierre L’Enfant, the engineer/architect famous for designing New York City’s old city hall as well as the new nation’s capital city of Washington D.C.
St. Paul’s maintained the same appearance throughout the years except for one important detail: the location of its main entrance. Now it faces Broadway but at the time of its construction—and way before the landfills on which the World Trade Center and later Battery Park were built—the chapel’s facade faced the Hudson waterfront, which came right to its doorstep!
St. Paul’s Chapel, located a mere 0.3 miles north of Trinity Church, was built to serve as Trinity’s rural outpost. The mother church, located on Wall Street, was attended by the crème de la crème of society. Since the roads were unpaved, it was difficult for the those who lived on the outskirts of town to trek all the way downtown to Trinity, making St. Paul’s the “chapel-of-ease” for Trinity’s quickly expanding congregation.
In 1789—six years after the end of the Revolutionary War—the fledgling nation saw George Washington inaugurated as its first president. The ceremony took place at the present location of the Federal Hall on Wall Street. Had Trinity Church survived the fire of 1776, it would have undoubtedly served as the setting for his post-inaugural worship. But since the first Trinity Church had been turned to ashes, Washington’s first prayer as president took place inside St. Paul’s Chapel. Following his inauguration—with the White House still under construction and New York serving as the country’s capital—Washington continued attending the chapel, sitting in the same pew every Sunday.
St. Paul’s Chapel was declared a historic landmark in 1960. Despite its long history—the chapel itself is older than the United States of America—it remains an active church, holding services, occasional lectures, and weekday concerts.