The Synod of Bishops Russian Church is the base for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in New York City. ROCOR, which was formed in response to the policies of the Bolsheviks in the early twentieth century, was a separate religious entity from the Russian Orthodox Church for ninety years. In 2007, however, the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate was signed, making ROCOR a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The administrative building on 93rd Street contains two churches within its structure: The Cathedral of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign and St. Sergius Church. The building was presented to ROCOR in the mid-twentieth century by Serge Semenenko, a Russian banker. The mansion was built by the architect William A. Delano in the Georgian-Federal style in 1918.
The Church of Saint Thomas More has only been known by that name since 1950. However, the church that it resides in is much older. The religious structure on 89th Street was built in 1870 using sandstone from Nova Scotia. It was inhabited by the Episcopalians and a Dutch Reformed congregation before it became a Roman Catholic church and was rededicated to Saint Thomas More. In the summer of 2015, the parish merged with Our Lady of Good Counsel on 90th Street.
“We have a unique mission in this neighborhood,” Judy Counts, the executive director of the House of the Redeemer, told me. It is true that the house was unlike anything else I had come across in over ninety side streets. The non-profit organization is under the umbrella of the Episcopal Church, but it is considered “a place apart for all faiths.” The House serves many purposes for those in the neighborhood: it is a space for weddings, memorials, and other meaningful events; but it also offers housing.Judy made it very clear that the House of the Redeemer is “not a cheap hotel.” The guest rooms in the house provide shelter for those who are in need. Over the years, they have offered lodging for religious retreats, not-for-profit art collectors, and traveling church officials. They also have rooms for those with family emergencies, such as people visiting relatives at the nearby hospitals. They particularly do a lot of work with Mount Sinai, providing a place for their cancer patients to recover from treatments. There is no online booking: instead, interested parties must call the House of the Redeemer and answer the questions of a House representative, at which point they may be invited to stay at the House for up to a week. The House is also home to a priest-in-residence from September to June. When I visited, the clergy-in-residence was a female bishop from the West Coast. Because the house is landmarked, it is not centrally air-conditioned, so many of its residents leave in the summer. Every weekday, there is a morning and evening prayer in the chapel at 8am and 5pm, which is “absolutely open to all.” Additionally, the house offers yoga groups meditations, bible studies, and lectures.Beginning our tour of the house in the butler’s pantry, Judy showed me an ancient box filled with bells that had been used by people in upper rooms to call a servant. There is also a dumbwaiter and a safe that was used for the silverware (“It now holds wine and cereal,” Judy informed me). Judy pointed to the upper level of the pantry, indicating that this was where the housekeeper’s office was so that she could keep an eye on the other servants through the partition. In the year 1920, the mansion was home to five family members and thirteen servants.The building has a fascinating history. It was completed in 1916 and housed a debutante ball in 1917. It was designed for Edith Shepard Fabbri, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Edith married Ernesto Fabbri, a wealthy Italian, which could explain why the house is designed with a very Italian eye. As I entered the dining room, with the vaulted, round stone of an Italian villa, Judy suggested that the House of the Redeemer may be the only building in New York designed in the style of an Italian Palazzo. The dining room, which is now called “the refectory”, is decorated with eighteenth century paintings that have each been appraised by Sotheby's.In 1949, after being inspired by a sermon, Edith Fabbri donated the house to the Episcopal Church to be used as a religious retreat house, giving it the name “House of the Redeemer.” Nuns occupied the building from 1950 to 1980, until they were unable to handle the finances, and then a secular staff was brought in to take care of the building's affairs. One of the biggest ways in which the house has earned an income is by renting out the rooms to television and movie producers. Judy revealed that a wide variety of shows have shot scenes here, including Law and Order, The Good Wife, Burn After Reading, and the Nanny Diaries. The House is particularly attractive to PBS – the network has conducted many interviews in the historic rooms. Judy assured me that she takes each request very seriously and is always sure to show the house in a good light.Continuing our walk into another room, we entered the salon, which was set up for a bible study. The walls, I learned, had, at one time, been covered in red fabric. A large portrait of Edith Fabbri dominates the space, but the real centerpiece is the ceiling. Judy said that academics from the Frick, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Columbia University had all come to study the ceiling and had discovered that it came from the same exact part of Italy as the fixtures in their library. Judy then took me into the Chapel - originally the family’s living room. “The light in here at 3:30 is unbelievable,” Judy assured me, and I could see why, as the room was surrounded by large windows. As in the salon, the exquisite ceiling was transported from Italy. I was surprised to learn, however, that the triptych at the front of the room was not an antique, but was created by one of their board members.The library was our next stop, and I found it to be the most awe-inspiring part of the house. Not only is the two-tiered enclosure absolutely stunning, but it was also incredibly high-tech considering the year that it was built. The fixtures in the room had been dismantled from a castle on the outskirts of Urbino and shipped to New York in the middle of World War I. The pieces were sent on two boats, because if one boat was torpedoed, the artists would still have half the room from which to replicate the rest. The library is filled with hidden compartments, including one that leads to the servant’s elevator. Along the upper bookshelf, there is a hidden crawl space that some believe may have been where the family hid alcohol during Prohibition. Opening another secret panel, Judy announced, “I like to call this their stereo system.” Inside were the rolls for a player organ, and the pipes for the organ are hidden behind the bookshelves. The clever engineering did not stop there: behind the main body of the organ is the original projector room. Early movies would be projected onto a sailcloth while someone played music on an organ. Music is still an important part of this room: the Fabbri concert series, which was started by board members as “a way of opening the house to others, since it was a very closed environment,” takes place here every year.As we returned to the entrance, Judy pointed into the courtyard, showing us where there would have been a massive turntable to help turn around the motorcars, the early models of which only went forwards. I was shocked at how innovative the designs for the original house were. “This is a living museum,” Judy agreed. She has worked at the House of the Redeemer since the early 2000s, so she has formed a fond attachment to the structure. “It is mostly a very peaceful place,” and then reminded me that the House is always willing to give walking tours by appointment – something I highly recommend.
The story of the Church of the Heavenly Rest begins in 1865 when Dr. Robert Shaw Howland led the first services on 42nd Street. In 1868, the congregation was officially named the Church of the Heavenly Rest and construction began on a new church on Fifth Avenue near Grand Central Station. By the early twentieth century, the area had grown into a bustling business district and the congregation started looking to make the move to a more residential neighborhood where they would not have to compete with as many midtown places of worship. In 1924, Andrew Carnegie’s widow sold the church a plot of land across the street from her new home (now the Cooper Hewitt Museum). This is where Heavenly Rest built its now-landmarked sanctuary.I learned from Marion Morey, a parishioner who volunteers to greet visitors to the Episcopalian church (“We’re like the Catholics, but different,” Marion tells each person who enters), that it is thanks to Mrs. Carnegie that the landmarked building looks the way it does. “She didn’t want the church to build a steeple, because it would cast a shadow on her lawn,” she said with an amused smirk. In addition to the lack of steeple, the church is unique in that it embraced the Art Deco style that dominated skyscrapers at the time it was built. Marion pointed out that the sanctuary uses both Gothic and Art Deco designs in a seamless blend of aesthetics. She is especially fond of the cross behind the altar, which appears flush with the background at the bottom, but rises up and out towards the viewer near the top. “It means a lot to me,” she said, elaborating on the themes of resurrection and rebirth that the church embraces. Marion also spoke to me about the fleur de lis designs in the chapel and the International School that is part of the church (“It’s a very good school,” she commented, approvingly). I found it interesting to learn that the church serves as a women’s shelter, one of the few in the city. Ten women are invited to sleep in the sanctuary every Monday through Wednesday, with volunteer parishioners looking after them.When I visited in the spring of 2016, Marion was excited to announce that the church was undergoing some construction, adding a kitchen, elevator, and new bathrooms in the coming months. “We are building our own congregational space,” she explained. Marion went on to say that there would soon be meeting rooms: before the construction project, the only place for church officials to meet has been the sanctuary, often in the choir stalls. Despite the changes and expansions that the church will undergo, Marion stressed that they will continue “to run like a very humble church.” It was heart-warming to speak to someone who obviously had so much love for this house of worship. She told me in a low voice, “In the middle of the night, it’s extraordinary. It’s filled with so much spirit.”
In an effort to cater to the growing Russian population in New York, St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral was founded as the Church of St. Nicholas in the early 1890's in rented rooms downtown. The congregation quickly grew and in 1902, the structure that currently sits on 97th Street was built. At the time, the location was in an inexpensive neighborhood, but the building itself was costly, erected thanks to funds from Czar Nicholas II, who was murdered sixteen years later.
On her own grassy island in the middle of Riverside Drive, Joan of Arc sits astride a horse, staring over the Hudson River. The sculpture’s artist is Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, one of the first woman artists to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She studied and worked in the United States until 1906, when she moved to Paris. Joan of Arc became her muse while she was in France, so she researched the female historical figure extensively and began work on her sculpture. The piece is notable for being one of the first featuring a human being that Huntington attempted. Up to that point, the artist focused on animals.In 1910, Huntington finished her sculpture and won an Honorable Mention for it at the Paris Salon. Meanwhile, money was being raised in New York for a statue of Joan of Arc that would be placed by Riverside Park for the 500th anniversary of the saint’s birth. Huntington’s sculpture was chosen, making it the first equestrian statue by a woman to be erected in New York.