St. Michael's By Design

The Architect 

St. Michael's Church building (1890-91), St. Michael's Parish House (1896-97) and St. Michael's Rectory (1912-13) were all designed by architect Robert W. Gibson over nearly a quarter century period.

Although born in Essex, England, and trained at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, Gibson's career reached maturity on American soil, with many of his most notable works built in New York City and State.

New York City works by Gibson include the Upper West Side's West End Collegiate Church and Collegiate School, (Designated as a NYC Landmark January 11, 1967); the Morton F. Plant House, better known as Cartier, (designated as a NYC Landmark July 14, 1970), the Church Missions House aka Protestant Welfare Agencies Building at 281 Park Avenue South, (Designated as a NYC Landmark September 11, 1979) and the 1896 New York Botanical Garden Museum (now Library) Building, at Watson Drive and Garden Way in the Bronx, (designated as a NYC Landmark March 24, 2009).  

New York State icons by Gibson include the 1880's Gothic Style All Saints Cathedral in Albany, and the 1889-90 Gothic Revival Style St. Stephen's Episcopal Church Complex in Olean NY, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. 

As a matter of record, all extant Gibson religious buildings within the five boroughs are designated as city landmarks, with the exception of St. Michael's.  Another Gibson building, the Music Hall of Sailor's Snug Harbor in Staten Island is also part of the LPC's Backlog initiative, and could potentially be protected within a new Historic District. 

The Architecture

Robert Gibson came to prominence quickly.  Emigrating to the United States in 1881, he used the Gothic Revival Style to surpass established peers like the Romanesque Revival Czar, Henry Hobson Richardson to win the commission for the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints.  He later moved practice to New York City in 1888 much to New York City's architectural benefit.  

His project for St. Michael's is notable because its eclectic design is cohesive despite having accrued over nearly a quarter-century.  

Defining elements of the church include a 10-chime, 160'-high copper-topped belfry, which anchors the corner of the complex.  Built of rock-faced Indiana limestone and brick to match its companion buildings, the tower has a dense rusticated base which dissipates into a balustraded parapet of colonnettes before rising to its pyramidal top.  This contrasts the rest of the church, whose roof is capped in Spanish tile, for the nave, transept and side aisles of the cruciform plan following many Byzantine-Romanesque precedents.  

Congregants approach the church via a gabled archivolt supported by a collection of free-standing and engaged columns.  Upon entering the narthex, they process along the arcaded nave toward a two and one-half story crossing transcept, and beyond a rose-colored marble sanctuary guarded by brass railings to a Tiffany-glass decorated chancel.  

Within the chancel is a white Sienna marble altar.  

The Art

Stained glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany, America's great master of design and decorative arts shelters the chancel and bathes it in prismatic light.  Added in states after 1895, they have been restored in recent years.  These lancet windows depict St. Michael's vicotry in Heaven, and were produced by Tiffany with artists Joseph Lauber, Louis J. Lederle, Carla W. Parrish and Edward P. Sperry.  

In addition to these windows, Tiffany decorated the apse dome and provided a large mosaic which still serves as background to the altar.  Together with the altar, altar rail, reredos and other decorations, this installation is the largest composition of such Tiffany work still extant in the setting it was assembled for. 


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