The Organ in the First Church of Christ, Scientist: New York City

By Lewis, James | The Tracker, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Organ in the First Church of Christ, Scientist: New York City


Lewis, James, The Tracker


MANY ARCHITECTURAL CRITICS consider the First Church of Christ, Scientist to be one of New York City's finer church buildings. It was designed by the acclaimed firm of Carrère & Hastings, who designed the New York Public Library and the home of Henry Clay Frick, now The Frick Collection. Although it no longer functions as a Christian Science church, and its once silver-white granite exterior is now gray with soot and exhaust, the building still stands proudly at the corner of Central Park West and 96th Street.

First Church was founded in 1886 when Mary Baker Eddy (1821- 1910), the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, sent one of her students, Mrs. Augusta E. Stetson (1842- 1928), to New York to establish a branch of the Christian Science Church. Once chartered, the newly-formed congregation met in a small hall at Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. As attendance grew, it moved to 138 Fifth Avenue and from there to Hardman Hall at Fifth Avenue and 19th Street.

For three years, the congregation met in the former Rutgers Presbyterian Church, Madison Avenue at 29th Street, where they had a two-manual, 18-rank organ built by Ferris & Stuart at their disposal. In January 1896, the group purchased the building on 48th Street once owned by All Souls Episcopal Church, where there was an organ built in 1861 by Henry Erben. Before taking possession of this building, the interior was altered to accommodate the needs of the Christian Science service.1

Desiring to build its own edifice with ample space for Sunday school rooms, practitioners' offices, and a large reading room, the congregation purchased land at the corner of Central Park West and 96th Street in 1899 and asked architects Carrère & Hastings to draw up plans for a new church building. When the designs were revealed, the congregation saw a vaguely Louis XVI-style building faced in brick with limestone trim, to cost $300,000. After much discussion, the designs were altered and Concord granite was chosen for the exterior, raising the cost to $700,000.

At this point, consideration was given to purchasing an organ appropriate for their new auditorium and one of the members, Mrs. Maude Kissam Babcock, stepped forward to donate an instrument for the church. Boston organbuilder George S. Hutchings was chosen to construct a three-manual, 53-stop organ with electric action, costing $15,000. Provision for an Echo division was offered for an additional cost of $2,625. h included five stops, with a choice of Carillons (steel bars, 37 notes) or Tubular Bells (genuine chimes, 20 notes).2

Hutchings proposed a console constructed from his own patents, a type now known as a "bat-wing" console. This design placed the drawknobs "on moveable sides which swing out to a convenient angle for operation. When not in use, the sides swing in and act as receivers for the roll top which encloses the key boards." The console shell was to be built "from a design to be approved by Messrs. Carrère & Hastings, Architects." The organ would be "ready for use as soon as the place is ready to receive it, probably about November, 1900."

As the organ contract was being finalized, more changes were made to the building. Thinking that the basement area would not be appropriate for Sunday school rooms and offices, it was decided to relocate these spaces above the auditorium, providing three elevators for access. Moving the basement facilities to the attic resulted in major changes to the outward appearance of the building. Then, the tower was reworked for an alternative design and greater height. The final design for the church brought the total cost of the new edifice to $1,185,000.4

The organ was not excluded from the changes being made, and another contract was drawn up in 1902 for a larger instrument. By that time, George Hutchings had formed a partnership with organbuilder Edwin Votey, and the firm was known as the Hutchings-Votey Organ Company.

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