New York's most glorious places of worship are a testament to faith, extravagance and old-fashioned competition

New York has a reputation as an irreligious place. Even though as much as 83 percent of the city population claims some religious affiliation, all that faith seems to be dwarfed by the secular culture and economy that are key to the city’s vitality. Yet believers have had a physical foothold since 1628, when the Dutch built the first church here (even then, New Amsterdam was known as a rough, mercenary burg). In the years since, countless pious patrons and the architects they’ve hired have confronted the same problem: How do you design a sacred place in the heart of Gomorrah?

The answer, very often, has been to go grand. New York is home to some of the largest and most extraordinary houses of worship in the world — just what you’d expect from a town where money and style have long reigned supreme.

"How do you design a sacred place in the heart of Gomorrah?"

Case in point: Temple Emanu-El on 65th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Finished in 1929, the building is the fifth home of the congregation, which had its beginnings on the Lower East Side in the mid-19th century. In moving to the Upper East Side — a neighborhood of mansions and upscale apartments, not to mention the very site of the former home of the Astor family — Emanu-El’s leaders decided to make an architectural statement that would prove that the Jews of New York had truly arrived.

Designed by architects Clarence Stein, Robert Kohn and Charles Butler, the temple is styled in a bold, highly idiosyncratic take on Moderne with heavy Romanesque and Byzantine influences inside and out. As is often the case with synagogues, the question of what style the building should be in was a vexed one, since Judaism (at least as the story goes) has no architecture of its own; more traditional Hebrew temples in the area, like midtown’s Central Synagogue of 1872, had tended toward a fantastical Moorish aesthetic, this despite the European extraction of most of their congregants. But Emanu-El’s designers broke the mold altogether by making up a new kind of style — part medieval treasure house, part futurist Emerald City — that declares simply and strongly that the Jewish faith merits a place on the wealthiest avenue of the world’s most powerful city.

St. John the Divine, New York City

Massive piers hold up the great domed vault at St. John the Divine.

Temple Emanu-El, New York

Temple Emanu-El’s East 65th Street building was constructed from 1927-1929.

Temple Emanu-El, New York

Emanu-El features both Byzantine and Romanesque architectural styles, and is notable for the dramatic interior light created by its huge stained-glass windows.

The Mahayana Temple, New York

The Mahayana Temple is home to the city’s largest Buddha, who measures 16 feet.

The Mahayana Temple, New York

The temple’s drab Canal Street facade bears no resemblance to its lush, meticulously designed interior.

The Islamic Cultural Center of New York

The Islamic Cultural Center of New York on East 96th Street has served as the hub of the city’s huge Muslim community since 1984.

The Islamic Cultural Center of New York

Architects Skidmore, Owings & Merril took their cue from Islamic art to create a space marked by its geometrical precision.

St. John the Divine, New York

St. John the Divine, which takes up three city blocks in Morningside Heights, is the world’s fourth largest Christian Church.

St. John the Divine, New York

Along with the traditional nativity scene bas relief pictured above, St. John’s also features stone carvings of Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, and the Twin Towers.

Another house of worship that nearly out-bigs the Big Apple is Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The building’s west-facing front sports the largest stained-glass rose window in the U.S. The cathedral is 601 feet long with a 230-foot-long nave, making it the largest of any Gothic church in America. By sheer internal area, it is commonly ranked as the fourth largest Christian house of worship in the world. The massive piers holding up the great domed vault over the apse are of real, unsupported masonry, rock atop rock, and the coarse Manhattan schist used to build them peeks out from behind the polished facing stones to give the interior an earthy, unfinished feel.

That’s only appropriate given that the building is, in point of fact, unfinished. Begun in 1892, the cathedral has encountered delay after delay over the last century and a quarter. Its incomparable perch atop Morningside Heights gives it an impressive view eastward over Harlem, but the site proved ill-chosen, and architects George Heins and Christopher LaFarge had to turn to financier J.P. Morgan for a half-million-dollar bailout after the foundations started to sink into the hillside. In the 1940s, construction halted again due to the Second World War, and didn’t resume for almost 40 years. Work is still ongoing today (albeit at a snail’s pace); yet in the meantime, the building’s incompleteness has become integral to its very identity, part of what makes it a New York icon on par with the Empire State Building. Seen from 112th St., with its southern tower cut off in midair, the unfinished façade looks like a semi-natural outgrowth of the Manhattan bedrock below. 

Less organic, if no less impressive, is the Upper East Side’s Islamic Cultural Center of New York. Arch-modernist design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) took on the commission for a new hub for Muslim life in 1984, and set about translating the design language of the traditional Middle Eastern mosque into a distinctly 20th-century — and distinctly Manhattan-ish — architectural idiom. Since the Qur’an expressly forbids the use of figurative sculpture or paintings, Islamic art and architecture in its native context developed the signature arabesques and geometric patterns for which it is famous today. SOM took its cue from those geometries, configuring their building as an agglomeration of individual triangular and square planes.

The problem of religion and its place in New York City goes double for Islam: the Muslim faith’s emphasis on humility, charity and sobriety are distinctly at odds with a city known for brashness, materialism and excess. SOM’s solution is an interior whose clean, light-filled look manages to seem urbane and otherworldly at the same time. The complex political position of Islam, particularly in New York in the wake of September 11th, also seems to give the building added resonance: consider that most masjids in the city are willfully self-effacing, usually just converted storefronts. In that context — and even though the Center predates 9/11 — the building seems to project a very clear message, positing Islam as a modern, forward-thinking religion suitable to a place as cosmopolitan as New York.

"The faithful can make a splash in the city — provided their dreams are as outsized as their faith. "

That’s one way for a faith to fit in here; the other way is to be just as outré and colorful as possible. Way downtown, amidst the sounds and smells of Chinatown, the Mahayana Buddhist Temple on Canal Street is loud and proud. Its tacked-on chinoiserie façade is perfectly in tune with the Hong Kong honky-tonk that distinguishes the local streetscape; inside, flanked by festive offerings and decorative gewgaws, stands what is reputed to be the largest statue of Buddha in the city. The temple’s history is proof positive that religious groups can successfully avail themselves of New York’s ever-changing urban fabric: no high-priced architect-of-record here: the site was acquired by the growing Chinese community in 1996, and they converted it ad hoc into the gleaming red shrine it is today. Prior to that, the building’s predominant color was blue, the previous tenant having been a pornographic movie house.

No one has yet carried out a reliable canvas of the total number of individual creeds and sects in New York. But considering that some 800 languages are spoken in the five boroughs, more than in any other city anywhere in the world, there could be least as many different modes of worship, perhaps more. Not all of them are bound to attract much notice or many adherents. But what the city’s great houses of worship show is that the faithful can make a splash in the city — provided their dreams are as outsized as their faith.