What do Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, Architect James Renwick Jr. and Dante have in common?

In New York City this superb example of Victorian stained glass, in the above picture, designed by prominent British architect Frederick Clark Withers, comprises part of the middle panel of a triptych window in Calvary Church on Park Avenue South. More than just decorative, these windows are now considered significant examples of 19th-century American art. Withers also co-designed Greenwich Village’s revered Jefferson Market Courthouse with Calvert Vaux, architect of Central Park.

In the late 1800s, Park Avenue, downtown, was a symbol of wealth and high society. Its location on this desirable street ensured that Calvary Episcopal Church became an elite destination, with its magnificent walls of stained glass. Adding to its panache was its dashing 27-year-old architect James Renwick, Jr., a favorite of fashionable society. He was a highly sought after architect as well as desirable dinner guest. One of his many outstanding designs was the renowned St. Denis Hotel that housed numerous celebrities of the day including Abraham Lincoln, Sarah Bernhardt and Mark Twain. The massive Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC was another of Renwick’s accomplishments.

Renwick designed Calvary church as the experimental model for his world famous masterpiece, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which he executed twelve years later. The church’s elite status was elevated further in 1885 when Eleanor Roosevelt was baptized there in the presence of her godfather, President Theodore Roosevelt. His town house still stands as a museum a block away from Calvary Church.

Later in her life, Eleanor often attended services at Calvary. The church was also regularly visited by other luminaries such as famed author Edith Wharton, who depicted the inner workings of New York’s high society in her timeless novels. In fact, Wharton modeled the character Dr. Ashmore in The Age of Innocence after Edward A. Washburn, her childhood rector at Calvary— upon whom she, later in life, admitted to harboring a childhood crush.

Wharton was a close friend with Emlyn, Washburn’s daughter; in their girlhood, on warm summer evenings, the two often climbed out on the church’s flat roof to read Dante aloud to each other in the original Italian. Perhaps if one sits quietly enough beneath the glass angels in Calvary’s windows, it is still possible to hear the echoes of their girlish laughter.

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Article Author: Sylvia Moss is a renowned fine arts photographer and author of the book “Angels of New York,” a stunning visual journey of the spectacular displays of angels that grace New York architecture. Sylvia brings her unique perspective as an international sound and energy healer to her work. She is passionate about helping people be well and transform with the healing energy of angels. Sylvia’s angels have been exhibited in many New York and US galleries, MoMA Wales, and private collections. 

Article Resource:
Gramercy Park: An Illustrated History of a New York Neighborhood; Stephen Garmey
Angels of New York—a meditative photographic journey; Sylvia Moss

Sylvia MossWhat do Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, Architect James Renwick Jr. and Dante have in common?