Carole Bailey French had waited years for this moment. I had stumbled upon it. No one there will forget it. The Philadelphia Orchestra was performing in St Bartholomew’s Church with its monumental Pipe Organ. Actually, the church is the organ. Its 12,422 pipes are built into the Byzantine walls and domed ceiling. Architect Bertram Goodhue had brought in a Harvard acoustical engineer to create the incomparable sound we were hearing. Even a spire ceiling was sacrificed for the more mellifluous sounding dome.
This concert was a homecoming of sorts. Famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, best associated with the Philadelphia Orchestra, began his career in New York City as the organist and choir director of St. Bartholomew and returned to conduct there again at the end of his life.
“It took years to get to this night,” said Carole Bailey French, President of St. Bartholomew’s Conservancy, which presented the concert as part of a gala benefit evening that began with a reception at Inside Park, St Bart’s restaurant, and ended with dinner at a private club. “But, when I heard the (great organ composer) Saint-Saëns, it was like the first taste of a great wine: truly extraordinary.”
As with wine, the pairing, was important. This organ is unique to the city and there are few orchestras equipped to work with the instrument.
The church in-house virtuoso organist Paolo Bordignon played. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanza sang, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera. David Robertson conducted works by Gabrieli, Bach, Saint-Saens, Elgar, Faure, and Amy Beach. The Gala honored Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and The Mutual of America Financial Group.
John French III, Leon Botstein, Philippe de Montebello, Agnes Gund, Daisy Soros, Kirk Henckels and Fernanda Kellogg, Donald and Vera Blinken, Susan Gutfreund, Cece Cord, Bénédicte de Montlaur, David and Susan Rockefeller, Paul Goldberger, Sascha Rockefeller, Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, Kathryn Greenberg, Elbrun and Peter Kimmelman, Marife Hernandez and Joel Bell, Laureen and Ragnar Meyer-Knutsen, Naomi Seligman von Simson and Ernest M. Von Simson, Encarnita and Robert Quinlan, Barbara McLaughlin, Lauren Shortt, Cece Cord, Noreen and Ken Buckfire, Stephanie Stokes, Friederike Biggs, Florence and Richard Fabricant, Louise Mirrer, Betsy Barlow Rogers, Sandy and Stan Warshawsky were among the supporters.
“It shivered your timbers,” said Gala Chair Barbara Tober. “It was breathtaking, a total immersion. It entered our bodies and filled our souls.”
All I could say was “wow.” I was having a religious experience in church!
Non-ecumenical is what the Conservancy understands its appeal to be. “The Conservancy is not an arm of the church,” Bailey French stressed. “We are a separate organization, interested in restoring a national landmark which is also a musical instrument.” French was instrumental in getting it so designated.
“For many years, St. Bartholomew was the socially prominent church in New York,” French told us. “At the end of the 19th century it was the wealthiest Protestant Parish in America. The Vanderbilt, Stuyvesant, Scribner, Harkness, Frick, and Brooks Brothers families all worshipped there. It was assumed that the church could always turn to its first 20 rows if it needed money, so there was never an endowment. And they went through years of what is now called deferred maintenance.
“In the early 1980s to make a bigger investment in social services, they brought in a powerful preacher. He proposed tearing down the Community House to put up a 59-story building. That sparked a great outpouring of preservationist sympathy. It was not long after Penn Station had been torn down and Grand Central was under threat.” Jacqueline Onassis, Grace Kelly, Ed Koch and Brendan Gill were among those that championed saving the six-story addition. It took ten years of litigation before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission prevailed. It set a precedent for other religious institutions to abide by real estate laws.
That high profile, protracted battle took its toll. Inside the church, proponents and opponents of the high rise, took sides, literally, left or right of the aisle. Many parishioners fled for more peaceful Sundays.
But this was not the first church frisson between old and new. Their link to the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, clashed with the musical tastes of the church rector who had championed him. In 1905, Rev. Leighton Parks brought Stokowski from England as church organist and choirmaster.
By 1908, Stokowski was gone. He was a dramatic, uncompromising artiste even in this embryonic stage of his career. Parks, who came from a socially prominent congregation in Boston, wanted to replace their coed choir for one that was all male. A generation older, he was at odds with the consumerism of the New York Gilded Age. Stokowski, on the other hand, was a modernist riding its wave.
His genius — for music, self promotion, upward mobility and marrying well — took him far. He married three heiresses (including his third, Gloria Vanderbilt, 42 years his junior), conducted Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” the ultimate popularization of classical music, and remained a celebrated conductor into his 90s.
Today’s popular soaring buildings make St Bartholomew’s ornate, scaled beauty all the more precious. “This particular church with that triple Stanford White portal in the front is just so magnificent,” said Barbara Tober. “Preservation has always been a part of the art world that I live in. To see that things are not destroyed is very important to me.”
In the last five years, the Conservancy has concentrated on structural and waterproofing repairs, including the Great Dome. There is much more on their plate.
“My husband was on the New York Landmarks Conservancy Board for decades,” Barbara continued. “He spent so much time experimenting, looking at New York, seeing what needed to be done and reporting back to them. I know there are lots of glass and steel buildings and I understand how important they are for business activities and all that. But there’s a whole level of elegance that needs to remain a part of our heritage.”
That heritage includes Saint Bartholomew. Because, sometimes, the size of your organ really does matter.
Photographs by Chris Lee & Studio Brooke