First Presbyterian Church, 48 Fifth Avenue

A beautiful 1846 design by the English-born architect Joseph C. Wells, First Presbyterian Church (also known as “Old First”) stands at 48 Fifth Avenue.  Along with the apartment house across the street at 45 Fifth, the church marks the northern boundary on Fifth Avenue of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

Old First makes an interesting comparison with the slightly earlier Church of the Ascension by Richard Upjohn a block to the south.  In place of Upjohn’s rustic simplicity, Wells attempts to recreate an actual Gothic prototype, or in this case two of them – the Church of St. Savior in Bath, UK, provided the basis for the sanctuary, while the tower is derived in part from the Magdelen Tower at Oxford.

Numerous additions include an 1893 south transept designed by McKim, Mead and White that matches the original building seamlessly, and the Church House, a remarkable structure of 1958-60 by Edgar Tafel, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Along with Two Fifth Avenue, the Church House is an early example of architectural contextualism, incorporating a quatrefoil motif from the 1846 church into an overall design that references Wright’s Prairie School.  Praised by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as “a fine example of contemporary design,” Tafel’s building was given an award by the Fifth Avenue Association.

As with the Church of the Ascension, Old First’s interior is worth a visit; stained glass windows include work by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was a member of the Salmagundi Club located across the street.

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