New York, New York
Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is something of an architectural and historic oddity. In any other city in the United States it would be the standout church from a tourism standpoint. But in New York City, Riverside Church is often overshadowed by other more famous and more conveniently located churches. Nevertheless, this inter-denominational giant built by John D. Rockefeller, the tallest church in the United States since the 1930s, boasts a history of guest speakers possibly more famous than any other church in the world. If there is a great event happening at a church in New York City, it’s a good bet that it is probably taking place at Riverside.
Riverside Church was the brain child of two prominent figures of the early 20th century: John D. Rockefeller Jr, the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist, and Harry Fosdick, a highly controversial preacher whose brother helped run the Rockefeller charities. During the interwar years, the two men conceived of an interdenominational church of epic proportions that would serve as a symbol of unity to Christians of all backgrounds.
Interestingly, at the time of its groundbreaking, work was still in progress at New York’s other massive church just a few blocks away, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The construction of Riverside Church was one of the largest of the city’s many famous buildings that went up during the Great Depression. In some ways, its first mission was to provide several hundred desperately needed construction jobs to the city.
Almost from its inception, Riverside Church was a magnet for disaffected Christians of the Upper West Side, including many minorities. It became a center for social activism, and was one of the earliest major churches to embrace the Civil Rights movement in a big way. The church skyrocketed to world attention in 1967 when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in opposition to the Vietnam War. In the 1970s it was the site of the funeral of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.
Since then, Riverside has become New York’s default church for world-renowned speakers espousing the causes of freedom and equality. Speakers have ranged from American President Bill Clinton to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu; controversial foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro and Cesar Chavez; outspoken clergymen like Jesse Jackson; and anti-Nazi resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Today Riverside Church remains a beacon of social activism and is famous for its many ministries.
Riverside Church is a massive neo-Gothic structure that dominates the skyline of Upper Manhattan. Thanks to its position next to Riverside Park, the view of the church is unobstructed from the Hudson River. Somewhat modeled after Chartres Cathedral in France, its most distinguishable feature is the enormous 392-foot tall bell tower, making it not only the tallest church in the United States but also the tallest structure in Upper Manhattan.
The church sanctuary is architecturally one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the city. It features a towering nave, spectacular stained glass windows and a massive organ that is claimed to be the 14th largest on the planet. Inside the bell tower is a complement of over seventy bells making it one of the world’s largest carillons.
Riverside Church is located between Riverside Park and Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, approximately four miles north of Midtown. It is open every day from 7:00am-Midnight. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.theriversidechurchny.org (official website).
Riverside Church is just a few blocks away from New York’s other great megalithic church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Also nearby is is St. Paul’s Chapel, the official chapel of Columbia University and another popular non-denonimation religious site.