On This Day in 1795: St. Mark’s Rises

One of my favorite places in New York has always been St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery on 2nd Avenue and 10th Street. Long before I actually stepped inside it’s peaceful courtyard or impressive interior, I was so charmed by the way it sits diagonally on its lot – an obvious vestige of a bygone, pre-grid era in New York. It is in fact the oldest site of continuous worship in our city, and the church we know and love today isn’t even the first structure of worship at that location.

An 1865 stereoview, from the collections of the New York Public Library.

It was on this day – April 25th – in 1795 that the cornerstone was laid for the building we now call St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery. At that time, the church stood on Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, or bouwerie, and was replacing another church built in 1660 at that exact location. It’s location on that sprawling farm is the reason why the church does not face either Second Avenue or 10th Street – neither thoroughfare existed at the time. It took another four years after the cornerstone was laid for the fieldstone church to officially open in 1799, and by 1807 a tower had been added. Additions were made again in 1828 and 1854, each in their own period’s architectural style. One might think that a building designed so piecemeal might look a bit disorderly, but the opposite is true. As the National Register of Historic Places says in the church’s designation report, St. Mark’s is one of the few “happy examples” of a building created in accretion.

This 1852 map and 1836 image show how the once-pastoral church deviates from the grid.

Under the church is the famous burial vault, begun long before the 1795 cornerstone, where Stuyvesant and his family are interred. Many more notable Americans were interred in the surrounding churchyard, including Nicholas Fish, Commodore Matthew Perry (whose remains were later removed and reinterred in his birthplace, Newport, RI, though his marker remains where where he once lay, in the plot of his wife’s family, the Sidwells), Daniel Tompkins, and more recently, Miriam Friedlander. The churchyard is open to the public during the day and a wonderful respite from the busy sidewalks of the East Village. Today, the church is not not only a beloved visual landmark in the neighborhood, but a cultural one as well. Their mission includes a deep commitment to social justice, and the space is a longstanding site of activism, dance, poetry and more.

An annual Holy Week campaign in the church courtyard displays tee-shirts bearing the names of 100 New Yorkers killed by gun violence in the past year.

If you’re interested in learning more about St. Mark’s, check out our past Off the Grid pieces on the site, including a 2016 post celebrating the 50th anniversary of the church’s NYC landmark designation.

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Chelsea Dowell