The 392-ft-tall (119 m.) bell tower of the Riverside Church rises majestically over the Morningside Heights neighborhood. The church was built in 1930 in French Gothic revival style.
The church was financed with funds provided by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, son of the famous billionaire industrialist. Rockefeller had earlier also donated a substantial amount of money for the construction of the nearby Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Unlike the cathedral, which is still unfinished, Riverside church was built in just a couple of years time. Construction started in 1928 and work was completed in 1930. The church was designed by Charles Collens of Allen & Collens and Henry C. Pelton. They modeled the church after the great Gothic cathedral of Chartres, France.
The speed of construction is mainly the result of the modern building techniques that were used. Despite its ornate Gothic appearance, Riverside Church is built like a twentieth-century office tower, with a steel frame tower containing elevators, underground parking and even air-conditioning.
From the outside, however, the church pretty much resembles a medieval European church. The building is completely clad in limestone and decorated with carved reliefs. Gargoyles, pointed arches, pilasters, finials and other ornaments embellish the exterior. The main west portal, with numerous figures of angels, saints and beasts, is an almost exact copy of the central portal of Chartres Cathedral.
Inside, the church has an unusual layout. Once you enter through the main door you arrive at the narthex which functions like an office lobby. Here are the elevators to reach the top of the tower. A door on the left leads to the nave, and to the right you find the Christ Chapel.
The interior is just as elaborately decorated as the exterior, with Gothic ornaments everywhere. There’s even a telephone booth with gargoyles holding receivers. The stained-glass windows of the church are worth a close look. The oldest windows, visible straight ahead when you enter the church, were made in the sixteenth century in Flanders.
Many more stained-glass windows can be found in the nave. The windows at the top were created in France and are copies of those in Chartres. The lower-level ones were made by local artists. Of note are the windows right behind the altar, created by Wright Goodhue.
The nave, 215 feet/66 meters long and 89 feet/27 meters wide, feels quite spacious and – unusually for a large neo-Gothic church – doesn’t contain any side chapels. The main chapel, Christ Chapel, is opposite the nave, on the other side of the ‘lobby’. It is modeled after an eleventh-century chapel in Carcassonne, France.
The tower of Riverside Church is the tallest church tower in New York. The observatory at the top provides awesome unobstructed panoramic views over Upper Manhattan and offers some of the best views of the George Washington Bridge as well as bird’s-eye views of Grant’s Tomb and Columbia University.
The tower holds the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, which contains an amazing number of seventy-four bells. The largest, the bourdon bell, was cast in 1929 and is at 18.6 tonnes the heaviest and largest tuned bell ever cast.