May 3, 2012
The Oldest U.S. Corporation is a Church in NoMad New York
Marble Collegiate Church, “America’s Hometown Church,” at 29th Street and Fifth Avenue in NoMad New York is the oldest corporation in the United States. It is an amazing landmark and another great destination for New York history in the neighborhood of NoMad.
Marble Collegiate Church is also the oldest Protestant organization in North America with continuous service for 382 years, and is affiliated with the Reformed Church, originally the Dutch Reformed Church.
The congregation of Marble Collegiate Church was founded in 1628 under the Dutch West India Company, when Peter Minuit was Governor of New Amsterdam and was granted a royal charter by King George III when the British took control of New York. Along with the charter, the crown presented the church with nearly 500 acres of land located in what is now part of the Bronx, in New York City, and a section of Bronxville just north of the present city limits in Westchester County. The congregation’s charter was confirmed in 1753 by the Legislature of the Colony of New York and continued in force by the Constitution of the State of New York.
Before moving to its current location in the NoMad New York neighborhood, services were held downtown in Fort New Amsterdam: first in a loft over a gristmill on what is now South William Street and then in a new church building, Stone Church, on a dusty lane (now Pearl Street). In 1692, the church was taken over by the British troops, used as a military garrison, and eventually burned. A new church, Old South Church, was built on Garden Street (now Exchange Place) in 1693.
In 1723, John Harpending, a pioneer tanner and shoemaker, gave the congregation an irregular tract of rolling farmland known as Shoemaker’s Meadow. This property, which stretches between Maiden Lane and Ann Street and Broadway and William Street, today provides substantial income for the Collegiate Corporation.
The current building, named “Marble” for its construction out of solid blocks of marble shipped down river from a quarry at Hastings-on-Hudson was begun in 1851 and completed in 1854. It is a designated landmark, cited as a distinguished example of the Romanesque revival style.
The church interior features the original pews of mahogany, with a step up and swinging doors to keep out the draft and brass numbers harkening back to the days of family pews and reserved seating. The pew upholstery was loomed in France by Scalamandre of burgundy wool damask in the original pattern. Carpeting woven in England, also for Scalamandre, covers the sanctuary floor.
Marble Collegiate contains some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in New York City, including two windows by Tiffany. On opening in 1854, the sanctuary was illuminated by light from ten windows of clear, unadorned glass, but during the late 19th century, a plan for ten narrative stained glass windows was laid out. The first of the windows, designed by the acclaimed Tiffany Studios, was dedicated on December 9, 1900. This window can be found on the south wall and pictures Joshua Leading the Israelites. The following year, a second window created by Tiffany Studios was installed. It is also in the south wall and illustrates Moses and the Burning Bush. Ninety-seven years passed before another stained glass window was unveiled at Marble Church and all of the original cycle was completed.
When it was built the church was outside the city limits so the cast iron fence, still around the church today, was erected to keep cattle out of the churchyard. Today, thousands of ribbons affixed to the fence honor those who have died in the war in Iraq. The spire is topped by the original Dutch-style weather vane, containing a reminder of the cock that crowed after Peter denied knowing Christ. Marble Collegiate’s bells have tolled the death of every president since Martin Van Buren in 1862.
Besides being the first corporation in the country, Marble Collegiate is a church of many other first:
• Marble is the first church building in America to install hanging balconies without visible supporting pillars.
• It was the first NYC organ to change from bellows to electricity.
• It is the first congregation to use closed-circuit color television for overflow worshipers.
Perhaps the best-known leader of Marble Collegiate Church was Norman Vincent Peale. He led the church for 52 years and was one of the most influential religious figures of the 20th Century, authoring 46 books, including the inspirational best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking. In 1935, he launched a weekly radio broadcast, “The Art of Living,” which was to continue for a record-setting 54 years. Dr. Peale spoke to an average of 100 groups a year, until the age of 93, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.
In recent times the church has been at the forefront of some celebrity weddings right here in NoMad New York as well. Lucille Ball married her second husband Gary Morton at Marble Collegiate, and Liza Minnelli married her fourth husband David Gest in the church on March 16, 2002 before a star-studded crowd and with Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor as witnesses.