In 1776, Trinity Church stood along Broadway on the high ground opposite the west end of Wall Street. It was one of three churches in the Anglican parish in New York City; the other two were St. Paul’s, located further north on Broadway and St. George’s to the east on Deekman’s Street. New York was host to seventeen churches in total from all denominations. Lining each side of Trinity Church and across the wide boulevard were some of the most beautiful homes of New York; even more elaborate than the newly constructed three story red brick buildings gracing Broad Street further to the south. These estates were large elaborate homes with brown stone water-tables and elegant balconies overlooking ornate facades of wide double doors. They faced spacious yards littered with ancient shade trees, landscaped gardens and bountiful orchards. Here lived the wealthiest of the city whose gardens stretched down to the Hudson River and the city’s harbor. Directly south of Trinity Church was a shady stretch of these fine homes which at the time was referred to as the mall.
During the early part of the seventeenth century the Dutch, to encourage colonization of Manhattan, divided the island into farms called bouweries. Annetie Jansen, daughter of New Amsterdam’s midwife, became the owner of one of the farms when her father died. Her bouwery lined the Hudson River from where Wall Street delineated the city’s border and ran north from Broadway. After New Amsterdam was handed over to the British and renamed New York, Ms. Jansen’s heirs sold the farm to the crown in 1671 and it became the King’s Farm. Governor Benjamin Fletcher approved the Anglican Church’s lease of the farm in 1687 and allowed the construction of a new church. The parish officially received its charter from King William III on May 6, 1697. The land grant specified an annual rent of 60 bushels of wheat. The first rector of the new church was William Vessy for whom a later street north of the church was named. He was a protégé of Increase Mather who became famous for his active involvement with the 1697 Salem Witch Trials.
The first church was a rectangular building with gambrel roof of wood shingles (unlike the Dutch tiles throughout the city) and a small porch. It was built in 1698 and was recognizable from anywhere in the city because of its towering 172 foot steeple, tallest in the city. Captain William Kidd was supposed to have lent runner and tackle from his ship to hoist the stones during construction.
In 1702, with the ascension of Queen Anne to the British throne, King’s farm became the Queen’s Farm. Three years later, to help strengthen the Anglican Church in the colonies, the Queen was convinced to give the land to the Trinity Church parish. The church and its land became known as Church Farm. For decades the Church farm remained farmland grazed by cattle and plowed for corn and wheat. It was bordered by swamps to the north and undeveloped waterfront along the Hudson. That changed as the land began to extend out into the river.
New York did not build wooden piers over the water. Instead, slips were constructed of land fill that creating small deep inlets where tall ships could dock. When the inlets became choked with silt, cart-men leveled it with earth, oyster shells, and debris. New slips were built thereby slowly extending the island’s size. All this made the church lands more desirable for development as the many laborers and artisans employed in this fast growing city needed housing.
In 1731, the church parishioners decided to lease its farm by dividing it into lots. Cart-men built roads in a newly designed grid and lots were leased for periods not to exceed forty years. In 1766, the church property was surveyed and mapped. Most of it was divided into 20 by 100 foot lots. They were advertised for 22, 42, and 63 year leases. The leases ran from one to four pounds per year which was cheap when compared to rents further south and cross-town of twenty pounds per year. Tenants built small wooden houses that they could move when their lease was up.
Because of their location to the wharfs, Broadway and the Oswego Market, these lots, attracted an extensive working class neighborhood of grocers, masons, stonecutters, butchers, rope makers, cart-men including artisans of all varieties from shoemakers and hat makers to gunsmiths. Taverns became numerous as laborers worked from dawn to dusk then amused themselves with bull-baiting, gambling and drinking.
The leased church lots directly to the west of Broadway and The Commons and those that surrounded King’s College eventually became known as the “Holy Ground.” By the late 1760’s, large sections of the Holy Ground festered into a foul slum with extensive ‘disorderly houses’, ‘tipling shops’, and brothels. On any given evening as many as five hundred prostitutes plied their trade on the streets and back allies to sailors, laborers, soldiers, and college youths. It was during this time that the taverns became a center of revolutionary activity.
During the tumultuous period prior to the American Revolutionary War’s outbreak, the Church of England taught that loyalty to King George III, along with obedience to British law, were matters of religious duty, not subject to debate. Dr. Charles Inglis, assistant rector at Trinity Church became temporarily in charge of Trinity Parish when in February of 1776, the ailing Samuel Auchmuty fled to New Jersey. “No man was more zealous than Dr. Inglis in spreading lack of faith in the Association [name given to those who supported the patriotic cause],” wrote a parishioner. During late spring when conditions worsened for loyalists who remained in the city, Inglis continued to conduct mass that required praying for the King and Royal Family. One Sunday an angry mob of patriots, numbering over 150 men, stormed the church carrying muskets and bayonets. They claimed they would shoot any man who prayed for King George. Inglis prayed anyway and no shots were fired. Because of continued threats to the church and parishioners, the congregation decided by mid-July to close the Anglican Churches. Inglis fled to upstate New York than to Queens Long Island to await the British return to the city.
The British invasion of New York brought devastation for Trinity Church and its holdings. A little over three weeks after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn, General William Howe’s forces landed on Manhattan at Kip’s Bay. By the end of the day, they cut the Island in half. Washington’s forces remaining in New York barely escaped capture while the British moved to occupy the city. The Anglicans’ were joyous, but their elation was short-lived. On the evening of September 21, 1776, a fire started at the Fighting Cocks Tavern at Whitehall Slip on the southern most portion of the city. The flames, fed by dry conditions and a strong wind, swept uptown both north and west. The fire destroyed all in its path sparing two thirds of the city that lay to the northeast. All structures from Broad and west of Broadway, over five hundred homes including Trinity Church and the Holy Ground, went up in flames. St. Paul’s Church was saved by Dr. Inglis quick action gathering a party of parishioners to pour buckets of water on the roof. In a similar fashion King’s College was also spared.
The British suspected rebel arsonists intent on depriving them winter quarters. Many suspected arsonists were hanged on the spot or thrown into the flames. One alleged arsonist was caught the next day and hanged as a spy muttering the famous words at his execution – “I regret I have but one life to lose for my country;” Nathan Hale. Prior to the fire, several Generals, including Washington implored Congress to allow them to torch the city. Watching the devastation from Harlem Heights to the north, Washington said, “Providence, or some good honest fellow has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.”
It was not until 1788 that construction began on the second Trinity Church. It was torn down after the severe snows of 1838-39 weakened the structure. The third and final Trinity Church that yet remains at the head of Wall Street on Broadway was finished in 1846 and at the time of its completion its 281 foot spiral was once more the highest point in New York; surpassed in 1890 by the New York World Building.
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Rothschild, Nan A. New York City Neighborhoods: The Eighteenth Century. 1990: Academic Press.