Minard Lafever, who designed the Church of the Holy Apostles, was a popular architect of his day. His work is found elsewhere in New York, and he was especially distinguished in the Greek and Gothic Revival styles. This Church is interesting in that he introduced classic Italian elements on the exterior and the interior displays a Tuscan order and groin vaults. It is a tribute to Lafever’s versatility that the Church, though quite unlike his other buildings in style, has its own impressive quality of elegance.
The outstanding feature of the Church is its very handsome spire enhanced by unusual detail. In the context of its modern environment, the scale of the tower and spire is particularly fortunate. While being the dominant feature of the Church, it provides relief and contrast to the large apartment complexes that surround it, and the small Church holds its own among these high apartment buildings.
The transition between the square brick tower and the octagonal steeple is skillfully made by arched pediments. The brick walls of the building provide a handsome wall surface that is enhanced by the round-arched windows. Bull’s-eye windows in the tower beneath the arched pediments are a notable detail. The simplicity, boldness, and strong rhythm of this composition set off the unusually large steeple to great advantage.
The cornerstone was laid in 1846, and the building was initially completed in 1848. However, in 1854, the Church was enlarged by contractors Moses and Hunt, extending it twenty-four feet eastward while retaining its rectangular plan. Further enlargements were made in 1858 when transepts, designed by Charles Babcock of Richard Upjohn & Son, were added. Another major alteration was made in 1908 when the wooden spire was covered with slate and the belfry clad in copper.
Structurally, the building is unusual for the thickness of its outer walls, which bear the weight not only of the slate roof and beam, but also the weight of the vaulting. The vaulting is made of thick lath and plaster and the columns are plastered wood. Beams supporting the roof and vaulting are hand finished and pegged together, using no nails, nuts, or bolts.
The Church was designated a Landmark by the City of New York Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966 and it is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
In 1990, a devastating fire consumed parts of the roof, vaulted ceiling, and stained glass windows, and there was extensive water and smoke damage to the organ, walls, and furnishings. The parish of the Church saw that the raw space of the gutted church presented new possibilities for the future. They determined that the pews would not be replaced in order to provide a more flexible space — including use of the nave as the main dining area for the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen.
Minard Lafever, designer of the Church in 1846, turned to William J. Bolton to craft stained glass windows that would complement the unique church. Bolton, the first artist in America to work in stained glass, was assisted by his brother John. The two had a studio in New York and produced the magnificent windows of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn. For the simple lines of the Church of the Holy Apostles, they broke from their usual grandiose Old-World style reminiscent of the windows of Chartes, Westminster Abbey, and Tewkesbury. Instead, they opted for the clean light lines of the Tuscan order.
The windows are the jewels of the Church. They feature simple, sepia-toned round panes (occuli) that depict scenes from the Bible. These are surrounded by stylized panels of geometric and floral glass. Tradition holds that the Bible scenes were copies from illustrations in the Bolton family Bible. However, they do bear a resemblance to tapestries by Raphael in the Vatican.
Regardless of their origin, the windows must have been special to the Boltons, for these are the only ones of this design that the Boltons created while in the United States.
In 1854, when an extension was added to the Church, contractors were able to match the brick and extend the vaulting on the addition, but extrapolating the window design hit a snag: The Boltons had returned to England to take Holy Orders.
The firm of Sharp & Steel were retained for the four windows in the addition. Although the firm based its plan on Bolton designs, slight differences in style can be seen.