Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.
Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus. St. Paul’s Chapel, near the World Trade Center, escaped destruction during the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and now gleams following a fresh coat of paint. After a cleaning in September, Hamilton’s white marble obelisk also sparkles. Soon the entire church — and a new $350 million glass tower under construction behind it — will, too.
It makes sense. If a founding father can get a 21st-century update, so can the church where he is buried. Especially since the church in question is very, very rich.
While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.
The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer. Alexander Hamilton’s grave is the grime-free one. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year. And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.
Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.
But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.
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“What is the fundamental economic issue going on that churches deserve tax exemption and can build up a lot of wealth?” asked Rachel M. McCleary, a lecturer in the economics department at Harvard University and co-author of the coming book “The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.”An engraved view of Wall Street, with Trinity Church in the background, circa 1850. CreditArchive Photos, via Getty Images
Trinity’s current affluence can be traced to a gift of 215 acres from Queen Anne in 1705. (The church was first chartered, under King William III, in 1697, a few decades after the British took over New Amsterdam.) Trinity still owns 14 acres of that original land grant, mostly in Hudson Square.
At the time Trinity received the land, of course, there was no separation of church and state. “They were a favored religion, and that gave them a leg up,” Dr. McCleary said. “The question becomes, How are they to be viewed in a pluralistic religion market, and what is their response in that market today?”
Patti Walsh, a spokeswoman for the church, wrote in an email that Trinity handles such a market by working closely with other organizations to help them further their mission. “We currently work with many partners in New York City and around the world to build neighborhoods, to help develop clergy and lay leadership for the church, and to help our partners resource their ministries.”
The current Trinity is the third church to be built at Broadway and Wall Street. Designed in a Gothic Revival style by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846, the brownstone building was the tallest structure in the city for decades, and one of the first to be declared a landmark.
It’s “a place where you can get away from the noise and experience the aesthetic beauty and quiet,” said the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, the vicar of the Episcopal parish of Trinity Church Wall Street. Trinity, scaffolding reaches to the 65-foot-high ceiling so that conservation experts can inspect stained-glass windows and the integrity of the ceiling. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
But now that the church is at the center of the development boom in Lower Manhattan, it’s less of an oasis of calm and more of a contributor to the very noise and disruption from which longtime residents have sought a reprieve.
There is the new tower, which topped out late last year, and will have 17 floors of office space in addition to a nine-story base devoted to parish and community use.
And as part of the church interior’s “rejuvenation,” as the parish leadership calls it — the first extensive renovation in decades — the nave is closed and scaffolding reaches to the 65-foot-high ceiling so that conservation experts can inspect stained-glass windows and the integrity of the ceiling. There will be three new organs, ergonomically contoured seats for the old oak pews and stained-glass pendant lights that will be controlled by an iPad. The church’s famous altarpiece, donated by the Astor family, will be restored and placed on rails so it can be moved back and forth depending on the type of service or event.
The project, overseen by Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects, which restored St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown, is a shining example of stewardship. The New York Landmarks Conservancy awarded Trinity a prestigious Chairman’s Awards last year.
These projects stand in stark contrast to other houses of worship around the city, many with dwindling congregations, struggling to pay heating bills and keep the roof from leaking.Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church, in East Harlem, is now slated for demolition after the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Richard N. Hayes, gave up following years of “repair, repair, repair,” he said. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times