Grey Room

Religious Horizons in New York’s 1920s

Courtney Bender

John S. Johnston. Postcard with photographic view of Trinity Church and Lower Manhattan skyscrapers, New York City, 1895. From left to right: Trinity Church, the Surety Building, the United States Bank Building, the Union Trust Company Building, the Manhattan Life Building, and the Consolidated Exchange Building. J.S. Johnston Photograph Collection, 1890–1899, New-York Historical Society.


New York City’s most prominent conservative Protestant minister had it in for his city’s skyscrapers:

Have you ever thought what a good husky tidal wave could do to “little old New York,” as we call her? Have you ever imagined the Woolworth “sky-scraper” butting headlong into the Equitable Building … ? Have you ever imagined the Metropolitan Tower crashing on Madison Square Garden some time, when there were tens of thousands of people in there at some worldly, godless celebration of the Lord’s Day?

John Roach Straton’s thunderous sermon rumbled from the pulpit of his Calvary Baptist Church across the city’s radio waves and into the homes of apartment dwellers who, one imagines, listened to his sermons while gazing out their apartment windows at the tall towers Straton evoked. His sermon reached its crescendo in a call for the city’s repentance:

New York… . Though she exalt herself to the very heavens, she shall be laid low… . We have become so vain to-day … that we have tended to condescend even to God. We tend to look down upon Him from our lordly human heights. But what folly it is! “He who sitteth in the heavens shall laugh!” May He not laugh at us!

The tower top as a sign of extravagant hubris and the overreaching of mortals into the realms of the gods is not a particularly new motif. Religious prophets and secular critics share in their critiques of towers. For all parties the skyscraper, along with the “tower,” the panopticon, and the panorama, looms as both technology and metaphor of the coordinating powers of secular modernity and the instruments that propel the modern into misguided secular sublimity. The view from the tower is the apotheosis of “seeing like a state,” the form itself a “fundamental mode of surveillance.” Its perspective instrumentalizes, schematizes, abstracts, strategizes; it provides the landscape for a “dreamwork of imperialism.” All of this makes Straton’s radio sermon easy to interpret—too easy, in fact—as a critique of the secular city from below. Such was the position where churches found themselves in the skyscraper city, down at street level amid the looming towers, shadowed both literally and figuratively by rising technologies. Straton’s summoning of the antediluvian floods likewise calls to mind the feeling that many of New York’s citizens experienced in the “sluices” and “channels” cut through the skyscrapers. We are used to—inured to—the tropes and metaphors that make skyscrapers secular and that mark the transformation of the modern “secular” city by the overtopping of churches, the demotion of religion.