In early 1856, leaders of the movement to establish a new Episcopal church on Rittenhouse Square consulted with four architects before contracting with Scottish-born John Notman “to erect and complete a plain but substantial sandstone Church, … with a heavy tower 150 feet in height.” His design in “the Norman style,” featuring semicircular arches for window and door openings, reflected the Romanesque Revival in American architecture. Notman copied the tower’s design from the Abbaye-aux-hommes in Normandy. A projected steeple that would have reached 225 feet was never built.
The Romanesque style was popular with “low church” congregations for whom preaching was central in worship services; they also favored simple interior designs often without choir stalls or altars. As completed in 1859 CHT’s interior was in effect an auditorium 118 feet long by 68 feet wide, with a flat white ceiling above the nave. Six columns circled a shallow semicircular chancel; its semi-domed ceiling was lighted by a stained glass window. With substantial galleries, the church accommodated seating of up to 1500.
Over the 150 years since its completion each succeeding generation left its mark on the building. A growing acceptance of decoration even in low-church congregations was reflected in substantial renovations in the early 1880s. The flat ceiling over the nave was replaced by barrel vaulting, decorated with delicate Victorian stenciling, and the chancel was deepened. The enlarged half-dome was richly decorated with gold leaf.
Many additions came in the form of memorials. In 1882, Joseph Temple, a Quaker dry goods merchant, presented the church with a carillon in memory of his wife Martha Anna Kirkley Temple. The oldest manually operated carillon in North America, its bells were cast at the Severin Van Aerschodt foundry in Louvain, Belgium. Its bells were first rung at the opening of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held at CHT in October 1883.
In 1895 a large ornately carved pulpit was installed in the chancel as a memorial to its second Rector, the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who had died in 1893. Along with images of the Four Evangelists, an inscription around the base reads, “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of Phillips Brooks He Being Dead Speaketh Still.” In the same year a large brass and bronze lectern made by the Gorham Company of New York was placed in the chancel in memory of Joel B. Morehouse. It represents an angel of heroic size, whose uplifted hands support the frame on which the Bible rests.
Meanwhile, stained glass windows were becoming widely popular in church building of all kinds. Beginning in 1884 and continuing over several decades, parishioners presented to CHT nineteen stained glass windows as memorials. These include four produced by the famous studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany; others were made by Willet Studios of Philadelphia, Clayton & Bell and Henry Holiday, both of London, England; Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany; and Luc Olivier Merson of France. In each case, Vestry approval of the design was required. Several other windows in geometric designs were produced by W. J. McPherson Co., of Boston. Other windows in the towers and the front of the church were created by Willet Studios and Messrs. J. & C. H. Gibson of Philadelphia.
During further renovations in 1914 a new glass skylight by Tiffany Studios was installed in the chancel dome. The aisles and chancel area were covered with terra cotta tiles made by the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works founded by Henry Chapman Mercer, a leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. Tiles near the altar bear images of the Four Evangelists.
In the twentieth century, growing acceptance of liturgical practices formerly considered the province of “high” Episcopal churches heightened the trend toward greater ornamentation. Consequently, after careful deliberation the Vestry in 1939 accepted memorial gifts of a cross and two flower vases for the chancel. Soon afterward, the chancel was further decorated by a three-part mural by Hildreth Meiere, a nationally known muralist, the gift of Mrs. John Kennedy. Dedicated in 1942, the mural recognizes CHT’s role in the creation of the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” by depicting scenes from the Christmas story.
In recent decades, increased energy and expenditure have gone into maintaining and preserving CHT’s architectural legacy. In 1968, a developer offered to buy the property in order to construct new apartment buildings on the site. Although a smaller church would have been constructed in its place, the congregation voted to reject the offer and recommitted itself to a program of restoration. In 1973, the building won listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Beginning in 1979, major renovations were undertaken of the chancel dome, including complete restoration of the Tiffany skylight and repainting and gilding the dome. In the 1990s further restoration was funded by a capital campaign under the Historic Holy Trinity Preservation Trust. Refurbishment of the stained glass windows has been an ongoing process. In 2001 through a gift from Mrs. Emily DeHellebranth the Temple Carillon was rebuilt and restored and an automatic chiming system added.
The building’s fine acoustics and location on Rittenhouse Square have long made CHT a popular venue for performing arts organizations. Renovations to the chancel area in 2008 have significantly enlarged the space at the front of the church, expanding the possibilities for fine arts performances and also allowing for greater flexibility in worship. The altar was moved forward, bringing the celebration of the Eucharist closer to the congregation, and the new communion rail has been placed at floor level for greater accessibility. A hanging cross was placed in the apse, over the new location of the altar. At the same time, the baptismal font was moved to the central aisle near the entrance of the nave, emphasizing the foundational role of baptism in the Christian life and community. The firm of DPK&A Architects designed the renovations, with new liturgical furnishings designed by Rambusch Decorating Company.
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The Church of the Holy Trinity relies on the generosity of its members and friends in order to maintain both its extensive programs and its historic building. Any contribution, no matter how small, will help us to further our mission and ministry in Center City, Philadelphia.
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The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square
1904 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103