John W. Priest, St. Michael’s Second Architect

St. Michael’s has had three church buildings. The architect of the first, a small white clapboard structure, built in 1807 and burned in 1853, is unknown. The architect of the third, Robert W. Gibson, has been well known – and appropriately applauded – since the third church was built in 1890.

exterior view of second church

Until now, little has been known about the architect of the second church.  In John Punnett Peters’ centennial history of St. Michael’s, Priest is named in passing as the architect, but the full extent of his involvement in the day-by-day design and building of the second church has only recently been uncovered by examination of  the examined mid-nineteenth century financial records in St. Michael’s archives.

John W. Priest, just coming to prominence when the vestry of St. Michael’s hired him, was based in Newburgh, New York. He was one of only five architects with membership in the New York Ecclesiological Society (founded in 1848, and still in existence today (http://ecclsoc.org/)). He was a founding member of the prestigious American Institute of Architects (www.aia.org/), established just a year and a half after he completed his work at St. Michael’s.

entry from mid-19th c. account book

[Item 653, Building. Received N. York, June 2nd 1854, from J. F. DePeyster, Esq.r, Treasurer of St. Michael’s Church N. Y. one hundred and fifty dollars, on account of plans +c (sic: etc) for said church. $150-. (signed John W. Priest]

St. Michael’s detailed financial records reveal Priest’s close involvement with the building process. He and William Twine, St. Michael’s longtime sexton, worked closely together and with many local craftspeople and artisans. Priest even oversaw many of the church’s interior details. He ordered velvets (for an unspecified use) and chairs and pews; he worked with local glaziers; he coordinated landscaping efforts with the sewer-builders.

There is no explicit record of how the vestry of St. Michael’s came to choose John W. Priest as the architect of the second church. However, he was part of a group of artists, architects, landscape designers who were collectively changing the Manhattan cityscape. Among these was Calvert Vaux, now well known to New Yorkers as one of Central Park’s designers. St. Michael’s vestry were powerful initiators and supporters of the creation of the Park. The Calvert Vaux-John W. Priest circle would naturally have overlapped with the civic leaders who had responsibility for St. Michael’s financial, legal and social well being.

Overall, St. Michael’s Church was one of Priest’s smaller projects. Compared to other Priest buildings, St. Michael’s was not large – it seated about 800 – and, made more of wood than stone, it had the feel of a country church. When St. Michael’s needed to expand – to double in size – in the 1880s, the decision to simply tear down the Priest church seemed relatively simple and straightforward. Thomas McClure Peters would miss the second church, but was wildly proud of the large and impressive third edifice. Today, we do have access to some sense of the size and feel of the second church building: the mosaic floor in front of the Chapel of the Angels altar is, in fact, the altar floor from the second church.

modern photo of Baltimore church restored and redesigned by Priest, 1857

Priest died young in 1859; he was barely thirty-five. Not many of his buildings remain. Although he was not the primary architect on St. Luke’s Church in Baltimore, he oversaw its extensive repair, redesign and expansion right after his work at St. Michael’s. St. Luke’s Baltimore is now on the National Register of Historic Places.