The tallest church in the United States, 24th tallest in the world, Riverside was designed by the firm of Allen, Pelton and Collens. Henry C. Pelton and Charles Collens were commissioned by Rockefeller to travel across Spain and France to find inspiration for their project. They took for their model of the nave the 13th century Gothic Chartres Cathedral, France. For the massive single bell tower that dwarfs the rest of the church, they modeled one of the towers at Laon, but here with a base 100 feet square, and built on a steel frame the equivalent of a 22-story building (392 feet). Inlaid on the floor is a labyrinth. The church was begun in 1927 and, following delays caused by a spectacular fire in the wooden scaffolding, held its first service at the main altar on October 5, 1930.
The exterior buttressing is purely decorative, for the structure is supported on its steel frame, and its weight would not be sufficient to counter the weight of the vault. The writers of the WPA Guide to New York City (1939) noted "Their smallness has the effect of making the building itself seem smaller than it is, so that its scale is scarcely impressive, even when seen at close range."
The west-facing main entrance, in the base of the tower, is based on the Porte Royale of Chartres, with the seated figure of Christ in the tympanum, flanked by the symbols of the Evangelists. The figures sculpted in the concentric arches of the doorway represent leading personalities of religion and philosophy, joined by great scientists. The nave has a seating capacity of 2,100.
The tower houses a carillon that John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated in memory of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. Its final complement of 74 bronze bells (at the time the largest carillon of bells in the world—see also Kirk in the Hills) includes the 20-ton bourdon, the largest tuned bell in the world.
The church was conceived as a complex social services center from the outset, with meeting rooms and classrooms, a daycare center, a kindergarten, library, auditorium and gym. It was designated a New York City Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2000.
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