St. Peter’s Lutheran Church has stood at the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue since 1903. Post-war urbanism in New York ushered in the destruction of low-rise housing in favor of commercial high-rises, and by 1960 many Manhattan congregations had moved to the suburbs. However, St. Peter’s felt strongly in their mission as a faith community to stay in the city and envision new ways of serving it through practices of radical inclusiveness and promotion of the arts. In a clever negotiation, the church sold its air rights for the construction of the new Citicorp Center, designed by Hugh Stubbins Associates.
In 1973, the neo-Gothic structure was demolished and replaced with an Easley Hamner-designed complex containing an office tower, retail space, and the new church. The lower level was conceived as an open public plaza with free movement in and around the structures on the site. In addition, Hamner and Rev. Ralph Peterson worked closely with sculptor Louise Nevelson in the design of an ecumenical chapel serving as a space for quiet meditation and relief. Nevelson noted, “In this New York project, those working on it together have managed to break down all secular, religious and racial barriers by creating a community of goodwill.”However, following 9/11 all pathways between the structures were closed. The sense of openness to the city that had served as the basis of the project was largely eliminated, and the ongoing Gensler renovations of the lower level will further serve to divide the site into discretely sealed and defensible commercial spaces. Using St. Peter’s archives and in discussion with the team now working on its restoration, this paper will consider how the Nevelson Chapel’s programming might aid in preserving the spirit of radical inclusion originally advocated by the St. Peter’s congregation.