Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year from 1999 to 2015 my wife Anne and I took a road trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. With my son’s senior year in college imminent and next summer likely to be one of major upheaval for him (Lord willing), the summer of 2016 seemed like a good time to get the old trio back together again for one last family vacation before he heads off into adulthood and forgets we’re still here. In honor of one of our all-time favorite vacations to date, we scheduled our long-awaited return to New York City…
Our overarching travel theme for Day Two in Manhattan: visiting sites we missed on our first trip back in 2011. Seeing the World Trade Center plaza with fewer cranes and construction cordons was every bit as impressive and daunting as we expected. Across Church Street on the WTC plaza’s east side stands the Churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel, which was closed for construction on our last visit. We regretted missing out on such a vital location in the 9/11 story the first time around, though its most interesting object to us predated that day by 212 years or so.
As of July 2016 St. Paul’s was undergoing another round of construction, but scheduled only on certain days of the week. Thankfully this particular Sunday was a skip day for the crew.
Even before the tumult of the 21st century, St. Paul’s was renowned as the oldest standing church building in Manhattan, with a history and Episcopal congregation dating back to 1766. When fires took out a broad swath of Lower Manhattan in 1776, it was among the few surviving structures.
The west side of the churchyard is a cemetery whose denizens date back centuries.
Unlike Trinity Church, St. Paul’s cemetery doesn’t contain as many major historical figures, but I lucked into one who merits a Wikipedia page — Stephen Rochefontaine, a French engineer who served in our Continental Army during the American Revolution.
We arrived shortly after the morning service ended and were asked to wait outside till the cleanup crew could finish their Sunday routine. The security detail was congenial and chatty with us in the meantime. Not long after, several of us were ushered inside to the chapel, now deserted except fur us intrusive, curious tourists.
A few ancient tombstones and other preserved pieces are mounted on display along the west wall. Over on the north wall is their 9/11 exhibit. In the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers, St. Paul’s itself was relatively unscathed save a fair bit of debris in the outer churchyard and remnants from the waves of smoke and ash. The trees out front, and one sycamore in particular, blocked the worst of the oncoming projectiles. Not a single window was damaged. In the days and months after, St. Paul’s was a refuge for the immediate survivors, a 24/7 post for emergency workers, and eventually a rest haven for the construction workers tasked with tragedy cleanup. Regular services for the flock wouldn’t resume till 2003.
As you can imagine, the ambiance inside St. Paul’s was largely one of silent reverence.
Amidst those unforgettable collections and memories stood the primary object of our curiosity: the pew where George Washington prayed after he was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, as the first President of the all-new United States of America. Although the grounds of Trinity Church were closer to Federal Hall, where the inauguration ceremony took place, it had been among that casualties of that 1776 fire. In the 9/11 aftermath it was used as a makeshift podiatry station.
Then we found a problem with the exhibit…
…in that the sign above it used the dreaded R-word. For history buffs like my wife, and to a slightly lesser extent my son, it’s one of the most dreaded words to see attached to a historical display of seemingly utmost importance, a word that undercuts enjoyment and emotional heft in a dignified attraction more deeply than any other.
This pew is a replica.
Not the original pew. A copy. A simulacrum. The museum equivalent of a TV dramatization. A pew like the one Washington used. A perfectly serviceable pew in its own right, but not the authentic pew.
That little qualifier turned up in none of the research materials we’d consulted in the months leading up to this moment, nor did it come to our attention during the even longer research period that preceded our 2011 visit.
Within literally seconds of spotting that discrepancy, we three unanimously declared our visit over, and exited calmly and casually so as not to violate that ambiance of silent reverence. Not that this discovery retroactively eroded the import and gravity of the other exhibits in their entirety, mind you. The pew had been #1 on our list of reasons to visit. It wasn’t the only reason on the list. And it’s still an official location that can rightfully say George Washington Prayed Here.
Presented as a much better note on which to end the chapter is this special feature from the Chapel’s west entrance, a sincere and authentic symbol of international outreach and unity: the Bell of Hope, a 2002 gift presented to the people of New York from Michael Oliver, then Lord Mayor of London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bell was created at Whitechapel Foundry, the same craftspeople responsible for such landmarks as the Liberty Bell (which we saw on our 2010 road trip to Philadelphia) and London’s own Big Ben (a bit beyond our reach for now). Note the top of the pedestal below it, which bears a map of the original layout of the World Trade Center plaza.
To be continued…
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