Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
Architect: Robert Cartwright
The second county courthouse and St John’s Episcopal Church are two of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Tompkins County. Located diagonally from each other across DeWitt Park, they were constructed by the same builder, Peter Apgar, within three years of each other--the courthouse in 1856 and the church in 1859. Both are the second structures on their sites. They each share similar architectural elements of the Gothic Revival style: rounded, four-sided windows known as quatrefoils; narrow, peaked windows; and vertical supports know as buttresses.
The first Episcopal church building was constructed in 1824, but as the congregation grew, a larger church became necessary. The present church was designed by Robert Cartwright and opened for services just before the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1887 the adjacent parish house was added to provide a space for the social activities of the congregation.
Rather than build a third church on the site as the local Baptists and Presbyterians had done, the congregation agreed to extend the church to the west twice--once in 1892 and a second time in 1913. Except for painting and the installation of a new organ, the interior of the church remains as it was in 1913.
St. John’s interior is as elaborate in Gothic ornamentation as its exterior. Passing through the vestibule and entering the nave on axis with the altar, the view is rich with detail. The wooden Gothic arch, vaulted ceiling is supported by a series of hammerbeams. Carved with a quatrefoil motif, the hammerbeams project from the side walls creating a lowered ceiling above the side aisles.
Between each hammerbeam is a lancet arch, stained glass window with tracery displaying a variety of symbols and geometric and organic motifs. The colored patterns are “stencils” on the glass and required a second firing of the glass to bond the overprinted patterns. The large stained glass window to the east above the choir loft (the Gauntlett Memorial) depicts the traditional symbols of the apostles, and the window to the west above the altar (the Johnson Memorial) depicts St. Francis and St. Hugh of Lincoln behind the altar. The black and gold reredos bears the engraved Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed.
Many of the old Ithaca families were members of St. John’s and have been remembered in various memorials. For instance, the marble altar is a memorial to Jennie McGraw Fiske, the only child of John McGraw, who was an Irish Protestant and major supporter of Ezra Cornell in the founding of the university. Because their mother was an Episcopalian, several sons and daughters of Mary Ann and Ezra Cornell attended St. John’s. The brass hymn boards were memorials to Susan Delphine Cornell, the wife of Franklin Cornell Sr., Ezra’s eldest surviving son. Another plaque recalls Lafayette Lepine Treman, one of the three brothers who came from Mecklenburg to establish several businesses, including what is now the Tompkins Trust Company.
St. John’s is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and located within the locally designated DeWitt Park Historic District.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Religious Buildings in Downtown Ithaca