The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, New York (Photo by Angelique Henriquez)
A towering Gothic Revival building, revealing tall, narrow lancet windows with pointed arches, stands out from its American suburban surroundings of low-lying homes and expansive lawns.
The Cathedral of the Incarnation, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, was built in memory of Alexander Turney Stewart, called by some the father of the department store in the United States. It was completed in Garden City, New York, in 1885.
By this time, Gothic Revival had become the preeminent architectural style in the Western World. The movement had begun in the late 1840s in England. Besides lancet windows, other medieval features are finials, which are small decorative pieces emphasizing the apex of a dome, spire or tower, and hoodmolds, projecting over the head of an arch to throw off rainwater.
The Gothic Revival movement’s roots are intertwined with philosophical movements associated with Catholicism and a re-awakening of Anglican High Church or anglo-Catholic belief concerned by the increase of religious nonconformism. (In English church history, nonconformists were Protestant Christians who did not conform to the governance of the state church, the Church of England (Anglican Church)).
Other buildings in the Gothic Revival style are Rossio Station, Lisbon (1886-1887); St. Pancras railway station, London (1863-1868), and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City (1858-1879).
The cathedral under construction during the cornerstone-laying ceremony on June 28, 1877 (Photo from The Garden City News) The clergy had protested the project, wanting Brooklyn to remain the center of diocesan life. They pointed out that Hempstead Plains was still a wilderness, Garden City only a half-realized dream -- Stewart’s Folly -- and that the nearest village, Hempstead, already had its own historic colonial churches.
Twenty-three miles east of Manhattan, the Cathedral of the Incarnation is the only cathedral in the United States built in memory of a single person: Alexander Turney Stewart (October 12, 1803, Lisburn, County Antrim, Ireland – April 10, 1876, New York City).
Along with John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt, he was one of New York’s richest men.
Seven years before his death, Stewart had begun building the village of Garden City at Hempstead Plains, Long Island, with the purpose of affording his employees comfortable and airy housing at a moderate cost. Stewart’s plan for the model village went awry. Today, Garden City house prices are not only among the most expensive in New York, but Garden City real estate consistently ranks among the most expensive in the United States, according to Neighborhood Scout.
In 1871, Stewart incorporated the Central Railroad of Long Island and completed it in 1873, running from Long Island City through his development at Garden City to a brickyard at Old Bethpage and docks at Babylon. In 1876, it became part of the Long Island Rail Road system.
Bust honoring Stewart in the Garden City Long Island Rail Road station parking lot
The Irishman came to the United States when he was about 15. A few years later, he returned to Ireland to collect an inheritance from his grandfather, which he used to buy $3,000 in Irish lace and linen, according to Britannica. With this stock, he returned to New York and opened a small dry-goods store in 1823. Instead of haggling with each individual customer, Stewart set standard prices on all his goods, an innovation at the time.
In the same year, after he opened his first store, Stewart married Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, whom he had met at the Episcopal church he had joined when first arriving in New York. Clinch was the daughter of James Clinch, a wealthy ship chandler, and the sister of Charles P. Clinch, Acting Collector of the Port of New York (1797-1880).
Stewart's business diversified and expanded until, in 1846, he built the huge Marble Palace for his retail and wholesale operations. The building, originally four stories over a ground floor, showcased imported European women’s clothing among other merchandise. The second floor offered the first women’s fashion shows as full-length mirrors allowed customers to view themselves from different angles.
With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Stewart won big government contracts to supply the Union Army and Navy with uniforms.
(Logo circa 1872) “You must never actually cheat the customer, even if you can. You must make her happy and satisfied, so she will come back,” said Stewart, according to AT Stewart: Little Journeys to the Homes of Forgotten Business Men (1909).
In 1862, Stewart built the eight-story Iron Palace, the largest retail store in the world. In 1868, he began doing mail orders, which was a novel concept. He also acquired a controlling interest in many of the mills that manufactured his cloth, and he established offices and warehouses in six European countries. Stewart invested heavily in New York real estate, which added considerably to his fortune.
In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant offered Stewart the position of Secretary of the Treasury after Joseph Seligman, a prominent investment banker and businessman, had declined it. However, Stewart was not confirmed by the Senate. One impediment to Stewart’s appointment was a provision in a 1789 law which prohibited an importer from heading the Department of the Treasury. Stewart was the nation’s leading importer, according to Federal Conflict of Interest: The A. T. Stewart Case, A Century-Old Episode With Current Implications (July 1966), New York History.
Stewart seemed interested in not just building an empire but also providing jobs.
“When his fellow Irishmen needed help (in the Great Famine), he filled a ship with goods to donate and sent it over. And he offered free passage back with promises of jobs to all his Irish compatriots,” according to Alexander Turney Stewart, Father of the Department Store (September 14, 2010), Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.
Stewart did not fulfill his grandfather’s dream of him becoming a minister in the Church of Ireland. However, his wife, Cornelia, built an extraordinary ecclesiastical legacy to her husband.