By Brett Forrest
The best views in New York City may not be from the World Trade Center or the Empire State Building, but rather a church on the Upper West Side.
Riverside Church officially began conducting tours once again of its 392-foot tower last week. Wednesday marked the first public tour since 9/11. The church tower is considered the tallest steeple in North America.
“There was never a credible danger to the public, but they closed it as a precaution,” said Raymond Rodriguez, Riverside’s tour manager and employee of 28 years.
The long awaited reopening comes after city approval and a desire by church administration to bring the public back into the historic tower and its 74-bell carillon.
“It’s a festive occasion,” Rodriguez said at the start of the first tour in nearly 20 years. Four people, including Rodriguez, were on hand. Clearly, word hadn’t gotten out yet.
It starts at the gift shop off of 122nd Street and Riverside Drive before proceeding into a hallway lined with photographs and displays detailing the monumental history of Riverside Church. John D. Rockefeller was the instrumental visionary behind the church’s creation, which opened its doors in 1930. Martin Luther King, Jr. notably preached from its pulpit five times during the civil rights era.
Guests then moved into the Nave, or “the big house,” as Rodriguez called it. “Every time I walk in, it’s a special feeling,” he said of the massive worship house, which seats up to 2,500 people of all denominations for its Sunday service.
About 30 minutes into the tour, patrons were guided to an elevator where they were met by security. Prior to ascending, all coats and bags were searched as a safety measure and to ensure nothing could be thrown from the tower.
The elevator up was lined with golden Masonic symbols, a signature of the Freemason Rockefeller family. Guests exit at the 20th floor, meaning the tour had to walk up the remaining six flights, or 145 stairs, to reach the top. The church’s website states “attendees must be in good physical condition” to go on the tour.
“No running, walk slowly, and grab the rails,” Rodriguez said before leading the group into a narrow, metal stairwell. “It will be loud and windy.” Temperatures in the tower are about 15 degrees colder than street level.
For all the beauty of the massive tower’s stone exterior, the interior offered a much more industrial sight of aging, rusted metal.
Before reaching the zenith, guests walk through the labyrinth of 74 bronze bells that compose the carillon. The Bourdon Bell weighs 20 tons and is considered the largest and heaviest tuned bell ever cast. They chime every 15 minutes and began their chorus just as the group reached the outdoor penthouse gallery.
Riverside Church was built on a hill considered one of New York City’s highest points. The hill itself is about 38 stories tall meaning the top of the tower is roughly equivalent to the 64th story of a skyscraper.
With a 360-degree panorama of the area, attendees have unobstructed visibility for miles of the Manhattan skyline, Central Park, the Hudson River, and Grant’s Tomb. A ladder closed off to patrons leads to the tower’s actual top, where peregrine falcons often nest.
The recent snowfall was evident as patches of snow, slush, and ice lined the walkway. Metal bars across the viewing windows ensure guests are safe while enjoying the sights.
Rodriguez allowed ample time for the party to take photos and enjoy the historic moment before descending.
After seeing the remainder of Riverside Church, the tour ends back at the gift shop.
“It’s the best tour I’ve ever been on,” said Luis Suarez, who was visiting from Albany with his wife Julie. “We didn’t realize it was the first tour. I feel like I’m Neil Armstrong.”
For now, Raymond Rodriguez is giving all the tours until other staff and volunteers are trained. “Every tour is different,” he said. “I base them on people’s interests.”
Tours last 90 minutes and run Wednesday through Saturday at 1 p.m. Each group is limited to 15 people. Tickets are $25 for the public and $20 for seniors and students. The cost helps cover programs and ministries of the church. Tickets can be purchased online.