Trinity, Child Of Empire
( Originally Published 1930's )
THE eighteenth century is notable in history for the flowering of the British Empire, which, in a series of wars decided by sea power, restricted the ambitions of European competition and marked out for herself first place in India, Africa, and North America. In each of these vast areas a different problem presented itself to British administrators. In India their problem was that of governing a huge population of immense cultural antiquity; in Africa, that of binding primitive peoples to the yoke of labor and peace; in America, that of keeping red men and white from each other's throats long enough to let the latter gather strength with which to people the continent, and also to conquer the French, who, from their base at Quebec, designed to win Middle America for themselves.
The political problem posed here seemed to be the simplest of the three, for in America British folk and institutions, together with kindred European strains not desperately at odds with those institutions, had taken root and were flourishing. In reality, it was the most difficult, since the colonists were of breeds which enjoy not only the securities of independence, but also the delights and profits of conquest. Before the eighteenth century on Manhattan ended, New York was often filled with red-coated soldiers, welcomed more than once as saviors by cheering throngs, yet in the end departing beaten under the stony gaze of a hostile populace. Manhattan saw patriots and Tories at each other's throats; Liberty poles raised and destroyed; Washington taking command of the new American army at the beginning of his military career and also in retreat in one of his darkest hours; the beginnings of Tammany Hall, and the settling of the nation under a Constitution which, by recognizing private property and the sanctity of contracts, had its part in giving Manhattan trade and realty profits and durable values. In this long social and political evolution, the citizens of New York City, led by their lawyers and merchants, combated by peaceful argument and parliamentary processes the pretensions of their governors to absolutism. One of the clearest expressions of the revolutionary principles destined to shake the country later was voiced by William Nicoll when he advanced the doctrine of the "inherent right" of self-taxation, fifty years before Otis and Henry advanced its better known corollary, "No taxation without representation." Those New Yorkers who fought the royal prerogative were no fanatics: true to their origins, they remained more interested in profits than in theories or pieties; but where liberty and property coalesced, as they did in this matter of taxation, they were every whit as stubborn as the men of Massachusetts or Virginia.
One of the most ardent champions of royalism was Viscount Cornbury who arrived as governor in May, 1702. Wearied by the Leislerian controversy, the province gave him a loud welcome. This gentleman was a nephew of good Queen Anne. As a member of the royal family, Cornbury had to be provided for; his light, shining dimly at court, was thought strong enough to illumine the western wilderness, so he was shipped off to America, where it was soon seen that his responsibilities were greater than his powers. A high opinion of himself led him to spend large sums for ostentation, but he showed such disregard of honor in gathering the funds devoted to these celebrations that eventually all parties and factions became united by hatred of Cornbury when they could have been united by nothing else under high heaven. Even villainy has its uses where it becomes a target so dear that the godly and thrifty, for a time, can forget their quarrels. In Cornbury's case this animosity was aggravated by more than a trace of effeminacy. There are stories of his wooing soldiers from his balcony while dressed in women's garb.
Land-wise, this expensive fop of a governor lived in the record because he granted on November 23, 1705, a lease by which certain crown lands passed to Trinity Church, chartered by William III in 1697. These lands became the foundation of the present parish wealth, although the charter right to salvage wrecks and whales drifted ashore may have brought in more revenue in the early years. The larger parcel, occupied in 1705 by George Ryerse, was known at various times as the "Duke's farm," the "King's farm," and the "Queen's farm," different designations for the original West India Company farm, leased in 1677 to Dirck Siecken for twenty years for sixty bushels of good win-ter wheat. To this tract Governor Francis Lovelace, 1668-73, added the Anneke Jans-Bogardus farm, which long figured in lawsuits based on the assertion that not all of Anneke Jans' heirs signed the lease. It was "bounded on the East partly by the Broadway, partly by the Common and partly by the Swamp; and on the West by Hudson's river." Included in the Queen's grant was another small piece adjoining the church-yard to the south.
These combined holdings stretched almost to Greenwich Village, occupying on the modern map the region between Fulton and Reade streets on the eastern or Broadway side, on the Hudson River shore from Fulton Street to Christopher. Between the northeast and northwest corners the line was irregular, trending north-westward. The Hudson River encroached farther into the island than at present, fills having since been made. The strip was therefore comparatively long and narrow, but its fertility was high. Gradually the farming operations gave way to building and selling, in the course of which Trinity alienated all save about 500 of the more than 2,000 lots into which the Queen's farm was little by little subdivided. The tradition that Trinity never sold any of the grant is an historic fallacy, though it adopted early the policy of leasing when, in its more affluent days, it no longer needed funds for building or the development of its various mission enterprises. Some of the latter were ultimately erected into separate churches and endowed with lands by Trinity. The generosity of Trinity is seldom mentioned, perhaps because those instances all occurred in the old days when its lands were worth relatively little. Latterly its contributions have been in money, representing the earnings of the estate, not its division.
The largest of Trinity's grants to other institutions was that of 1752 to King's College (chartered 1754), consisting of the tract between Murray and Barclay streets, and between Church Street and the Hudson, still referred to in the reports of Columbia University as the Lower Estate. There the college was erected, much of the land being used for college purposes, the remainder being rented at low rates. When the new State of New York took charge of the college (renamed Columbia), it leased these rentable tracts at low rates and for considerable periods, so that many years would have to pass before the income would be proportionate to value. A rector of Trinity, Dr. William Berrian, estimated the Lower Estate as worth $400,000 in 1847 and $500,000 in 1855, the quick rise in value being ascribed to the march of business in that section.
In 1889 Columbia estimated income from the tract as $107,000, which would seem to place a value of $2,000,000. The Lower Estate is now said to be worth $10,000,000, but its revenues must be declining.
Seven of Trinity's lots were given to Trinity School; in 1847 the value of these was placed at $35,000. In 1832 the school received four more lots, worth in 1847, $20,000.
In 1802, thirty-two lots in Barclay, Beach, Greenwich, Hudson, North, Moore, and Warren streets went to the Society for Promotion of Religion and Learning. Value in 1847, $120,000.
St. Mark's Church, in the Bowery, received from Trinity twenty-eight lots worth about $131,500 in 1847, and of these the value of seventeen lots in Reade and Warren streets doubled in the next eight years.
To Grace Church were granted twenty-five lots worth $200,000 in 1855 and to St. George's Church, thirty-three lots worth $170,000 in the same years.
To other institutions Trinity donated forty-nine other lots worth perhaps $500,000 in 1855.
In a communication to the assembly in 1854, the vestry of Trinity reported nine parcels used for church purposes. These included the sites of four churches—the parent church and its three chapels (St. Paul's, St. John's, and Trinity Chapel)—three cemeteries, and the houses of the rector and assistant minister.
Of the three cemeteries, the Trinity Churchyard, St. Paul's, and the cemetery bisected by Broadway at 153rd to 155th streets were still the abodes of the dead, but the Episcopal cemetery formerly at Hudson, Leroy, and Clarkson streets has been devoted to the pursuits of the living as Hudson Park.
In all it appears that 318 lots were given away, 1,059 sold and 986 retained. So productive was New York real estate that proceeds of all the lots sold were only about $1,000,000, or no more than the 1857 value of the 318 given away. And the 986 retained were enough to make Trinity the richest of churches, with $5,000,000 worth of golden earth in 1857 and from $75,000,000 to $100,000,000 worth in 1931.
For many years of its early history, Trinity received low rentals; for instance, only $177.50 a year for eighty-three years on the Lispenard lease of 1779. This lease expired in 1862, when the land Lispenard once cultivated had been subdivided into eighty-one lots, all built on and paying rent. Another lease unprofitable to Trinity, but profitable to its lessees, was the Burr or Astor lease, granted in 1676 to Abraham Mortier for ninety-nine years at $269 per annum. It contained 356 lots and matured in 1866.
Trinity has purchased only five important proper-ties, usually to clear fees for prospective lessees. These are: the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street, containing a thirty-four-story building; the southwest corner of these two streets, where the thirty-five-story Pictorial Review Building stands; lots on Barclay between Broadway and Church; the extension of 100 Sixth Avenue, site of an eighteen-story industrial building; the Trinity Place Building.
Contrary to general opinion, Trinity or its lessees pay taxes on all its real estate, save the eight parcels used for strictly religious purposes. Even a vacated rectory was promptly put on the tax rolls, in order to avoid even a technical evasion of the tax laws. This is, however, a modern development. During the first hundred and fifty years of its tenure of Queen's farm, Trinity had no taxes to pay, a fact which permitted it to be zealous in promoting Episcopalianism without damage to its future.
Those who condemn the collection of so large a ground-rent by a religious institution should weigh all the alternatives. If Queen's farm had been broken up into small ownerships, more individuals might have benefited, but less public good would have resulted, because Trinity's gifts and revenues stimulated education, religion, and philanthropy. The taxes collected would probably have been misspent as most taxes are, and it is at least an even wager that the individual landlords would have been both more rapacious and less respectable than Trinity has been.
This does not touch, however, the larger question posed by private ownership of urban land, a kind of property peculiarly adapted to absorbing the "unearned increment." The phrase itself is somewhat of a misnomer, because all income must be earned by someone at work somewhere. So-called unearned income is merely part of the world income which has escaped the best efforts of appropriators, and a considerable portion of it eventually comes to rest in urban land under certain conditions, unearned as far as certain lucky landlords are concerned, but not in the larger sense. Even so the judicious use of land often creates value which would be irrecoverable except for the application of foresight, energy, and the acceptance of risks. In the case of Trinity, the latter were seldom involved, since the parish rarely improved its lands, leaving the risks and the larger rewards to its lessees. The economic forces at work in building the city and enhancing its land values were so dynamic and vigorous that New York, conceivably, would not be greatly otherwise than it is today, even though the Queen's farm had never been given to Trinity Church. Values created by the trade of trudging millions would have come to rest in the Trinity inventory almost regardless of anything constructive Trinity's managers might have done. There is no need to minimize Trinity's religious, educational, and charitable grants and activities, for these have been in the main both intelligent and en-during, but merely to state the quite obvious truth that these services are decorative rather than fundamental, while the revenues which support them are a well-secured lien on the earnings of the community, a lien second only to taxes. An institution so buttressed against misfortune through no outstanding services or merits of its own must expect to encounter the envious inquiry of the tax gatherer seeking new henroosts to rob or old ones to tap more efficiently. And behind the tax gatherer will stand the opinion of the public whose activities have been historically responsible for Trinity's increasing wealth. Trinity had one narrow squeak after the first American Revolution, when the Assembly of the new state limited its revenues for a time; it will hardly escape as lightly the second American Revolution, when and if______.
Endowed by regal gesture in its youth, Trinity Parish remains in its age the most important vestige of British imperialism in America. Its total assets are now valued at $63,647,638, divided as follows: productive real estate, $27,879,400; mortgages and securities, $3,866,239; church property, including seven chapels, $31,902,000. Gross income in 1933 was $1,798,528, out of which Trinity paid real estate taxes of $511,529, spent $515,221 for parish expenses, and devoted the remainder to charity and the support of less fortunate churches.