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The Founding Years
In the early twentieth century witnessed a worldwide fervor for Christian unity. In the mid-twentieth century this passion was at fever-pitch in the city of New York. Hopes were high to build a center in which Protestant and Orthodox churches in America could engage in dialogue and cooperation. Inspiring the endeavor was the idea that Christians ought to do all they can together unless conscience requires them doing it separately. This Lund Principle – so named because its source is the 1954 World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund, Sweden – appealed to many churches, but not all. Evangelicals and Pentecostals remained isolated from interchurch relations. The Roman Catholic Church had not yet officially entered the ecumenical movement and so was not even considered as a partner to ecumenical initiatives. Originally conceived to be called “The Protestant Center”, and so identified in the 1948 Act of Incorporation, by 1954 it was clear to the founding fathers and mothers of the Center that “Protestant” would not serve as qualifier if indeed the building was intended to be ecumenical in identity and mission. It was Charles G. Raphael, a New York lawyer and layman in the Greek Orthodox Church, who proposed that ‘Protestant’ be changed to ‘Interchurch’. After considerable deliberation, Raphael’s suggestion “caught on”, says TIC historiographer, Francis, S. Harmon, and in 1956 the legal name of the corporation changed.2 Expectations for construction were met when Groundbreaking ceremonies for The Interchurch Center were held on 17 November 1957. Following worship in the chapel of Union Theological Seminary, attendees processed to the Center site where, under an architectural rendering of what the new building would one day be, the first soil was turned.
Less than a year later, on 12 October 1958, a crowd of more than 30,000 people gathered for the Laying of the Cornerstone ceremony. The day’s ceremonies opened with a carillon recital at Riverside Church followed by a procession on Riverside Drive. Among those present were churchmen and statesmen, as well as educators, leaders in industry, and representatives of the Morningside Heights community and of Manhattan churches, and TIC building craftsmen. As the autumn breeze waved the banners of thirty-seven Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches, the President of the United States, Dwight D Eisenhower, laid the cornerstone on the northwest exterior corner of the Center. Embedded in this two and one-half ton block of Alabama limestone is a smaller stone, a gift of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, with the inscription, “This stone is from Agora in Corinth where many hearing Paul believed”. In his address President Eisenhower described the cornerstone as symbolizing a “prime support of our faith, the Truth that sets men free”. A sealed copper box within the cornerstone contains documents of ecclesial and ecumenical import. Historical papers review earlier steps towards unity taken in the first half of the twentieth century: church mergers, including plans of union, constitutions and by-laws and statements of faith, the establishment of local, state, national and world councils of churches; the growth of mutual understanding in matters of faith and order; greater common witness to Christ and his gospel in issues of life and work; the strengthened fellowship of Christians transcending class, race and nation, loyal to one Lord. Also in the box is a copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the title-page signed by all living translators. At the time of the cornerstone laying the steel framework of the Center had risen to 15 stories. Construction continued until nineteen stories, basement and garage were completed. Throughout 1959 and into 1960 the first tenants moved into the building.
On May 29, 1960, the completed edifice was dedicated in a moving ceremony that marked an unprecedented advance in the movement for greater unity among the churches in the United States. Known as ‘Dedication Sunday’, the day began with worship and thanksgiving in Riverside Church. The assembly then processed over to The Interchurch Center’s main entrance, fronting Riverside Drive. There, in solemn ceremony, the keys to the $20,000,000 building were formally bestowed upon the Center’s director, Rev. Samuel McCrea Cavert, and other officials by representatives of the architects and builder. A forty-foot ribbon across the entrance was cut by Mr. Edmund F. Wagner, President of the Board of Trustees, and the Center was formally declared open to tenants and visitors. Funding for TIC came from many sources. Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. through the Sealantic Fund, made available the entire block of land upon which the $20,000,000 structure now stands, gave $2,000,000 towards the building fund and another $575,000 for the limestone exterior. Over $1,000,000 more was provided by foundations and friends for the chapel, lounge, Treasure Room, lobbies and meeting rooms. A first mortgage loan of $12,650,000 was provided by the New York Life Insurance Company, to be repaid from rental income over a thirty year period. Churches and other agencies completed the financing by investing $4,500,000 in second mortgage bonds and by contributing $500,000 as a working capital fund. Those participating in this financing were the American Baptist Convention in America, National Council of Churches, Reformed Church in America, Sealantic Fund, Inc., United Board for Christian Higher Education, United Lutheran Church in America and United Presbyterian Church in the USA. Acknowledging the vision, commitment and work of those who contributed to this unique achievement – those who had the imagination to conceive the project, those whose generous gifts made it possible, the architects, builders and craftsmen who transformed the vision into reality – the act of dedicating The Interchurch Center to the glory of God also functioned as a rededication of individuals to his service. Extraordinary art exhibits and a variety of musical performances accompanied the festivities of Dedication Week.