First Presbyterian, established in 1716, built its first church on Wall Street in 1719. It was called "The Church of Patriots" during the struggle for American Independence. By 1840, to keep pace with its growth, the congregation chose to move to the more residential Greenwich Village.
The present English-inspired Gothic Revival brownstone building, architected by Joseph C. Wells, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, and built by J.G. Pierson, was dedicated in 1846. Wells modeled First Church on the Church of St. Saviour at Bath, England, and the crenellated central entrance tower on the Magdalen Tower at Oxford. The dressed ashlar tower is embellished with a tracery of quatrefoils. In 1893, a south transept chapel was added by McKim, Mead and White.
The 1918 merger of First Presbyterian, University Place Presbyterian, and Madison Square Presbyterian, provided a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the nation's best known liberal preachers.
In 1919, a chancel with a gifted stained blue glass rose window from Robert W. de Forest, the founder of the American Wing of the Metropolitan museum, was added. That same year, the reredos, painted by Taber Sears in 1917 with a theme of Te Deum Laudamus, was moved to the west wall of the chancel.
In 1937 the Alexander Chapel, decorated with the Scottish symbols of thistle, heather, and ivy, was completed in one of the rooms of the South Wing. The chapel’s three stained glass windows depict the cathedral on the isle of Iona, the Ionic cross of St. Martin set against a Hebridean landscape, and a young Crusader setting forth from his Scottish homeland.
The need for more space for First Church’s program activities led to the construction of the new Twelfth Street church house in the late 1950s. Architect Edgar A. Tafel, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed a modern building that harmonizes with the Gothic style of the church. The exterior of the building was done in Roman brick, colored to match the brownstone of the church. A balcony facing Fifth Avenue and a pseudo-balcony above it feature a quatrefoil design that is the same as that on the church building.