The congregation of Park Avenue Baptist Church, of which oil magnate John D. Rockefeller was a member, had such a vision for the church. With financing from the industrialist and the support of liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick, a new, cathedral-like church was designed. The inspiration for the building was Chartres Cathedral in France. Rockfeller purchased land in Morningside Heights, on a prominent location overlooking the Hudson River, where the Upper West Side meets Harlem, in the 1920s, and the building was complete in 1930.
The church, which is the tallest in the United States and one of the tallest in the world, is Gothic in style and is characterized by its massive single bell tower, which is roughly the equivalent of a 22-story building in height. Inside the tower is a massive carillon that Rockefeller dedicated in memory of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. The carillon includes a 20-ton bourdon, which is the largest tuned bell ever cast.
From its inception, Riverside was one of the country's most progressive congregations. Its pastors were among the country's most outspoken proponents of social justice. Over the years, Riverside has been a center of activism and supports a number of ministries, including an immigrants' rights ministry and an HIV-AIDS ministry. In addition to Fosdick, a number of other progressive ministers have occupied the pulpit at Riverside, including William Sloane Coffin, who was a freedom rider during the civil rights movement and an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam.
One of the church's most significant moments came in 1967, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Riverside. The speech condemned the Vietnam War, which King saw as immoral because of the harm done to Vietnamese peasants and also because it was a war, he believed, that was disproportionately fought by the poor and minorities. The Riverside Speech, as it came to be known, is one of King's most famous, but one that led to widespread criticism of him among Americans who felt it was unpatriotic.
In addition to Dr. King, Riverside has hosted many other notable speakers, including Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Deitrich Bonhoffer. Riverside Church is open for tours and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.