|Should you go?|
|Time spent||58 minutes (most recently)|
|Best thing I saw or learned||A vertical tour brings you up close to the engineering of an old-school cathedral. The building is buttressed to support the weight of an enormous tower that was never built.
To balance that buttressing, there’s literally tons of lead above the ceiling vaults, pushing down and out as the buttresses push in.
Although I have rarely attended a service there, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has figured large in my life in New York City.
Shortly after I arrived as a freshman at Columbia, I attended an event at the Cathedral. The Dalai Lama spoke, as did the daughter of Desmond Tutu. I vividly remember it was right around Rosh Hashanah, and a group of monks offered a chant in honor of the High Holy Days. Tibetan Buddhist monks singing in honor of the Jewish new year in the largest Christian cathedral in the world. To this day, that stands as one of my quintessential New York experiences.
A decade later, as I was apartment hunting to move back to New York from Boston, I found a listing for a “junior one bedroom” in Columbia’s neighborhood. The building was nice (doorman!), the apartment teensy (cozy!). I was iffy until I walked into the bedroom and there out the window was St. John the Divine. I asked the broker to whom I needed to make out the deposit check. As I type this, I look out at that same view of the cathedral, solid, spiritual, unfinished.
I remember exactly one joke from the Columbia humor magazine of my era (early 1990s). It published an article announcing that Donald Trump was going to foot the bill to complete the long-under-construction, perpetually financially challenged cathedral, and in a matter of months at that. His only condition? All the crucifixes in the building had to have the tops knocked off, converting them into “T”s.
One of my Hallowe’en traditions is the celebration at the St. John the Divine. It lights up its interior in garish purples, greens, and oranges, fires up some big-time smoke machines, and shows a classic silent horror movie with live accompaniment on its mighty pipe organ. Followed by a procession of wild, eerie, wonderful, spooky monsters and sprites of all descriptions–puppets, acrobats, dancers, and others. For a Christian feast day in a Christian church, it’s pretty Pagan. And a whole lot of fun.
It’s weird that a place this spiritual can have a sense of humor, particularly in these hyper-sensitive, reactionary times. Or maybe it just takes an institution that’s extremely secure in itself and the role that it plays to be able to not take itself too seriously. That’s St. John the Divine. It let Elton John throw himself a birthday there, for goodness’ sake. And I love the cathedral’s signage.
A Light Upon a Hill
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine was a cornerstone — an anchor tenant — in a late 19th century plan by City leadership to make Morningside Heights into Manhattan’s acropolis. A fairly disreputable neighborhood at one point, moving key institutions like Columbia University and the seat of the Episcopal Bishop of New York there would remake the area as a shining beacon of learning, faith, and morality.
Construction started in 1892 according to a largely Romanesque plan by the firm of Heins & LaFarge. The builders would use modern tools but work in the old style — no structural steel or reinforced concrete, just carved stone piled on carved stone. They got the apse done when Heins died and World War I intervened and construction stopped. When construction restarted, Ralph Adams Cram, a fan of Gothic architecture, took over as project architect. So the nave was redesigned to be all windows, buttresses (not flying ones but still…), and pointed arches. That makes the building terrific for architecture survey courses, because teachers can show off highlights of the two styles in a single place. Let’s call it “Gothmanesque.”
The 602-foot length of the cathedral was finished and consecrated in November, 1941, just in time for the U.S. entry into World War II a week later to stop construction for yet more decades. It started up again with a school for stonecarvers in the late 1970s, which made some progress on the cathedral’s towers and façade before money yet again ran out.
Finally, the Cathedral suffered a devastating fire in late 2001– as if that year wasn’t bad enough as it was. Recovery from that sapped pretty much all its finances, and at this point there are no plans (hypothetical Trump rescue notwithstanding) to ever build or carve any more.
A Cosmos in Glass
And yet, even in its unfinished state, what you get is a marvel. It’s huge. Really huge. It has the best, bar none, collection of classical, old-school stained glass in New York, a coherent conceptual and narrative program across I-don’t-know how many square meters of glass. Woodlawn Cemetery has its Tiffany windows, Eldridge Street Synagogue has its contemporary Kiki Smith masterpiece, but St. John the Divine is un-matchable in New York for the medium.
It’s got a window with Hamilton (and the other Founding Fathers) in the American History Bay. And a TV, and telegraph, and phone rendered in glass in the Communication Bay (no iPhone though.). Bring binoculars and see what else you can discover!
And there’s the epic, gigantic rose window, 40 feet in diameter and among the largest in the world.
Beyond the Glass
The cathedral itself is a fantastic monument — building as museum and a lesson in spiritual architecture. Even if you’re from Europe and have a lot of these–and genuinely old ones at that! –this one is still special, for its size and location and history.
St. John the Divine boasts seven chapels, each dedicated to a different New York immigrant group, and each in an associated architectural style.
The Cathedral also programs well. There is always something interesting going on art-wise. Its own art collection impresses, too. Among many other treasures, St. John the Divine displays a Keith Haring altarpiece, priceless tapestries, and a table by George Nakashima.
Echoing the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, St. John the Divine also has a bay devoted to American poets. Writers aren’t actually buried there (Madeline L’Engle is elsewhere in the Cathedral though!), just memorialized by plaques. They include my old friend Edgar Allan Poe, along with Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton.
If you’re lucky a choir or the organist will be practicing and you’ll get some free music when you go. Or visit for a concert — it’s a terrific place for sacred music of any kind.
The Cathedral puts on fantastic tours, too. If you can, book a Vertical Tour. You can climb up into the literal rafters for Gothmanesque architecture from a distinctly different, vertiginous, perspective.
Then there’s the grounds. The Cathedral has a lovely garden, complete with peacocks, sculpture, and a whole host of other buildings. And, sadly, two crappy residential high-rises that were a financial necessity but an aesthetic desecration.
This has been a particularly long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness review. It feels as incomplete as the building I’m trying to describe. I shall sum it up thusly:
St. John the Divine is huge, beautiful, relevant, edifying, welcoming, and incredibly well worth a visit.
I sometimes call the place “St. John the Perpetually Unfinished.” But that’s appropriate in its way, too. “Faith” is always a work in progress, no? It would be a beautiful building if it were brought to its monstrous, tower-stacked, astounding completion. But it’s also beautiful just as it is. St. John the Divine presents medieval European architecture reinvented with modern, New York’s scale, scope, striving, and sensitivity. Indeed, being permanently incomplete is appropriate in this uniquely transformational city. If they ever finished it, they might decide to tear it down and start over again.
I just realized that the right way to summarize my summation has been staring me in the face. What is this place, as church, as museum, as institution? They knew when they named it. It’s divine.
|Address||1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at West 112th Street)|
|Cost||General Admission: $10 to visit, free if you just want to pray|
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