When we think of old cathedrals we often imagine those of Europe or throughout Latin America. Touring these places we repeatedly hear that they took centuries to come to fruition. For us Americans seemingly loathe to let a building remain for more than 50 years, such aging is near unfathomable. Yet we have one of those finely aged cathedrals too: the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.

This American Treasure located in Manhattan is more than 130 years old and brings visitors from all over the world. It is said to be the largest cathedral in the world. While also known as the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, it is just as commonly called St. John the Incomplete and St. John the Phoenix because none of the three architectural designs fashioned since the 19th century have ever been completed. That begs the question though: what does completion mean in this case?

When considered altogether, the cathedral’s 120,000 sq. ft. of floor space and it surrounding 13.5 acres of buildings, gardens, and statuary is called The Close. One or another spot on the Close has, since construction began, been under construction or renovation. Stories of new renovations or completed restorations aren’t the only thing that keeps the building in the news, though. Its events showcase artists, musicians, writers, peacemakers and peacekeepers, political figures, and children.

Architectural trends have vacillated greatly since that first arch was built, which might explain why a smorgasbord of Gothic, Romanesque, and Byzantine styles comprise the cathedral. The campus was built in three phases that moved from east to west. Each phase came under a different architect and each period had its ebbs and flows of fundraising and interest in completing the campus.

The founders acquired the site, then an orphanage located on a plateau known as Morningside Heights, in 1887. After a three-year design competition brought more than sixty proposals, George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge won with their cruciform structure (cruciform meaning, when seen from an aerial view, it looks like a cross lying on the ground) that featured a staggered composition topped by a conical spire.

In order to decide where to start digging, the bishop stood in the center with Heins and LaFarge on the job on each side. They looked to see where the sun rose that day, on the birthday of St. John the Divine, December 27th. Just a few years later, eight massive granite columns to support the cathedral’s East End, were brought from a quarry in Maine by floating them down a river, rolling them across the city, and hoisting them into place.

Heins and LaFarge brought a Romanesque-Byzantine design that’s particularly apparent in the Crossing, Apse, and seven chapels. Their design symbolized the international composition of America’s population. Each of the seven apsidal chapels were built in a different national style and named for saints of different national origins. They are also arranged geographically, with the Spanish-inflected Chapel of Saint James on the south side, the Scandinavian-styled Chapel of Saint Ansgar at the north, and Italian, French, Eastern Mediterranean, British, and German chapels between, just as Europe would look on a map.

Most Sunday services today are held in the Crossing. In 1910 artist Rafael Guastavino tiled the Crossing’s dome though it was intended only for temporary use. It was to be removed when the transepts (the north and south aisles) of the Cathedral were built. Today, though, only half the north transept is completed, lending credence to its “unfinished” moniker, and the dome is one of largest free-standing domes in the world, large enough to fit the Statue of Liberty beneath it. It also became home to what was known as the Great Organ. That was no moniker or euphemism. Its 5,000 pipes surely validated its name.

The original architects didn’t live to see these things take place in the Crossing.

The second phase

Architect Ralph Adams Cram’s name applies to the cathedral’s second phase. He was a fan of architecture’s neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival style. This is predominantly apparent in the Nave, which is characterized by ribbed vaulting and pointed arches, flying buttresses and stained glass windows. The imagery of these windows may be Medieval in style and composition, but figures among the 14 themed bays show hints of art deco, modern, and postmodern styles, indicative of the time it took to complete this stage. The bays feature Biblical and post-Biblical images and nods to professions such as law, medicine, communication. Some represent famous moments or eras in history: a locomotive, a sinking Titanic, a masted ship, Michelangelo’s David, Betsy Ross, and one of the world’s first prototypes of a television.

The Great Rose Window resides on the cathedral’s western wall and remains a particularly significant element from this second phase. Stretching out to 40 ft. in diameter and comprised of 10,000 pieces of glass, it is supposedly the world’s third largest rose window. It features Jesus, surrounded by New and Old Testament prophets and 16 angels.

Then the world interrupted

Work on the Nave, the central part of a church building where the congregation sits, began five years later. Then in 1920, with the nation in recovery from such a Great War, Bishop William Thomas Manning reignited a flame for the cathedral’s completion. A stone parapet was installed with one carved figure representing each of the centuries of Christianity. The figures were people who had made the biggest worldly contribution to his respective century. Some of the men chosen include Shakespeare, Washington, Lincoln, and Columbus. The 20th century’s spot remained empty until that century ended. The choices for such a globally industrious century included Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein, and Susan B. Anthony {who died in 1906}.

In 1925, a trustee of the cathedral, Franklin D. Roosevelt, held a fundraising drive to turn Manning’s hopes into reality. It wouldn’t be until 1939 that the first services were conducted in the Nave but the full length of the cathedral, which again set a record at a 601 feet, was completed and consecrated two years later—just a week before crews disappeared as they joined the fight World War II. For years the war created a silence across American shores the country wasn’t accustomed to. In Manhattan gone were the clinking and clanking of steel tools against stone, the voices of construction crews calling out to each other and groaning while lifting heavy blocks. St. John’s also cleared its grounds of out five tons of scrap metal from its abandoned construction, all donated to the war effort.

The war gave St. John’s a rather curious other opportunity: It seems London’s Chapel Royal gave the Cathedral some silver altar vessels for safekeeping—a smart decision considering how thoroughly the Third Reich robbed European nations of art and precious goods. The very event, however, led to rumors that the cathedral housed the Crown Jewels.

There’s no telling whether that’s true or not, but during the 1950s and ‘60s the cathedral’s place in the community grew. The pulpit became a forum for national issues such as civil rights, McCarthyism, and the Cold War. Members took part in national protests against escalating the war in Vietnam. They held a solemn litany, listing names of U.S. servicemen killed in action. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at an ecumenical service and, years later, 6,000 people would attend another ecumenical service in support of civil rights legislation and calling for an end to racial segregation.

The arts also had a place in the sun during this period. The Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company expanded the Great Organ beneath the dome to 8,035 pipes arranged in 141 ranks. Madeleine L’Engle set her young adult novel The Young Unicorns in the cathedral, and Duke Ellington premiered his Second Sacred Concert to critical acclaim there (later, his funeral would be attended by jazz luminaries and 12,500 mourners).

This second phase turned into the third in the late 1970s. Ringing in this third phase of the cathedral’s history was another call to action to complete the cathedral and the Close. Famed high-wire artist Philippe Petit, then the cathedral’s artist-in-residence, inaugurated work on the South Tower by delivering a trowel to the Bishop via a high wire strung 150 feet above Amsterdam Avenue. His Holiness the Dalai Lama made his first of several visits here.

The world, the country, and the building industry had undergone vast changes though in the 80-some years since the first generation of masons had lain their bricks upon the property. Generations had come and gone. Builders and architects wanted more glass and steel, less stone and brickwork. That had caused the artisans and craftsmen to abandon the industry, leaving it as threadbare as the Shroud of Turin.

Stonemasonry makes an appearance

This scarcity of American stonemasons necessitated bringing in English masons like the English sculptor and master stone carver Simon Verity. Verity, whose work with garden sculpture gave him a renown that continues to this day. His work stands in the private collections of Elton John and the Prince of Wales. He helped the Very Rev. James Parks Morton open the cathedral’s stone yard in 1979 as an outreach program that turned young, unemployed men and women of the neighborhood into apprentices. Those residents-cum-stonemasons helped keep the flame of the trades from burning out in the New York area. Nearly 100 apprentices went through the program, according to a New York Times article. Some for just a few months, some for a dozen years, and some were sent to study in France and England. They learned to create architectural decor from blocks of limestone. Some even created sculptural pieces.

Under Verity, these stone carvers married a modern touch with a timeless approach to the carvings around the south bell tower’s center portal, the Portal of Paradise. That’s visible in the proportions and features and content they instilled into the Portal. Small three-foot figures have been polychromed, a decorative practice that dates back to ancient Greece. Jesus and John the Divine (with paper and quill) adorn the frieze over the Portal’s doors, which are flanked by figures from the Old and New Testament. They used local figures such as neighborhood business owners and Verity’s friends for models of the figures. Just like the stonemasons did during the Italian Renaissance, they depicted Biblical scenes in modern settings. For instance, the sections beneath these Old and New Testament figures show NYC skyscrapers collapsing within the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. One of stonemasons erected an image of a great cathedral upon the ashes of the city, just as Nehmiah built the Second Temple upon the ruins of Solomon’s temple.

The program waged on until the early 1990s when an economic downturn brought on yet another period of stagnation. The apprentices left. Some became freelancers. Some started their own businesses. A couple found work in decorative stone companies. One went on to teach a carving course at Bard College.

Still incomplete

Multiple generations can now understand why it’s been called St. John the Unfinished. One fine example of unfinished work is the bell tower. Workers were able to construct the bell tower according to Cram’s design during the 1980s but were forced out of work when the money ran out. With this there was a long-term feeling of incompletion, as if it were abandoned in the middle of a workday, having reached only two-thirds of its anticipated height. But that’s not all that appears abandoned. The cathedral has interior columns without carved capitals and raw stone blocks unmanifest in their destiny as interior and exterior statues.

It’s not always the attempts at completion that goes on like a sentence without a period. Sometimes it’s the renovations too. Once when the dome leaked, for example, it obliterated the reconstruction done on the organ and crews had to start that all over again. Some of the other projects on the to-do list include these:

  • Repairing the south tower masonry,
  • Replacing the nave roof,
  • Repairing sidewalks,
  • Fixing stained-glass windows,
  • Restoring other features of the property.

Related buildings

Lists of repairs for aging cathedrals are in reality, neither new nor surprising. Architect Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, the world’s largest unfinished Roman Catholic Church, remains unfinished after all— despite its 1882 construction start date. Yet these buildings have served as worship spaces for millions of people. Despite their so-called lack of completion, they have endured centuries of parishioners walking through their doors to pray, stand, and kneel, to cry in sadness or in marital bliss.

Nor should the cathedral or its campus be construed as an eyesore or blighted part of its New York City neighborhood. Several gorgeous and architecturally uniform buildings nearby are related, such as the Cathedral House, the Ogilvie House, and the Diocesan and Synod houses. The Cathedral house was designed by Cram and Ferguson and completed in 1914. The Bishop originally inhabited all four stories of the building, but now as the dean’s residence it occupies the top floor, and administrative offices spread out over the rest of the floors. Like its brethren buildings it too is not complete as designed. That is, Cram and Ferguson designed it to connect with a cloister to the cathedral. The cloister never happened. Instead a covered porch connects it to the Ogilvie house behind it.

The Ogilvie house, completed a year before the cathedral house, is also a Cram and Ferguson design in the Gothic style. It now houses the bishop with apartments for other clergy members and a private garden.

Heins and LaFarge designed the Diocesan house in a Tudor-Gothic style. Completed in 1912, it served as a training center for deaconesses until 1950 when it became the administrative offices of the Diocese of New York and an archive for the cathedral. In honor of Madeleine L’Engle, the cathedral’s librarian and member of the cathedral community for over 40 years, the very same person known for writing young adult classics such as A Wrinkle in Time, the library was named after her.

Finally there’s the Synod house. Cram and Ferguson again designed this neo-Gothic building, which was completed for the 1913 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Its name, synod, comes from the formal term for a council of church officials, according to the cathedral’s web site. On the west front, the main portal features three-dozen figures representative of modern and ancient apostles, and figures important to the world of architecture, art, and science. In this house are the Bishop’s offices. Its hall was designed by Charles J. Connick with carved timber roof beams and colorful grisaille windows, can seat up to 1,000 people.

The cathedral also owns another building, one named after its architect, Ithiel Town. It now stands as the cathedral’s textile conservation lab and its social service and neighborhood outreach center. Originally it opened as an orphanage in the first half of the 19th century. St. John the Divine cathedral bought it in 1887. Naturally, this building too has seen many a repair. In 1950 its east wing was removed to open up the cathedral’s Close, and at the beginning of our own century the building underwent a major, six-year restoration.

Where were you when…?

Let’s ponder the value of completing this campus. Some architecture fans believe that the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine will never be finished because all the designs aimed at doing so have be too grandiose. Other fans believe contemporary architecture is too cold to be associated with sacred space. It might be worth asking if it could ever be considered complete given that so much of the campus has been through repeated restoration phases. Whichever way you go, you will likely remember the cathedral the next time you hear of it.

“Where were you when the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine was completed?”

Then again, what if we started thinking beyond the terms of finished or incomplete? What if we thought of the cathedral as a built narrative, a building that will continue to show and tell religious and secular tales through the passage of time? Like a living being, an organic thing? After all, the cathedral has been the center of at least the backdrop not just for New Yorkers, but also for people from all over the world. It has told of big and small tales-—some of which we know because the people who keep the cathedral going have written down these stories, and some we don’t know because they’re personal to those who’ve visited.

Whichever way you look at it, incomplete or an ongoing narrative, here are some more important moments in the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine’s history:

1997—Nelson Mandela spoke at a memorial service held for anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston in the cathedral.

2001—Hundreds of people spontaneously sought refuge here after the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Towers and other places across the country. Three months later a fire would destroy the North Transcept and the gift shop within it. Fire restoration plans began the next year though they wouldn’t actually get underway until 2005.

2006—The real estate boom of the aughts found its way to the cathedral and a partnership was formed with Avalon Bay Communities to construct residential units, 20% of which were affordable housing. In another move New Yorkers and cathedral staff could, for the first time in 15 years, once again see the the upper 55 feet of the South Tower after scaffolding from restoration work was removed.

2011—A contemporary art exhibition titled, The Value of Water: Sustaining a Green Planet, showed the work of forty artists such as Bill Viola, Kiki Smith, and Mark Rothko. Also that year, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the cathedral offered “A Day of Community, A Day of Faith,” which included four services.

From generations of architects to reinvigorating the masonry trade, Saint John the Divine has ben a place of refuge since the 19th century. From organ music to jazz, this cathedral is an American treasure. Through small and great depressions, wars between the world, and births and deaths of people who’ve changed shaped history. This Episcopal collection of buildings and gardens has served a population far larger than its community. It has been shaped by countless hands and provided comfort through moments of joy and sorrow along its three-century arc. How could anything incomplete do that?

 With a Side of Symbolism

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City may be a religious icon, but a tour of the building and The Close, its surrounding acreage of gardens and buildings. That reveals three centuries’ worth of symbolism, secular culture, and world history meanings at least as exciting as the celebrities who grace St. John’s pews.

For those unfamiliar with Christianity, John wrote the Book of Revelation, which detailed his version of the end of the world. Throughout it, the number seven has a certain symbolic prominence. This background, therefore, explains why seven stars or candles, John’s own symbol, manifest as seven lamps above the High Altar. It’s also why beneath the Great Rose Window.

The Lesser Rose Window takes the shape of a seven-pointed star with a Christogram at its center. It also explains why the cathedral is 601 ft. long and 232 ft. tall (each dimension’s numerals add up to seven). There is more to this cultural icon than the symbolic seven, however. Consider its massive scale. The dome of the cathedral’s crossing, for example, is large enough to fit the Statue of Liberty.

Imagery was imperative in Christian life centuries ago because most of the population, which was illiterate, learned about the Bible through images. St. John’s, like most Christian churches, honors this facet of history with an image-laden Close. Along an external side of the cathedral, images tell tales from the Old Testament, and the other side conveys stories from the New Testament.

Another window is known as the sports window. On it Jacob wrestles with the angel as the Book of Genesis explains, and Samson rips open the jaws of the lion like in Judges. One might perceive a message beseeching the onlooker to be strong in mind and body. A closer look reveals a skier, baseball player, volleyball player, surfer, and other athletes. So, what’s it doing in a cathedral? Politics. In this case, that’s a double entendre. The Roosevelt family was always supportive of the cathedral. The family held fundraisers for the church to continue building and/or renovating. The Roosevelts held sporting events at Madison Square Garden for $2,000 per ticket, the proceeds of which supported St. John’s. Therefore, in appreciation, the sports window honors the Roosevelts.

Fun facts

Between the history, the architectural diversity, and the expanse of the campus, a visit to St John’s could entertain almost anyone. For instance, the pulpit features a triptych by Keith Haring called “The Life of Christ.” It is one of nine copies of the famous 80s artist’s last piece.

In the gardens around the church two white and one blue peacock roam. Their names are Phil, Jim, and Harry.

Every November there’s a tribute in the Poets Corner to another writer. The corner features writers every American studied in grade school but also some who aren’t household names such as Phillis Wheatley, a slave whose collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773.

Words: Nichole L. Reber
Photos: Masonry Magazine