Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Morningside Heights
Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1892)
Architects: Heins & La Farge, Cram & Ferguson
Amsterdam Ave. at 112th St.
Morningside Heights, New York
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is twice the size of St. Patrick’s and almost as large as St. Peter’s in Rome. If it is ever completed, it will be the largest cathedral in the world, seating more than 15,000 people. (Strictly speaking, St. Peter’s in Rome is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of a bishop.)
In the late 19th century, Bishop Henry Codman Potter (1834–1911) persuaded the Episcopal Church in New York to build a cathedral that would be a “house of prayer for all nations.” A location occupied by the Leake and Watts Orphan House on Morningside Heights was chosen for the cathedral, and the property was purchased for $850,000. (The 1843 Greek Revival-style asylum still stands on the grounds of the Cathedral.)
Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees held a contest for the design in 1888. Sixty-eight firms competed for the prestigious contract. The contest was won by the firm of George Lewis Heins (1860–1907) and Christopher Grant LaFarge (1862–1938). Heins & LaFarge’s plan called for an eclectic Byzantine-Romanesque cruciform design 520 feet (158m) long.
The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid on 27 December 1892, but foundation problems delayed work. The death of George Heins in 1907 necessitated the hiring of a new architect. Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942) of the firm of Cram & Ferguson was chosen to complete the cathedral.
By 1911, Heins & Lafarge’s choir and crossing were complete. Rafael Guastavino built a tile dome to cover the crossing. This dome was intended to be temporary, but the spire planned to replace it has never been constructed.
Meanwhile, Cram reworked the design of the cathedral before ground was broken for the Nave in 1916. His new plan changed the look of the finished cathedral from Byzantine-Romanesque to Gothic.
By 1918, the seven Chapels of the Tongues, each dedicated to a different ethnic group, were completed. From 1921 to 1946, construction of the West Front, Baptistry, and the North Transept was undertaken. On 30 November 1941, the opening of the Nave was celebrated. The 601-foot (183m) length was the longest of any cathedral in the world.
World War II interrupted work on the cathedral. For the next 32 years, no work took place on the unfinished site.
In the 1970s, Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., and the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, inaugurated a program to continue work using unemployed youths from the neighborhood who would be trained in stone construction techniques. “We will revive the art of stonecraft… and provide our city with a massive symbol of hope and rebirth.” The Stoneyard was dedicated in 1979, and construction was commenced on the north and south towers in 1982. Tower construction stopped again in the 1990s, but master carver Simon Verity continued to supervise the sculpting of the Portal of Paradise, completed in 1997.
Today the cathedral in two-thirds complete. At this time, there are no immediate plans to finish the towers, transepts, great crossing and choir.
© Matthew X. Kiernan