Archtober Building of the Day #11: Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine


Archtober Building of the Day #11: Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

This story is part of a monthlong series of guests posts by AIA New York that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours. See the full 2017 schedule here.

Conceived and built as a church to serve all of New York, the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan stands as one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world. Construction began on the foundation in 1892 during the height of the Gothic Revival movement in America and continued above-ground beginning in 1901.

On the Archtober 11th vertical tour of the building, participants made a 12-story climb from the floor of the nave to the roof to experience the Gothic ideals of light and height embodied in the cathedral.

Guides led two groups up winding stone steps to the triforium, or “bishop’s walk,” parallel to the cathedral’s outside walls; the view provided perspective on the size of the structure from front to back, bottom to top, and side to side. Up further, groups stood on one of the buttresses extending from the outside wall into the building itself to the actual structural wall. The buttresses support the cathedral’s great height and allow the outside walls to become “picture frames” that hold the stained-glass windows and bring light into the interior.

Another ascent took the tour groups to the “attic,” known as the forest in Medieval times. From this vantage point, participants saw the cathedral ceiling from the top, including details of its construction with Guastavino tiles, a lightweight terra cotta tile that allowed construction to progress rapidly. A forest of metal beams and trusses supports the cathedral roof above its ceiling.

The tour’s final stop, and one more climb, brought the Archtober group to the cathedral’s south roof.

Architects Heins & LaFarge designed and built the east end of the structure containing the apse, high altar, chancel, and part of the nave. American entry into World War I in 1917 halted construction. When building resumed in 1918 after the end of the war, architect Ralph Cram Adams, a highly respected Gothic traditionalist, took over and built the cathedral’s west end, a portion of the nave back to the brass doors at the entrance, and the rose window in the west wall.

The unfinished cathedral held its opening on November 30, 1941. Plans to continue construction were thwarted a week later when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II. In the 1980s, the south bell tower was built to three-quarters of its planned height; there has been no new construction since then.

While the cathedral stands unfinished today, it recently received landmark status from the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission earlier this year.

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