In walking distance, it is maybe eight or nine blocks from the extreme northern end of Central Park. It is the crown on top of the so-called fashionable upper west end of Manhattan. It is the southern boundary of the Columbia University campus. I am of course talking about the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine - 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York City.
All sorts of adjectives and descriptions for this unfinished mish mash of styles, Romanesque and Gothic. The Nave is 600 feet long, the size of two American football fields laid end to end. It is second only in size to St. Peter’s in Rome. I am not certain where that big church in the Ivory Coast fits in, in terms of size, volumes etc.
This perhaps quiet, unforgotten gem of New York City architecture has been in building mode in spurts and stops since 1892. Many say that this seat of the Episcopal Bishop of New York is a dodo bird of sorts. It defies description but its internal space is why I am writing about it. One brief building period in the middle eighties to middle ninties added fifty feet (one third) of the Southwest bell tower in first photo above. It will not be finished in my lifetime.
I first encountered this behemoth structure in the middle of an May rain storm over thirty years ago. Getting out of the rain was indeed a pleasure but I have not stepped into any other such a magnificent space since. I have been in Notre Dame in Paris and only have a vague memory of it except that I thought it rather plain for all the hype. The average tourist never makes it here unless on a tour bus or religious bus tour package. It is as hidden a treasure to native New Yorkers as it is to the accidental tourist who, like me, literally stumbles upon its sheer space and audacity of being.
I have not been there since the fire and the smoke damage that required extensive and expensive cleanup. Less smoke damage would have occured if they has broken the stained glass to vent the fire. The officials at the Cathedral asked the fire marshall not to touch the windows which led to seven years of clean up that now has put the building on par with anything of Medieval European religious gothic architecture in official tourist guide books.
My first impression there had to do with that of the sheer size. The darkness of its soot covered interior walls was a result of having been submitted to fifty years of old New York City coal burning for heat and cooking in the air and reaching inside an open and unfinished church.
That dark space I feel to this day and a sense of what an astronaut must feel floating in outerspace, as I looked up into a seeming infinite darkness. When they finally opened the church in 1941, they put a temporary plywood dome over the unfinished transept expecting to finish the work after WWII. Funny how that temporary roof painted black made for such magic inside with a few electric lights, votive candles and gloomy exterior rain filled light making a faint register through blue colbalt colored stained glass.
Now over a hundred years of coal soot and fire smoke damage and general grime are cleaned up. The building was rededicated in late 2008.
The cathedral, not so crowded as with the huge number of midtown tourists that frequent the likes of St. Patrick's, makes this place a very quiet and meditative sort of place.
There is plenty of artwork, tapestries, icons, statues and it has a Holocaust memorial sculpture. It is an all purpose building that fits into the secular needs of the nearby Columbia University community. It is host to concerts, plays and even the annual blessings for animals small and big as elephants if need be.
It is a place where famous people, well loved people, have their post mortal memorials because of the thousands of people who can crowd into the space. I recall the author James Baldwin's memorial service took place there. It seemed appropriate since the rear of the cathedral sits on a slight hill and overlooks most of Harlem.
A very interesting place.
Here is a dated review of the place from the Ship of Fools website that reviews services and architecture of houses of worship worldwide.
1164: Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City
And of course the annual Francis of Assisi Animal blessing.
I close in quote from the first video above.
"It moves me intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. It illustrates what architecture can do to the human animal. What an expression that architecture can be to the human spirit” --Alfred Blanco, Cathedral docent
Highlights of a Cathedral’s Rehabilitation