St. John the Divine, a striking presence of mammoth size and old-world-inspired beauty, was destined for a strange journey. One of the largest in the world, it started in 1892 and still stands unfinished. . .
An Episcopalian Cathedral, St. John the Divine, was conceived to outshine the recently built Catholic St Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. The Episcopal Diocese of New York announced a competition and selected the young firm of George Heins & Christopher Lafarge to design the Cathedral. The architects chose the elaborate Byzantine-Romanesque design, characterized by giant round arches, heavy rustication, and an interior richly decorated with mosaics and murals.
After examining numerous sites in Manhattan, the trustees decided on Morning Heights, one of the highest points on the island. Perched on the top of the hill, the new Cathedral would be visible from the city below and across the Hudson River. The principal element of the design was its south-facing exposure, with the Cathedral’s main entrance on 110th Street. St. John the Divine would look down on the city, towering over it. The remote location and a sizable lot allowed for a large, imposing structure.
The cornerstone was laid on the eponymous saint’s day, December 27, 1892. The construction was supposed to go smoothly and finish fast. However, it’s not what happened, and the problems started right away.
It turned out that instead of a bedrock that was anticipated just below the surface, the builders hit pockets of soft material. This unexpected setback (the first of many) caused the builders to drill until they hit the bedrock, taking a lot of time and cutting into the budget. Eight years and two million dollars later, the construction progress was minimal. Regrettably, the foundation problems led to the Cathedral’s reorientation to face west towards Amsterdam at 112th Street, eliminating a grand approach from the south.
The next problem was tragic: in 1907, one of the partners, George Heins, died suddenly and unexpectedly. By this time, the architectural tastes were changing, and the trustees were leaning towards the Gothic Revival. They used the death of one of the partners as an opportunity to dismiss the original firm of Heins & LaFarge and hire Ralph Adams Cram – a vocal proponent of the Gothic style.
Cram took the job in 1911 and reworked the architectural plans for the Cathedral. The work required large sums of money and proceeded very slowly. The Cathedral, only three-fifths completed, was finally dedicated and opened for the first time on November 30, 1941 – just a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the U.S.A. entered WWII, the work on the Cathedral came to a halt. After the war, it seemed like the Cathedral would finally be finished; Architectural Forum predicted that the work would take ”at least six years to finish.” It was 1945.
In reality, the work didn’t resume until 1982, when the south tower rose to about 50 feet. The north one didn’t get a chance since the work stopped again in the early 1990s. (Had the towers of the main facade been finished, they would have reached the height of about 266 feet (81 m).
There it stands, majestic in its strange unfinished state. Will it be finished? Probably not. St. John the Divine is still not even 150 years old – relatively young compared to some old European Cathedrals that took hundreds of years to build. Perhaps its unfinished form connects it to its historical roots and gives it the element of humanity – ambitious, faulty, evolving, and functioning despite never reaching its final goal.