The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

By: Dylan Rodgers

Boasting over 600 feet in length, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, Harlem is the largest Gothic cathedral in existence.  Just to get some perspective on this massive and intricately built house of worship, the Statue of Liberty could go sing praises along with at least thirty other worshipers in the sanctuary alone.  That's like the size of 2 football fields or well over 6 blue whales in length.

It is no wonder then that the construction of Cathedral of St. John the Divine began in 1892 and ended over a hundred years later.  Heins & Lafarge, the architectural firm in charge of the cathedral's construction, had designed it as a Roman/Byzantine hybrid.  In 1907, Heins died and the contract for the cathedral construction was passed to Ralph Adams Cram.  Cram specialized in Gothic-style architecture, and staying true to his methodology, he redesigned the church.  He kept the basic layout of the Roman Basilica plan (a rectangular room with a cubby on each side to resemble a cross), but added some Gothic flare.

Cram drew in beautiful, circular stained glass windows and delicately crafted trim around every focal point.  The cathedral was transformed into a medieval castle that not only wows its observers, it inspires powerful and emotional responses.  Once the nave opened to the public in 1941, the spirit was rekindled when the crowd was finally able to experience the cathedral's massive grandeur. And then came Pearl Harbor.

Construction of St. John's cathedral screeched to a halt and would remain untouched for 32 years.  By the 70's, masonry and stone work had commenced.  There has been unbelievable support from the community that revered the cathedral as a symbol of hope and rebirth, especially in the times of economic hardship in the 70's, the 90's, and now.

Now in 2011, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is still not entirely finished, but no new construction is planned.  The scaffolding was removed from the cathedral's south tower in 2007 and there remains plenty of restoration work to do to finished elements.  With some cathedrals taking up to 500 years to be completed, the 119 year construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is actually going rather quickly.

Photo: Tom Thai