Traditional Building Portfolio




High Aspirations

St. John the Divine, New York, NY

Polshek Partnership Architects, New York, NY

Restoration Consultant
Building Conservation Associates, New York, NY

Robert Silman Associates, New York, NY

Construction Manager
JS Mitchell & Sons, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

Construction has been ongoing at St. John the Divine, the world's largest cathedral, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, since 1892 and will likely continue for the next century. And its incompletion can be considered a kind of advantage. "There's symbolism to our imperfections," says Stephen Facey, the cathedral's executive vice president. "Like all human beings, and like the city itself, we are always a work in progress."

This fall, the cathedral's progress made great visible leaps. In November, a restored nave, sanctuary, ancillary chapels and 8,000-pipe organ were unveiled after a four-year overhaul. The place has not looked so majestic since the 1910s, when half a dozen architectural teams collaborated on designs for vaulted polychrome spaces in styles ranging from austere Norman to flamboyant High Renaissance.

The church's variety of colors and textures had long lain concealed under uniformly gray grime. But the original specifications, by the young New York partnership of George Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge, called for marble and granite floors and columns and brightly painted gates and plaster reliefs. Around the nave, Heins & La Farge laid out "The Chapels of the Seven Tongues," dedicated to various immigrant groups and their patron saints. Heins & La Farge designed two of the seven (a Romanesque one for worship of Ireland's Saint Columba and an English Gothic hall devoted to prophets from Asia and Africa), while other schemes came from practitioners as prominent as Henry Vaughan (the first architect of Washington's National Cathedral) and Carrère & Hastings (best known for the New York Public Library). The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company lined the cathedral's spiral staircases and ceilings with tile vaults, and sculptor Gutzon Borglum, later famous for Mount Rushmore, carved dozens of stone angels and saints.

The early phases of the load-bearing construction took so long – partly because the subsoil was unexpectedly soft, and foundations had to be dug deep to reach bedrock – that Heins & La Farge were blamed for delays and cost overruns. Their outdated tastes for domed Romanesque design also came under fire, and shortly after Heins died of meningitis in 1907 (at just 47 years old), church leadership brought in Gothic specialist Ralph Adams Cram to complete the building. He created a 601-ft.-long limestone sanctuary, 124-ft. high, with a rose window covering 1,240 sq.ft. Note the digits that add up to seven, referring to the number of sacraments, days of the Creation week, and holy virtues. Seven pairs of cathedral side bays are dedicated to human endeavors, including law, medicine, sports and communication; stained-glass windows depict everything from Moses' tablets and Michelangelo's statuary to a television and telephone pole.

Public services were first held in the sanctuary just before Pearl Harbor; Cram died a few months later, and wartime shortages blocked further construction of his envisioned three towers and two transepts. In the 1980s and '90s, a southwest tower was extended from 150 to 205 ft. (of Cram's planned 300), but then the carvings supplier went bankrupt. The cathedral optimistically left up the tower scaffolding. Hopes for expansion, however, seemed dashed in December 2001, when a fire broke out in a gift shop inside the unfinished north transept.

"The fire blew through the nave like a blowtorch, and smoke deeply penetrated the porous limestone," Facey says. "We convinced the fire department to not blow out the stained glass windows to fight the fire, to fight it instead from inside the concrete-roofed nave. And no fireman was allowed to touch the organ," an Aeolian-Skinner model which has its own staff curator (Douglass Hunt) and pipes weighing up to one ton apiece.

There were a few saving graces to the tragedy. The cathedral had already commissioned a preservation and site-improvement plan from a blue-chip team including Polshek Partnership and Building Conservation Associates. Days after the fire, the consultants glumly toured the site. "We walked through waist-high wet debris, deciding what the immediate priorities should be to prevent further deterioration," says Claudia Kavenagh, BCA's project manager. "We documented how the smoke had soiled literally every surface. Later on, we made close-up inspections of areas that no one had seen in decades, and found conditions that had needed repair anyway before the fire, work that would make sense to complete while the scaffolding was up."

An insurance settlement of some $41 million financed the restoration and repairs. "It's been a tight budget for the world's largest cathedral," says Facey. Funds were also allocated to peel rusted scaffolding off the south tower and, based on consultations with New York architect James R. Gainfort, to re-waterproof and copper-clad the complicated apse roofline. Under the supervision of organ curator Douglass Hunt, the instrument has been dismantled, repaired at Quimby Pipe Organs in Warrensburg, MO, and reinstalled in the apse.

On the flowery gates to the chapels, Manhattan-based conservator Steven Tatti has replicated red and gold highlights: "No one knew the metal there had ever been anything but black," says Facey. Decades-old water stains are being poulticed out of the limestone – and those marks only became visible in the past year or so, thanks to a comprehensive interior cleaning by masonry restorers Nicholson & Galloway of Glen Head, NY. The soot-removal method, chosen after extensive BCA testing, was a latex dispersion system named Arte Mundit, from the Belgian firm FTB-Remmers, which had never been applied in the U.S. before. "You brush it on and leave it there for a day or two, like a giant facial mask, then peel it away and scrub off any residue" says Facey. A small section of soot damage has been left on a sanctuary wall, alongside a photo of firemen battling the 2001 blaze.

During the restoration, up to 100 workers at a time were crawling over the site. Yet the church stayed open (aside from a six-day closure after the fire). And visitors have been dazzled all along, despite the scaffolding and plywood partitions. As each chapel or bay was revealed, says Susan T. Rodriguez, the Polshek partner spearheading the cathedral work, "It's been breathtaking to see the rich variety of materials, put there by so many different architects, honoring a wide range of cultural traditions, re-emerging in all their glory."

There's still some roof work to complete, and circulation routes to improve at an 1843 former orphanage that adjoins the cathedral. Designed by Greek Revival pioneer Ithiel Town, the building houses the cathedral's community outreach programs, a nine-person homeless shelter and a textile-conservation lab that treats fabrics for museums and private collectors worldwide. "We want to preserve, conserve, secure and complete what we already have here, in our time and for our time," says Facey. "We're serving this generation, and creating a foundation for however the next generation wants to proceed. We're only 108 years old, which isn't much in the grand scheme of cathedral time." TB

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