St. John the Divine

“We live in a half-made world. So it ever has been since the Tower of Babel was left uncompleted, and so it will be, no doubt, to the end of time. In our hurry to begin things we forget to finish them, and all over the world to-day the Great Unfinished stares us in the face—some big things waiting its completion.”
The Half-Made World

We have covered many plans for New York City that never left the drawing board in our weekly series, The NYC That Never Was. Here, we turn out attention to a building that was left unfinished. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine one of the largest churches in the world, is an incomplete masterpiece. A Guide to the Cathedral from 1921 posited that it might take 700 years for the Cathedral to be completed, since it was employing true Gothic building methods (unlike Riverside Church for example which was constructed utilizing a steel frame) and unlike its Gothic predecessors, was not being bankrolled by a wealthy monarch.

Photo from New York Public Library

The Rev. Horatio Potter (Bishop of New York) dreamt up this vast undertaking in 1872 which was championed by his nephew and successor Bishop Henry Codman Potter. They purchased the estate of the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum on October 31, 1891 (for $850,000) and the first service was held on the grounds on January 1, 1892. Initially, things moved along very smoothly. The cornerstone was laid on the eponymous saint’s day December 27, 1892, the first service was held in its Crypt on January 8, 1899, the first service was held in the Choir and Cross in 1911, and ground was broken for the Nave in 1916.

George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LeFarge, most well known for their work on the New York City subway system, won the Cathedral’s design competition in 1888. Their design presented a Romanesque and Byzantine cruciform structure surmounted by a towering conical spire. Until their spire could be completed a temporary dome constructed of Guastavino tiles was put in place. This “temporary” ceiling has been in place for over a century.

Photo from New York Public Library

In 1907, George Lewis Heins passed away. This event, coupled with increasing friction between the architectural firm and the Cathedral, led to their dismissal. The Bostonian architect, Ralph Adams Cram was hired in their place. While stuck with what already had been constructed, he redesigned those areas of the Cathedral not yet built adding Gothic flares including the unbuilt spire.

Construction of the Cathedral continued through the First World War and the Depression but proved no match for the WWII. For 32 years after no construction occurred. These days, restoration work has been ongoing, though no new construction has occurred in years.

According to the Church’s website, a frequently asked question is “When will the Cathedral be finished?” The Cathedral’s response — “Although no new construction is planned for the immediate future, efforts have been underway to preserve the Cathedral and its auxiliary buildings for the enjoyment of New Yorkers and visitors from around the world for the centuries to come.”

See more from our NYC That Never Was series