The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine was a product of the Episcopalian Diocese's aspirations for the revival of urban life through the construction of a new institutional "Acropolis" atop Morningside Heights. The Episcopalian church also built the cathedral to compete with the city's Catholic constituency and their recently built St. Patrick's Cathedral. Still unfinished today, the project was initiated by Bishop Henry Codman Potter in 1872. In 1887 the congregation acquired a difficult site on the promontory at 112th Street, chosen for its prominence and view. Early debates over the building's style led to a competition in 1988 that was won by the young firm of Heins and Lafarge. Beginning in a Byzantine/Romanesque style at the Eastern choir end of the Cathedral, the architects shifted towards a more traditionally Episcopalian style, the English Gothic, during its construction. This stylistic variety, further complicated by the French Gothic mode of Cram and Ferguson's later work on the nave and Western facade, is similar to that found in Medieval churches. It endows the Cathedral with a sense of authenticity although it is a modern structure.

The building rests on a Guastavino vaulted crypt. Inside, 100-foot composite piers support the ribbed groin vaults of the 600-foot long nave and side aisles. Built without the support of a steel frame, this structure is the largest load-bearing wall cathedral in the world. Heins and Lafarge's work meets Cram and Fergusons portion at the unfinished Guastavino vaulted crossing, whose southern transept is the Greek Revival shell of the 1840 Leake and Watts Orphanage.

Suspended during World War II, construction recommenced on the unfinished Cathedral in 1979 under the supervision of the British stonemason James Bambridge. In keeping with the Cathedral's contemporary role as a social institution, the work took the form of a community development project. Local residents, trained in the traditional art of the masonry, became highly skilled artisans who could apply their specialized knowledge to work on the Cathedral, or on other buildings in the city. It is estimated that work on the Cathedral will take another one hundred years.


Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, Heins and LaFarge [1892-1911]; Cram and Ferguson, Carrere and Hastings, Thomas Nash and Henry Vaughn [1911-1942]; James Bambridge [1979-present]