St. John the Divine

St. John the Divine is the oldest building in Morningside Heights and one of the largest churches in the world. The cathedral was never completed. They have the largest rose window in the United States. Originally, the cathedral was supposed to be designed in a Byzantine – Romanesque Revival style but was changed in 1909 to Gothic Revival. It was designed in 1888 and work began in 1892, it’s design has gone through a lot of changes and construction was interrupted in WWI & WWII. They are often referred to as St John the Unfinished due to its ongoing construction work and renovations.


Untapped Cities, one of my favorite sites, has a piece written about the cathedral never being finished. 

On the grounds outside in the garden you may find 3 resident peacocks: Phil, Jim and Harry. They’ve had peacocks since the 1980s when the Bronx Zoo donated chicks. You can read about the current bird residents here. The signs that say “clean up after your dog” made me crack up.

The place is massive and I realized we don’t have a good picture of the outside. For me, St John’s seems a little bit odd at first, it always seems too short like it should be taller and have a spire. That’s because it was suppose to have a spire.


This is a recent picture from a snowy day in January 2017. The tour photos were taken in fall a couple years ago.

The Episcopal Bishop Henry Codman Potter of New York wanted  a cathedral to rival St. Patrick’s which is Catholic. In 1891 a deed was bought for St. John’s, the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum use to stand there. George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge was the New York architecture firm that won the open competition for design. They are known for designing the details and architecture for IRT, Interborough Rapid Transit company, the first New York City subway system.


The foundations were very expensive to work on because bedrock was 72 feet under the ground. The eight 50 feet columns weighing 130 tons each are from Vinalhaven, Maine. They were floated to New York on a specially constructed barge tugged by Clara Clarita.


A lot of the carved statues you see were done by the Ardolino Brothers from Torre du Nocelli, Italy and designed by British sculptor John Angel. The large central dome  was completed in 1909 and made of Guastavino tile. The Byzantine – Romanesque design was changed in 1909 to Gothic style. Some trustees wanted a more Gothic than Byzantine – Romanesque look. Heins died in 1907 and eventually the trustees dismissed his partner LaFarge and hired Gothic Revival architect Ralph Adams Cram to design and make the building Gothic.

November 30, 1941, the cathedral was opened end to end. Prior to this they held services in certain areas but it was never fully opened. Construction stopped in 1941 because the bishop felt that the money would be better for charity during WWII and there was limited manpower since people were headed to war. Cram was going to dismantle the dome and build a massive Gothic tower in its place but those plans never came to be. The cathedral you see today is a mix of architectural styles: Gothic, Norman and Byzantine styles.


Over the years they’ve tried finishing the cathedral but plans never quite worked out that way. Personally, I like the fact that it’s not finished. It’s kind of cool being able to see the inside of the walls and the building will always hold a mystery for me.


The darker stone you see is the unfinished parts of the building. It looks different from the completed areas.

You can read in depth about St John here.


Unfinished part on the outside of the building. You can see the difference in the stone.

The Great Organ was built in 1911 (dates vary on-line about when) by Ernest M. Skinner. It’s the largest of 5 organs in the complex. In 2001 there was a fire that badly damaged parts of the cathedral. 200 firefighters fought to put out the fire. It took 7 years to restore and repair the church to it former self.


I can’t remember which organ this is. All we remember is it’s 1 of 5 organs.

St John holds concerts, tours, and mass. Their doors are open to all. They offer interfaith and same sex marriages. Inside, one of the things you will see is a triptych altarpiece by Keith Haring, artist and activist. Guess we forgot to take a pic of Haring triptych, didn’t see one in our files. Here’s a pic of it on St. John’s site.

We went on the vertical tour which takes you all the way to the roof. We enjoyed the tour. The pathways get narrow at times so I can’t imagine going on the tour in winter with a puffy jacket. Seeing the insides of the cathedral satisfied our curiosity bug. It’s not everyday you get to experience things like that.


Seeing the many layers from bottom to top was very interesting. This is one of our favorites tours in NY.

1 block away is our favorite soul food place: Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too. The fried chicken is so good, so juicy. We no longer have to fly to Charleston, Savannah or take the bus to Philly when we are craving for fried chicken. It reminds our Alabama friend of the food she misses back home. Get the peach cobbler too.



7 thoughts on “St. John the Divine

  1. Love St. John the Divine and that neighborhood. We took the tour and they told us that it was the largest Cathedral in the world (St. Peters in Rome is a Basilica, so it doesn’t count!). Thanks for sharing!

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