Photo: Helena Kubicka de Bragança

The Cathedral, The Concrete

In a city of skyscrapers, the Cathedral impresses with sheer size. Its detailed façade towers over Amsterdam Avenue, and the building extends a full avenue block to Morningside Drive. The Cathedral is more than 120 years old, and remains unfinished. Despite incomplete construction, it is the largest cathedral in the world, making it a global landmark. The Cathedral’s distinctive architecture is an equal claim to fame, and an important monument in the history of its neighborhood and city.

The Cathedral was constructed in roughly three phases, proceeding from east to west.

First Phase: Heins & LaFarge
The initial architects of the Cathedral, George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, envisioned a Romanesque-Byzantine style structure, visible today in the Crossing, Apse, and chapels. The seven apsidal chapels were a winning element of their design: in a nod to the turning tides of American immigration at the turn of the century, each chapel was built in a different national style and named for saints of different national origins. The chapels are also arranged geographically, with the Spanish-inflected Chapel of Saint James on the south side, proceeding through Italian, French, Eastern Mediterranean, British, and German chapels to the Scandinavian style Chapel of Saint Ansgar on the north side.

Other key Romanesque features of Heins & LaFarge’s design are the solid granite columns, which surround the High Altar, as well as the tiled barrel-vault ceilings. The Cathedral’s crossing, where Sunday services are typically held, provides an excellent view of the titanic granite arches that support the building, which elsewhere are covered by a layer of decorative limestone. The dome over the crossing, which could fit the Statue of Liberty underneath, is made of Guastavino tile, and was installed as a temporary covering. The dome was meant to be removed when the transepts (north and south aisles) of the Cathedral were built, but as yet only half of the north transept is constructed.

Second Phase: Ralph Adams Cram
The Nave of the Cathedral is a triumph of neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival architecture, the favorite of its designer, Ralph Adams Cram. Gothic architecture began in France and flourished throughout Europe in the 12th to 16th centuries. It experienced a revival in the late 19th century, in Britain and then in the United States, and Cram seized upon this new popularity in his design. The Nave shows the characteristic ribbed vaulting and pointed arches of Gothic architecture, as well as flying buttresses and the sublime stained glass windows. Like the Crossing, the Nave has a granite substructure, which above ground is faced with limestone.

Cram insisted on adhering closely to the tradition of Gothic buildings. For this reason, the Cathedral has no steel or iron skeleton, and the stained glass windows are “true” stained glass, or pot-glass, made of sand and metal ash, which has been shaped and assembled according to medieval techniques. The window imagery is deliberately medieval in style and composition, but the figures are the contemporaries of art deco, modern, and even postmodern art. (Most of the windows were designed in the 1920s, but fabrication and installation lasted into the 1950s.)

The Great Rose Window holds pride of place on the western wall of the Cathedral. At forty feet in diameter, it is the third largest rose window in the world and is made of over ten thousand pieces of glass. At its center is Jesus, surrounded by New and Old Testament prophets, as well as sixteen angels. Below it is the Lesser Rose Window, shaped like a seven-pointed star. At its center is the Christogram (iota-eta-sigma).

The full length of the Cathedral—at a record-breaking 601 feet—was completed and consecrated on November 30, 1941. One week later, the attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. The subsequent economic and human mobilization brought construction to a sudden halt.

Third Phase: Bell Towers and Restoration
The newest parts of the Cathedral include the south bell tower and the carvings around its center portal. These were constructed by stonemasons trained in the Cathedral’s own Stoneyard, which opened in 1979 to teach and employ neighborhood residents. Due to a lack of American master stonemasons, the Stoneyard apprentices were taught by English masons.

The bell tower rose according to Cram’s design beginning in 1982, but funds petered out by the early 1990s. As a result, the tower cuts off “in mid-sentence,” at about two-thirds of its intended height. The newer stone makes a strong contrast with the more weather worn parts of the West Front.

The Portal of Paradise, as the Cathedral’s central portal is called, was completed by master stonecarver Simon Verity between 1988 and 1997. The figures of the Portal reflect a modern sensibility in their proportions and features. At the same time, the smaller three-foot figures have been painted (polychromed), a practice for decorating sculpture that goes back to ancient Greece. The frieze over the Portal doors shows Jesus, and below him is John the Divine with paper and quill. Flanking the doors are Old and New Testament figures. Under their feet are some of the most striking examples of the Cathedral’s modern stonework. In keeping with the Italian Renaissance tradition of depicting biblical scenes in modern settings, the sections below these figures show visions of destruction, with NYC skyscrapers collapsing beneath the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. But beneath these scenes is another: that of resurrection, as stonemasons build a great cathedral upon the ashes of the city, just as Nehmiah built the Second Temple upon the ruins of Solomon’s temple.

In keeping with medieval tradition, the Portal of Paradise figures are based on a variety of models, including neighborhood business owners and Verity’s own friends.

In December 2001, a fire destroyed the Cathedral’s gift shop, located in the partially constructed North Transept, and filled the Nave with smoke. The Cathedral was closed in sections between 2004 and 2008, for a complete cleaning and restoration of the interior. Several of the arches crossing the nave retain their darkened color from before the fire.