December 08, 2016 by: Ben Heimsath

When I attended Columbia in the early 1980’s, work had just started on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine after decades of inactivity. We referred to our neighbor in Morningside Heights as St. John the Unfinished. The church has been a work in progress since its cornerstone was laid on December 27, 1892 and continues to this day. The Cathedral, however, is not a designated New York City Historic Landmark. According to a report on the New York YIMBY stie, it may be soon.


From its earliest conception, plans for a great cathedral in New York City were intentionally grand. The Episcopal Diocese of New York purchased an 11.5-acre site on a dramatic promontory adjacent to Morningside Park. At 601 feet in length, it is longer than two football fields. The ceiling soars 124 feet above the nave. The structure is billed as the largest Anglican Cathedral in the world.


Ceremony for the dedication of the Choir area in 1911

The original Byzantine-Romanesque design was selected through a competition of some of the most prominent architects of the day. In the ensuing years there were many stops and starts, and even a complete architectural update to reflect a more stylish Gothic design. The interior section of the Choir was dedicated in 1911, the nave consecrated in 1941. Though the property was nominated for historic designation three times, in 1966, 1979, and again in 2002, final action was blocked by the Council. Disagreements about how much of the original 11.5 acre site to include in the designation scuttled any final approval.


Without the designation, two major residential projects were undertaken by the Episcopal Diocese. A controversial luxury housing development, the Avalon Morningside Park opened in 2008. Standing adjacent to the church on Amsterdam Ave, the new Enclave at the Cathedral is nearly finished and will open soon. At a recent public hearing, neighbors, civic leaders, and others spoke in support of the designation of the church and the rest of the remaining site, even as they lamented the recent intrusions to the historic property. A final vote will be scheduled soon, but the prognosis is pretty positive. As Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Meenakshi Srinivasan noted, the church is “incredibly important” and the designation will “establish the right setting for its protection.”

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY

Worship Space/ Historic Preservation