Located on Amsterdam Avenue at West 112th Street, in Morningside Heights, the still-unfinished Episcopal church was first designated by the LPC in 2003, but that vote was overturned by the City Council.
This time, the commission has worked with Council Member Mark Levine, as well the church’s dean, Rev. James Kowalski. Both were strong supporters of this designation, which includes not only the church itself, but also six other buildings on the grounds: the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum building, St. Faith’s House, the Choir School, Synod House, the Deanery and the Bishops House.
Whether St. John the Divine is the largest cathedral in the world is a subject of some debate in architectural circles. Regardless, construction of the 601-foot-long house of worship began in 1888, under a design by George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, better known simply as Heins and LaFarge. Following LaFarge’s death, their design was replaced with one by Ralph Adams Cram. Rafael Guastavino’s vaulted tile ceiling dome was built in 1909, and the church opened in 1941.
At the designation, Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said it was “meaningful and important” to designate the unfinished structure, because it recognizes not just what it was, but also what it will become. She added that it also shows the open-endedness of preservation.
Commissioner John Gustafsson said people who visit the church, both tourists and locals, usually think it’s already a landmark. He mentioned that he and his wife were married there and said he was “proud” to vote on its designation. Commissioner Diana Chapin noted that a memorial service for her husband’s grandmother was held there.
Commissioner Michael Devonshire jokingly asked whether future work on the church would be approved under a staff-level LPC permit, since not everything that happens to a landmark or in a historic district goes before the full commission. Some of it can be approved by LPC staff.
Commissioner Frederick Bland said it was a “terrific thing” that the church’s owner supports designation. “Don’t fear landmarking,” he said.
Commissioner Wellington Chen said St. John the Divine “transcends the ages.” “We forget that we live on this earth for such a short time,” he added. “This should have been landmarked long ago.”
“Preservation is not static,” said LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan of the unfinished structure’s designation. She thanked the cathedral for its open mindedness.
While this designation includes most of the campus, which is bound by West 110th Street (a.k.a. Cathedral Parkway), Amsterdam Avenue, West 113th Street, and Morningside Drive, it does not include three residential buildings. They are Avalon Morningside Park at 1 Morningside Drive, built in 2007, and Enclave at the Cathedral, the two-building complex north of the cathedral that was developed by the Brodsky Organization and completed in 2016.