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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Morning Side Park

Figure 16. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Morning Side Park. From Seymour B. Durst Old York Library. New York, NY : Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

La Farge closes his 1907 Scribner's article as follows: "When the Cathedral of St. John the Divine shall stand a completed monument of our time let the mature judgment of an enlightened people say whether the long effort of its architects has produced an assemblage of unrelated parts or the logical expression of a coherent idea."[1] That statement is now fraught with poignancy. First, because the cathedral has never stood as "a completed monument"; but secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because such completion work as was done after 1911 left little chance that anyone would ever be likely to regard the cathedral as "the logical expression of a coherent idea."

The vision of Heins and La Farge was never fully embodied and thus can never be fully recovered. Drawings and design plans are legitimate expressions of one stage of intentionality. But intentions are invariably modified as architects and builders work together with materials and confront the challenges that they present. The application of Heins and La Farge's design sense to the problems presented by the cathedral was only allowed to evolve to a certain point.

There remains, of course, the cathedral itself. It is certainly possible to overlook the contentious and untidy history of this cathedral and to find beauty and inspiration in the end result. Many people have done so. It is also possible to find coherence and harmony where architects did not deliberately plan for it, or to develop an aesthetic that attributes distinctive value to the incoherent and the unharmonious.

All of the above creative approaches seem to be adopted in a rhapsodic tribute to this cathedral that Madeleine L’Engle attributes to a fictional retired bishop in her novel A Severed Wasp.  “I’ve never known a cathedral more beautiful  than St. John the Divine," he proclaims, "and I’ve preached and visited in many. The fact that the building started out Romanesque and got changed to Gothic in midstream doesn’t matter. Somehow the mishmash of architecture works.”[2]

Many may be moved to take such views as their creed regarding this cathedral. I, however, prefer to take a more wistful and less rhapsodic view, one that has already been well expressed by John La Farge, the brother of C. Grant La Farge. He concludes his discussion of the cathedral as follows:

“I am not an architect and am a poor judge of such matters, but yet I cannot help feeling that one day some may wonder whether it would not have been a greater contribution to the beauty of New York City if the original purely creative plan had been carried out.”[3]




[1] La Farge, “Cathedral,” 401.

[2] Madeleine L'Engle. A Severed Wasp (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982), 3.

[3] John La Farge, S.J. The Manner is Ordinary (Harcourt, Brace and Company: New York, 1954), 391.