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A Change of Plans

General View of Interior

Figure 13. "General View of Interior" from Mr. Ralph Adams Cram, Consulting Architect, "Design proposed for the completion of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York." American Architect 104, no. 1982 (December 1913), Plate Section. Compare figure 9.  

Looking across Nave

Figure 14. "Looking across Nave" from Cram, "Design proposed."

Ground Plan 1913

Figure 15. Ground plan from Cram, "Design proposed." Compare figure 6.

“(Nothing is as much like losing an architectural competition in New York as winning one.)”
Adam Gopnik[1]

George Lewis Heins died of meningitis on September 25, 1907 at the age of forty seven.[2] In 1911 the cathedral's Board of Trustees refrained from renewing any contract with La Farge. This non-renewal was legally allowable because their original contract, as Janet Adams Strong has pointed out, “allowed for the termination of architectural services upon the death of either partner.” In place of La Farge, the trustees appointed Ralph Adams Cram, a well-known practitioner of high Gothic style.[3]

Scholars have identified and explored a wide range of reasons why the Board of Trustees had become increasingly dissatisfied with the work of Heins and La Farge. Some of these reasons are practical. For example, the trustees felt that the newly famous architects were dividing their attention amongst too many projects and that progress on the cathedral was going too slowly.[4] Practical reasons such as these, however, would not account for why they would replace La Farge with an architect whose vision for the cathedral was radically different.

Andrew Dolkart has succinctly characterized the stylistic motives for the switch from La Farge to Cram. “By 1911," he writes, "Heins and La Farge’s Byzantine-inspired plan . . .  was hopelessly out of date.” Dolkart argues that the Episcopal Church, after the “brief interlude of stylistic diversity” during which that plan was chosen, had strongly reaffirmed its loyalty to Gothic style in building projects throughout the United States. The trustees’ actions, in Dolkart's view, were part of that larger reaffirmation.[5] They basically aimed to alter the stylistic direction of the cathedral in progress.

The depth of Cram’s preoccupation with the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is evident from his published writings. In his book Church Building (1901), Cram looks back on  the design competition and writes as follows:  “When the competition for the New York cathedral was held, we saw at once how blind were the gropings, both of the Church and of the architects. Practically, none of the designs submitted showed the least appreciation of the cathedral idea. . . . It was the chance of a century, and none came forward to seize upon it to the glory of the Church and to his own immortality.”[6]

Cram’s proposed designs for the completion of the cathedral were published in 1913 in American Architect. The first caption stated:

"This drawing and the five which follow have been prepared under the direction of the consulting architect and by the authority of the Trustees but have not yet received the official approval of that body. “[7]

Some of the stylistic departures evident in Cram's completion designs are simply characteristic of the distinctions between a Romanesque / Byzantine aesthetic and a Gothic one. The round arch had been used throughout Heins and La Farge's design. In Cram's designs it is confined to those portions of the cathedral that have already been built. For the nave, as yet unbuilt, Cram employs the pointed arch. Heins and La Farge had envisioned a complex scheme of decoration in different media: paintings, bas reliefs, mosaics, and stained glass. For decoration, Cram relies primarily on stained glass, as Gothic architects before him had done.

Above and beyond such predictable changes, however, is the fact that the entire experiential momentum of the cathedral has been transformed. Heins and La Farge had envisioned visitors being drawn into a meaningful progression towards the sanctuary:

 "...starting with the nave, all the levels lift as they go to the east; the transept arches are higher than those of the nave, the choir arch is higher yet, the levels of the choir arcade lift toward the sanctuary, and at the end of it all are placed the objects of largest scale of any element in the entire visible interior, the great granite columns enclosing the sanctuary. . ."[8]

In Cram’s completion designs, by  contrast, there is no such implicit progression. He has heightened and lengthened the nave substantially and thus diplaced the cathedral's original center of gravity. In the pilgrim's progress that Cram has envisioned for his cathedral, the wayfarer is not drawn irresistibly onwards towards the apse, where the sanctuary is, but is instead detained indefinitely in the nave, where the Gothic is (fig. 14).[9]



















[1] Adam Gopnik, "Stones and Bones," The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2014, 39.

[2] "George Lewis Heins Dead," New York Times, September 27, 1907.

[3] Strong 1:155. Strong provides a detailed account of the transition from La Farge to Cram, 1:151-163. On Cram’s significance as a Gothic Revival architect, see Peter W. Williams, "Cram, Ralph Adams," American National Biography Online Feb. 2000, accessed June 28, 2015, .

[4] On the division of Heins and La Farge's attention among varied commitments, see Strong, 1:145-146. For a wider range of causes for the Board of Trustees' dissatisfaction, see Strong, 1:134-163; and Dolkart, 57-59 .

[5] Dolkart, 59. See also Strong 1:151-163.

[6] Ralph Adams Cram, Church Building: A Study of the Principles of Architecture in their Relation to the Church (Boston, Small, Maynard & Company, 1901), 195-196. In his Preface (ix), Cram notes that “The greater portion of the contents of this book appeared originally in serial form in the columns of The Churchman.” For Cram’s harsh and repeated public critiques of Heins and La Farge’s design, see Strong, 1:139, 142.

[8] La Farge, “Cathedral,”  397-398. See also: Heins and La Farge, "Competitive Design," 875: "there is a gradual enlargement of the interior from the entrance toward the chancel, which is emphatically accentuated by a sudden increase in height."

[9] For Cram's own account of his work on the cathedral, see his My Life in Architecture (New York: Kraus Reprint Company, 1969), 167-184. Assessments of that work are quoted from in: Norval White, Elliot Wollensky, and Fran Leadon, AIA Guide to New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 494; and Dolkart, 68-69.