How does anyone actually manage to see the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine? Nowadays, as often as not, those who enter the cathedral find themselves in the midst of one sort of art exhibition or another. However valuable or instructive such exhibitions may be, anyone seeking to experience the space as designed for worshippers by the cathedral’s architects will need to look beyond them.
For most of the years since 1911, when the choir and chapels were consecrated, visitors wishing to experience the cathedral have, in fact, been accustomed to looking beyond something. The question is: Which cathedral do you wish to see?
The photograph of the choir and chancel (fig. 1) is from 1911. It provides a dramatic sense of the vision of the original architects—George Lewis Heins and C. Grant La Farge. We see the round arches and decorated floors that were integral to the Romanesque / Byzantine interior they envisioned for the cathedral as a whole. The value of the 1911 photograph is that it defamiliarizes the choir and chancel. We see them for themselves, poised and full of promise, awaiting the completion of a cathedral that will be consonant with them.
Although most of what the photograph portrays remains intact today, many visitors to the cathedral may be more accustomed to viewing this Romanesque choir and chancel in a very different light--in diminished perspective at the end of the long Gothic nave that was later, incongruously, added on to them.
That long Gothic nave was the work of Ralph Adams Cram, the architect appointed in 1911 to succeed Heins and La Farge. While Cram was entrusted with the task of completing the cathedral, one might argue that he, in fact, essentially initiated a new unfinished cathedral, one that simply happens to be contiguous with the old one. Cram’s unfinished cathedral shows little regard for the styles, harmonies, and proportions established and envisioned by the architects who preceded him.
My effort here will be to excavate and revive the earliest of the two unfinished cathedrals that inhabit the building known as Saint John the Divine. I will aim to enhance our ability to appreciate, as a quasi-independent entity, the cathedral envisioned by Heins and La Farge. To this end, I will take into consideration the texts, drawings, and built structures in which that vision was embodied, along with contemporary responses to these.
 Janet Adams Strong has convincingly claimed that Cram “would do all in his power to purge St. John’s of every trace of its Romanesque beginnings.” See: Janet Adams Strong, "The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York: Design Competitions in the Shadow of H. H. Richardson, 1889-1891. (Volumes I-III)." Order No. 9101841, Brown University, 1990. http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/docview/303803135?accountid=10226, 1:1. Strong's dissertation provides the most thorough analysis available of the cathedral's early architectural history.