A log about land use and transportation that is updated . . . from time to time
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St. Patrick's Cathedral

Chronology of Events

  • 1843 – Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum (housed in a Greek revival building designed by Ithiel Town) is built on what would become the cathedral's grounds.
  • 1888 – Bishop Henry Codman Potter holds a competition for architects to design a cathedral, which is won by Heins & La Farge.
  • 1891 – Bishop Potter buys the cathedral's site from the asylum.
  • 1892 – Cathedral's cornerstone laid. Heins & La Farge, who worked in Byzantine and Romanesque traditions, design the Cathedral's apse, choir and crossing.
  • 1911 – The Cathedral trustees hire Ralph Adams Cram, an advocate of Gothic architecture, to finish the design. He is also responsible, among other things, for designing Christ Church, at Park and 60th, and for redesigning St. James Episcopal Church, at Madison and 71st.
  • Nov. 30, 1941 – The cathedral, unfinished, is dedicated.
  • Dec. 5, 1941 – The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. The cathedral halts construction.
  • 1979 – Construction resumes under Bishop Paul Moore Jr. and Dean James Parks Morton, who bring in James Bambridge, a British mason, to train a cadre of New York City youth in the art of stone cutting.
  • Dec. 18, 2001 – A fire damages the cathedral's north transept and destroys its financially essential gift shop.
  • Dec. 24, 2001 – The cathedral reopens in time for a Christmas Eve service.
  • Oct. 31, 2002 – The New York Times publishes an article announcing that the cathedral had requested expressions of interest in developing on two sites on the cathedral grounds, that two commercial concerns and Columbia University had responded, and that the Cathedral had agreed to negotiate exclusively with Columbia for nine months.
  • Nov. 12, 2002 – The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission holds a hearing on landmarking the Cathedral. C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan Borough President, says she supports landmarking the entire grounds.
  • Late November or early December 2002 – Ms. Fields meets with the cathedral leadership to discuss landmarks designation.
  • Dec. 13, 2002 – Ms. Fields faxes a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission's chairwoman, saying that she supports landmarking only the cathedral itself, which would allow development on the grounds.
  • June 17, 2003 – The Landmarks Preservation Commission approves a landmark designation for just the cathedral.
  • June 27, 2003 – The Times publishes a story describing the building envelopes for the two sites. Buildings would be able to have 700,000 square feet of volume, far less space that the zoning potential for the whole site. Height limits were set at 200 feet for the southeast site and 146 feet for the north site.
  • July 30, 2003 – The Times publishes a front-page article announcing Columbia's proposal to expand in Manhattanville.
  • Sept. 23, 2003 – Neighborhood preservation advocates learn at a contentious City Council landmarks subcommittee meeting that Ms. Fields, whom they had regarded as an ally for nine months, had changed her position. They cry foul at not having been informed earlier, though a spokeswoman says Ms. Fields' position has always been a matter of public record.
  • Oct. 23, 2003 – A cathedral spokesman reminds The Daily News that if the designation is rejected, the cathedral can still built on the grounds, and actually build larger buildings.
  • Oct. 24, 2003 – The City Council votes 45 to 0 (with 6 not voting or excused) to reject landmarking just the cathedral after Bill Perkins, a Democrat whose district includes the cathedral, argued against it. It is only the third time that the council has rejected a ruling by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The council had hastily rescheduled that vote after learning that a 120-day grace period was set to expire that day and failure to act would ratify the commission's ruling by default.
  • Oct. 30, 2003 – Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoes the City Council's denial of landmark status to the cathedral. He makes the veto public on Nov. 5.
  • Nov. 6, 2003 – The City Council overrides the mayor's veto.
  • January 21, 2004 – The Daily News publishes a report announcing that the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee has started a petition drive to urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the grounds.

    Articles Cited
    Bagli, Charles V. "Columbia, in a Growth Spurt, Is Buying a Swath of Harlem." The New York Times. 30 July 2003. pp. A1, B6.

    Brozan, Nadine. "Sacred Spaces But Earthly Challenges." The New York Times. 25 April 2004. Real Estate, pp. 1, 6.

    Croghan, Lore. "Columbia Battle Developing." The Daily News. 21 Jan. 2004. p. 52.

    Dunlap, David W. "Big Buildings Planned on Grounds of St. John the Divine." The New York Times. 27 June 2003. pp. B1, B3.

    Dunlap, David W. "Columbia in Talks to Built at St. John." The New York Times. 31 Oct. 2002. p. B3.

    Dunlap, David W. "Landmark? Just Wait Till It's Done." The New York Times. 17 June 2003. pp. B1, B4.

    Gassman, Brandt. "Community Boards: C. Virginia Fields Modifies Stance on St. John the Divine Landmarking." The New York Observer. 13 Oct. 2003. p. 10.

    Hu, Winnie. "No Landmark Status for St. John the Divine." The New York Times. 25 Oct. 2003. p. B4.

    Lee, Denny. "Council Threatening to Block Cathedral's Landmark Status." The New York Times. 23 Oct. 2003. p. B3

    Lee, Denny. "On the Heights, a Chill Wind Begins to Blow." The New York Times. 14 Sept. 2003. The City, pp. 1, 15.

    Lind, Diana. "St. John the Divine May Lease Nearby Land." Architectural Record. Sept. 2003. p. 54.

    Lombardi, Frank. "The Devil's in the Details: Church Landmark Vote Put Off." The Daily News. 24 Sept. 2003. Suburban, p. 1.

    Lombardi, Frank. "Don't Landmark Cathedral, Says Pol." The Daily News. 23 Oct. 2003. p. 29.

    Lombardi, Frank. "A Landmark Battle: Mayor vs. Council on Church Status." The Daily News. 6 Nov. 2003. Suburban, p. 1

    Mindlin, Alex. "St. John the Unfinished Becomes St. John the Downsized." The New York Times. 24 Oct. 2004. The City, p. 6.

  • Preserving Parking Lots as a Cathedral Decays

    Image taken from "Visions of New York City," produced by WLIW
    Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
    Unlike St. Patrick's Cathedral, which stands shoulder to shoulder with Midtown office towers and has steps that teem with shoppers at rest and visitors pausing to revel in Fifth Avenue's excitement, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine stands alone in Morningside Heights, weathered, morose and unfinished. Much of St. John the Divine's grounds are walled off and inaccessible behind barbed-wire fences and parking lots that separate it from New York's vibrant street life. Parts of the grounds and the building are clearly in need of repair. Scaffolding encloses the cathedral's south tower, but workers seldom appear there.

    St. John the Divine's trustees recently tried to allow the construction of two buildings on its grounds that not only would have paid for a restoration of this aging architectural treasure, but would have enlivened the street life around the cathedral, replaced ugly fences and parking lots and reinforced the neighborhood fabric. Unfortunately, well-meaning neighbors, driven by a knee-jerk reaction to save any piece of open space no matter how unremarkable or unnecessary, temporarily stopped the cathedral from allowing development to occur on the grounds and are organizing a petition drive to permanently ban development on these two underused sites. Refreshingly, a larger group of Morningside Heights residents has organized their own petition drive to alert elected officials to the fact that sensible development on the cathedral grounds would improve the land and cathedral at the same time.

    A Retaining Wall on 110th Street Goes Unrepaired
    Perhaps the anti-development neighbors do not understand how grave the cathedral's financial problems are. The cathedral is running an annual operating deficit of $1 million. "We have fewer clergy than we used to have, we have fewer guest speakers than we used to have, we have fewer choir members than we used to have," Marsha Ra, a member of the vestry, told The New York Times in October 2004. Physical reminders of that deficit abound. On 110th Street, the stone retaining wall that is supposed to keep earth from spilling onto the sidewalk has given way, causing a riot of stones to clutter the path. Lacking money to fix the spill, the cathedral has instead built a plywood enclosure around it. In the spring of 2004 I attended a meeting at a small building on the grounds called the Synod House. Carpenter ants patrolled the floor, silently but steadily undermining the building's foundation.

    But if the cathedral appears to be a dreary, forgotten place, it sits in good company. During the day, the streets along the cathedral's north and east sides are populated chiefly by people entering or leaving Morningside Park or St. Luke's Hospital, dog walkers, joggers and people walking to their cars. At night, there is a sinister air about the area. The chain link fence and barbed wire ominously hug the rear of the cathedral, silently protecting it from the potential mischief that is invited by the dark and little used area. Other signs of neglect can be found on these streets, including those shimmery kernels of shattered glass that indicate broken car windows, and a sign that proclaims "AREA PROTECTED BY MORNINGSIDE AREA ALLIANCE RADIO CARS AND FOOT PATROL." A security squad is paid to patrol this area because there's nothing there to attract people, who, in going about their daily business, would protect the area far better and at no cost. Buildings in this area would provide light and life to these streets, bringing safety with them.

    One could imagine that in Manhattan, people would accept new buildings and even welcome them as the thing that makes their place in the world different from the low-density sprawl that stretches throughout the rest of the nation. But in Morningside Heights, neighborhood residents quickly mobilized to fight to preserve what they argue is much needed urban open space, though the land in question behind those barbed-wire fences is occupied by parking lots, a security guard's tower, a tangled knot of trees and two large and unsightly aluminum stonecutter's sheds.

    Maps created with the New York City Map Portal
    St. John the Divine & Environs: Building Sites
    Are at Southeast Corner of the Grounds
    and Along 113th Street
    The Many Buildings That Surround St. Patrick's Cathedral Fail to Ruin Its Setting.
    In Fact, They Enhance It.

    In 2002, Robert E. Roistacher of the Morningside Heights Residents’ Association, a group that opposes the buildings, told The New York Times, "The cathedral has been an environmental sanctuary in so many ways. I think it's incredibly regrettable that we lose any open space there." Parking lots an environmental sanctuary? Hardly.
    Morningside Park Near 113th Street
    Is the area around St. John the Divine indeed starved for open space? Not in the slightest. The vast acres of Central Park, the nation's premier urban open space, begin to unfold just two blocks to the east. Two blocks to the west lies Riverside Park, the 267-acre green ribbon on the Hudson. But most importantly, the 30-acre Morningside Park, with its pleasant footpaths, picturesque rocky slope and pond, and multiple baseball fields, is across the street.

    They also argued that views of the cathedral would be obstructed by the new buildings, which would have risen along 113th Street and at the corner of Morningside Drive and 110th Street. But the view corridors that matter, to the east and west along 112th Street and from the southwest by those traveling north on Amsterdam Avenue, would not be affected by the buildings. Two lesser view corridors indeed would be affected. The hospital rooms that now look out over a parking lot and the cathedral's weathered north side would see instead a new, well used residential or institutional building no more than 146 feet high. People standing at the southeast corner of Columbus Avenue and 110th Street who now see a forbidding thicket of trees (but only glimpses of the cathedral) would lose that wonderous view. These seem like small prices to pay for a greatly improved, financially secure cathedral building, but it seems the neighborhood activists would prefer to preserve the cathedral right out of existence.

    A Forbidding Thicket Behind a Tall Barbed Wire Fence
    Occupies a Potential Building Site at 110th Street
    The politics behind the recent friction began in late 2002, when the cathedral announced it was in talks with nearby Columbia University that would have allowed the university to build on the two sites. Columbia, always eager to expand, regularly demonstrates its desperation for space by computing the amount of square footage of space per student and comparing it to similar figures for Princeton, Yale and Harvard. Officials were thrilled about the chance to build at St. John the Divine. "Such a beautiful setting so close to our campus is enormously attractive," a spokeswoman, Emily Lloyd, told The Times. If Columbia's growth is largely inevitable, how is it best channeled? Henry L. King, the president of the cathedral's trustees, noted that building on empty land had certain benefits: "Unlike a lot of other projects, this doesn’t require the tearing down of buildings or the displacement of people." Mr. Roistacher of the Morningside Heights Residents' Association acknowledged that if Columbia "doesn't get its space needs met on that site it will have to go someplace else." That is precisely what happened.

    Building Site at West 113th Street:
    Parking for SUVs & Bikes
    On June 17, 2003, when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a measure that would have granted landmark status to the cathedral, but not its grounds, thereby allowing Columbia's development to occur on those two sites. C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan Borough President, who as late as November 2002 had opposed this landmark designation, had properly changed her mind and supported it by the time this vote was taken. The neighborhood groups, enraged by Ms. Field’s change of heart, took their campaign to the next level. After concerted lobbying, City Councilman Bill Perkins, a Democrat whose district includes the cathedral, spoke in favor of designating the entire grounds as a landmark. After his remarks, the City Council voted to overturn the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision on Oct. 24, 2003, by a vote of 45-0, with 6 members not voting or excused. It was only the third time that such a vote had ever happened. To his credit, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed the City Council’s ruling six days later. Unfortunately, the City Council overrode his veto a week later.

    Promptly after the City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg's veto, Columbia abandoned its hope of building on the cathedral grounds for fear of damaging its relationship with the City Council. Meanwhile, it began a more earnest pursuit of an expansion plan that will have more serious negative consequences for a great many more people. In July 2003, Columbia made public its intention to expand to a swath of 17 acres between West 132nd Street and Tiemann Place, west of Broadway. The Manhattanville Area Consortium, which is comprised of businesses facing eviction, and the Coalition to Preserve Community, made up of local residents, have mobilized to fight this expansion. The Coalition fears the sundering of an existing neighborhood and the displacement of blacks and Hispanics to make way for a bigger Columbia. "This is going to be a much greater magnet for gentrification throughout the western and central areas of Harlem," Neil Smith, New York's resident expert on gentrification, told The Times. A large neighborhood uprooted, low-income residents forced to find shelter elsewhere, long-standing businesses forced to move, all while two perfectly good development sites go unused.

    Generally, community activists, who have often gathered much sustenance from Jane Jacobs enormously influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, are often responsible for tremendous improvements to the city's landscape. But the neighbors around Columbia seem to have ignored her most important ideas. Their actions have left us with the 400 block of West 113th Street, where ambulances idling outside the emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital are often the only signs of life. This type of desolate street scene is exactly what Jane Jacobs was hoping to eliminate when she described three qualities that make a successful city street:

    First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in the suburban settings or in projects.

    Dreary Lower Morningside Drive
    Morningside Drive between 110th and 113th Streets provides precisely that type of area where public and private spaces "ooze into each other." Toward the east is Morningside Park, where poplar trees shade verdant meadows that slope down toward two baseball fields. To the west, the back of the cathedral's grounds are kind of like a park as well: They're filled with trees and grass and large empty spaces where no buildings stand. The chain link fence makes it seem off limits, but whatever this space is, it seems more like park than city. Buildings standing on the grounds would help to clearly demarcate which land is park and which is city, and would frame Morningside Park the way that Fifth Avenue's wall of apartment buildings helps to frame Central Park, alerting people that the park is a special place.

    Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

    The front of St. John the Divine faces Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street. The cathedral turns its back on the rest of the streets nearby, and the few other small buildings on the cathedral grounds fail to enliven the surrounding streets. If a residential building were built on its site, windows would be lit in the evenings where now there is only darkness. People would be coming and going from the lobby. Even an institutional building, say one used for classrooms, would have light streaming from its lobby, and a doorman to watch over the area.

    And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers.

    The cathedral is used most intensively on Sundays. Residential buildings would be busy in the evenings, and or institutional buildings would be used during the work week, either of which would compliment the cathedral's use schedule. All of this would give this part of the city a more robust version of that "intricate sidewalk ballet" that Jacobs found in successful streets. It would give the area a sense of urbanism that it is lacking now. Strangers passing on the sidewalk, friends recognizing one another, people brought onto the sidewalk at different times for different reasons, yet sharing the same space. This is perhaps the greatest feature of urban life.

    St. Patrick's Cathedral
    Through the accidents of its history, St. John the Divine has put itself at arms length from the rest of the city. But one need not travel far to see a cathedral that welcomes New York's embrace. Walk past St. Patrick's Cathedral on most afternoons and you will notice people stopped and sitting on the cathedral steps, talking, resting, observing the passers-by and occasionally taking in the intricate beauty of James Renwick's Gothic marvel. Because of the numerous adjacent offices and stores, the sidewalks around St. Patrick's are filled with pedestrians for most of the day. Those who worship there rub shoulders with the many shoppers, office workers and visitors going about their business outside. Sometimes the worshippers are the shoppers, office workers and visitors. So when they pass around the hat at St. Patrick's, they receive donations from so many more people than if the cathedral were in a remote location.

    Far from ruining its setting, the many large buildings around St. Patrick's contribute to its ongoing financial health. But St. John the Divine would benefit even more than St. Patrick's does because St. John the Divine would receive direct financial aid, not just the contributions that come from visitors. St. John the Divine pursued its deal with Columbia because it wanted direct financing to help it shore up its struggling accounts. The money Columbia would have paid to the cathedral would have allowed the cathedral to finally embark on years of deferred maintenance. But perhaps the indirect financial benefit to having more people around the cathedral would be more important in the long run. If some of the people drawn to the area by the new buildings — and the general milieu of activity they would help to create — would be encouraged to give money to the cathedral's maintenance and construction or even join the congregation it could help lead to a larger, healthier congregation. Perhaps more tourists would give money as well if they saw a neighborhood with a more relevant, less forbidding cathedral. Maintenance no longer a problem, donations increasing and rolls of parishioners growing, congregants once again would talk about continuing to build what could become not just a magnificent architectural gem in Upper Manhattan, but a marvel of the world.
    St. John the Divine
    First published Jan. 9, 2005. Last updated, Feb. 13, 2005.