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Why NYC's Most Magnificent Cathedral Is Not Landmarked

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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, ranks as one of the most impressive cathedrals not just in New York City, but in the world. The elaborate facade towers over Amsterdam Avenue and the building extends a full avenue block down to Morningside Drive. The interior is distinguished by Gothic and Romanesque details, with a massive central dome made of Guastavino tile and 45-foot-tall stained glass windows. It also holds the Guinness Book of World Records' title of 'Largest Cathedral in the World.' The St. John the Divine website sums up its importance: "The Cathedral is more than 120 years old, and remains unfinished. Despite incomplete construction, it is the largest cathedral in the world, making it a global landmark."

Problem is, this building is not a designated New York City landmark. That means that New York's most significant cathedral—deemed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as "one of the great religious structures of the world"—isn't protected by the city at all. It's not for lack of trying, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the cathedral in 2002, but the decision was overturned by the City Council in a greater attempt to landmark the entire, nearly 12-acre site. An inability to do that, however, left the cathedral unprotected and the grounds open for development, hence the two rental towers under construction right next door.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine began with a design contest in 1888, which was won by the architectural firm Heins & LaFarge. Construction was complicated due to a difficult site and ambitious plans, which required a vast foundation and crypt. The dedication of the first small section of the cathedral didn't happen until 1911, and then further construction was interrupted by both World Wars. To this day the cathedral remains unfinished, with construction and restoration a continuing process.

The cathedral occupies a much larger site, known today as the Cathedral Close, bounded by West 110th Street (aka Cathedral Parkway) to the south, Amsterdam Avenue to the west, West 113th Street to the north, and Morningside Drive to the east. Original plans envisioned the entire close as a complex modeled on the Medieval walled cities of Europe, with surrounding ancillary buildings and lots of open park space. Over the years, maintaining the park space didn't happen. As the website New York Architecture pointed out, "The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a great and beautiful landmark inside, but its exterior leaves much to be desired, particularly its surroundings, which were supposed to be green open space... Currently, there are parking lots, construction equipment, and a huge stoneyard."

That the cathedral remains unfinished plays largely into its non-landmark status. The first unsuccessful attempt in landmarking came in the mid 1960s, according to the cathedral's dean, Rev. James A. Kowalski. The trustees of the cathedral fought against landmarking because they didn't want any future development of the structure to be regulated, he said. "How do you landmark something that's not finished?" he asked. "The trustees didn't want those regulations put upon them." Another big problem with a building never being finished? The diocese is perpetually in need of funds for construction and maintenance, which has always made development look like good, cash-friendly opportunity for the cathedral.

The site remained unprotected until 2002, when it came back up for landmark designation. According to Kowalski, the trustees were more open to landmarking the exterior, but asked the LPC to keep two parcels outside of the landmark designation for future development as a way to bring in revenue. Here's what Dean Kowalski explained in his testimony to the Landmarks Preservation Commission: "It has been [made] painfully clear to me that religious institutions that do not attend to their financial health cannot sustain their own internal responsibilities… Our conversations with developers regarding the under-utilized perimeter parcels are directly connected to our mission as a Cathedral… We do not seek these resources simply to help the Cathedral for its own sake. Rather, we ask support [for] this strategy because the Cathedral has served and will in perpetuity serve a mission that radically embraces all people."

Many members of the public who testified at the hearing argued that the exterior designation did not go far enough; they wanted the entire close landmarked. They argued that the ancillary buildings within the close read as a cohesive ensemble, originally designed to harmonize with one another. (One building on site, the former Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum, is one of the oldest Greek Revival-style institutional buildings in Manhattan and pre-dates the cathedral.) Preservationist also knew that the open space available, along with an existing zoning that allowed for taller buildings, meant development was possible.

"We in the community maintain that the Cathedral is not—and has never been—under threat of demolition, while the larger Close in which it is situated continues to be threatened by the inappropriate developments that we see happening today," said Gregory Dietrich, founder of Gregory Dietrich Preservation Consulting and an advisor to the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee during the landmarking saga.

The LPC ultimately approved a designation "limited to the building's exterior," according to the designation report. Looking back on the decision, Dietrich called the decision "a travesty since it did not consider the site's greater significance." Many community members and local pols felt the same way. And in 2003, the City Council voted unanimously against landmark designation for the structure.

The decision was led by Bill Perkins, a council member who represented the area. As he told the New York Times in 2003, "'It was a declarative statement that St. John the Divine should be landmarked in totality, not piecemeal. It is, quite frankly, an insult to the historical value of this world-renowned church to have it piecemeal like this.'' (Perkins did not respond to requests for comment.)

And so, like in the 1960s, the cathedral remained unprotected—and stayed that way. A new proposal to designate the close never made it to the LPC, and by 2006, the cathedral entered into a 99-year ground lease with AvalonBay to erect a residential building, Avalon Morningside Park, on the southeast site of the close.

Then, in 2013, the cathedral released a proposal to develop a rental building with the Brodsky Organization on the north side of its campus. A new resolution surfaced to landmark the entire cathedral campus except for the portion already carved out for the Brodsky Organization's towers, but it never came through. And, despite much community opposition, development of the towers is now well underway, obscuring views of the church from the north.

"The money from the developments will help stabilize the cathedral," said Kowalski. "We need the financial resources to support the architecture." The cathedral will get $5 million a year from the new development; Kowalski said that it'll take anywhere from $100 to $200 million to maintain and continue construction of the structure.

Kowalski said that the diocese is still open to designating the cathedral, and that there are no other parcels within the close that have been targeted for development. But Dietrich considers the latest development "the final nail in the coffin of this unofficial world heritage site."

As for any future landmarking motion, "I think the community would view the designation of the close as a hollow victory at this point since it has been irrevocably compromised by unsympathetic new development that neither respects nor defers to the historic buildings and spaces," said Dietrich. He still feels, however, that the LPC is likely to designate the cathedral at some point in an effort to designate at least something on the property.

"It probably goes without saying that one could never imagine such developments occurring on the sites of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. or Notre Dame in Paris," he said. "But in NYC, anything is fair game despite the fact that we have one of the strongest preservation laws in the country to prevent travesties such as this."
· All Cathedral of St. John the Divine coverage [Curbed]
· 1047 Amsterdam Avenue archives [Curbed]