The magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine and its Cathedral Close are New York City’s newest landmarks. The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to bestow the same protections on the site that have been afforded to many other religious institutions throughout the city.
One of the world’s largest cathedrals was not already a New York City landmark for lack of support by the LPC; a 2002 decision to designate the 120-year-old unfinished cathedral was overturned by the City Council in a greater attempt to preserve the entire Cathedral Close. That effort culminated on Tuesday, but not before opening the door to new development on the site, hence the two rental towers within kissing distance of the cathedral’s northern exposure. The rental towers, opportunistically named Enclave at the Cathedral, were excluded from the site’s designation.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners focused on the achievements of the several architectural styles displayed throughout the campus, the site’s significance to New York City, and the broader importance of preservation.
“It’s meaningful and important to designate the cathedral as a building that is unfinished,” Commissioner Shamir-Baron said. “We’re recognizing not only what it was but what it will become. That says something about the potential open-endedness of preservation.”
Commissioner Chen followed up: “A building is never finished, especially a cathedral. It’s a living legacy that will continue to be useful to this city, this community, and this world.” The Cathedral of St. John the Divine has been in the works since 1888, when architectural firm Heins & LaFarge won a competition to design the grand buildin. The cathedral’s construction timeline took a hit from both world wars, though Commissioner Chen pointed out that it generally takes about 300 years to build such a grand cathedral. (Comparisons to La Segrada Familia were also made.)
As construction continues on site, so too does restoration. The six other buildings on the Close that were landmarked were mostly built around the turn of the 20th century and include the Choir School (1912-13), St. Faith’s House (1909-11), Synod House (1912-14), the Deanery, the Bishops House, and the original building of the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum that occupied the site before the cathedral.
“I'm proud to be part of the commission that's going to designate the cathedral,” Commissioner Gustafsson said moments before the commission cast its unanimous vote to preserve the site. LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan had the final word on the dynamic site: “Preservation is not static; it can look towards the future.”