More than six years after a five-alarm fire scarred much of its interior, the nave of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has just reopened on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, following a two-year, $16.5 million cleaning and renovation. The splendid restoration, unveiled even as work continues in other damaged areas of the church, raises an issue that, at this late date, is all too easy to ignore: the issue of ecclesiastical architecture.
These days, most successful architectural firms are specialized. With some exceptions, you don't go to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for a museum; you don't go to Studio Daniel Libeskind for an office tower; you don't go to Polshek Partnership for a residential building, and you don't go to anyone, it seems, for a church.
Surely churches are being built, even in New York. And in the past half-century or so, such eminent architects as Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, and Richard Meier have designed devotional buildings. But to say that the emphasis of the profession has shifted is a massive understatement. Although Muslim and Mormon congregations continue to build grand sacred structures across the country, the generally unreligious cast of post-industrial society is reflected in our collective indifference to religious architecture as well.
As might be expected, things were very different in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with many architectural firms doing nothing but churches. Indeed, religion so dominated public discourse back then that even the core structure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed by Vaux and Mould in 1880, was got up to look like a cathedral, for no particular reason other than that was what the age wanted. Sara Cedar Miller, the official historian of Central Park, goes so far as to conjecture that the way the trees come together to form a canopy over the Central Park Mall, designed 150 years ago by Vaux and Olmsted, was intended to suggest the vault of a church.
Of all the architects who specialized in churches and cathedrals, few could rival the output of Ralph Adams Cram. We have him to thank for much of what we now see at the still unfinished Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, whose nave was completed in 1941. But it was only one of nearly 30 devotional projects he worked on, almost to the exclusion of any other building type.
To all appearances, Cram (1863-1942) was an interesting character. In photos and paintings, he appears to have been a fin de siècle dandy who resembled the young William Butler Yeats. Though this native of New Hampshire was raised a Unitarian and declared himself an agnostic in his teens, he soon became a fervent High Church Anglican. In addition to his architecture, he wrote on religion and philosophy, and works such as "Toward the Great Peace," published after the Treaty of Versailles, exhibit a tone of parsonical elevation that would soon cease to be employed by writers in English.
Like most New Yorkers, I had been to St. John the Divine a number of times over the years, as I had been to St. Patrick's, completed by James Renwick Jr., in 1878. However much I esteem the real Gothic architecture of Europe, I have been and remain generally unimpressed by the neo-Gothic style, which accounts for all buildings in this mode in the New World. Though there is something imposing about the façade of St. Patrick's, an imitation of various French façades, the interior is weak and for reasons that are all too clear: The architects of Medieval France exploited every form and technique they had in an entirely improvised and yet dazzling expression of contemporary taste. Renwick, by contrast, was interested mainly in creating a simulacrum of a Gothic church. His pastiche looks like the original, but it feels entirely different and is, needless to say, far inferior. There is a cookie-cutter spikiness, a lack of feeling and finesse, to the arches of the nave. Having transmuted art into the baser coinage of archeology, Renwick knows everything about Gothic architecture and understands nothing.
It may surprise some people, who suppose that all neo-Gothic architecture is equal, that the interior of St. John the Divine, twice the length of a football field and thus the longest nave in the world, is far better than St. Patrick's, and for these excellent reasons: that it is not archeology but architecture; that it manages to reapply not only the data, but also the core principles, of the Gothic style, and in the process to squeeze the last residual sap out of its ancient language of forms.
In the nave of Renwick's St. Patrick's, there is a fidgety excess of detailing, especially in the vault, which illogically invokes an English formal vocabulary, despite the Gallic flavor of the Cathedral's façade. The regimented sameness of its columns is tedious, and the transition from the arcade to the clerestory is weak in the extreme.
In St. John the Divine, by contrast, especially now with the altars still bare of their furnishings, there is something mightily impressive in the noble simplicity of the nave. The pillars leap straight up into the clerestory with a spirited dash, and the pared-down austerity of the walls never becomes boring. That is because Cram had faith in the raw forces of architecture, of pure passages of masonry, to carry visual interest and energy.
In this improbable ability to understand and exemplify the formal essence of an ancient architectural idiom, Cram's nave of St. John the Divine is worthy to stand comparison with the classically inspired National Gallery and Jefferson Memorial in Washington, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial entrance to the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. All of these structures are the work of one man, John Russell Pope, Cram's younger contemporary and the finest, if least influential, American architect of his generation.