Sunday, June 7, 2009

Unfinished - but not unadorned - cathedral

On Dec. 18, 2001, fire destroyed the gift shop of the storied Cathedral of St. John the Divine and smoke severely damaged the interior of the Morningside Heights landmark.

Late last year the cathedral, restored and cleaned, was rededicated amid much fanfare. Its 8,500-pipe grand organ was ushered back into service. Visitors can once again stroll the entire 121,000-square-foot church, seat of the Episcopal bishop of New York and widely thought to be the world's largest Gothic cathedral.

More than a century after its cornerstone was laid, St. John the Divine remains unfinished. Construction began in 1892 and continued until 1941 when it was halted after the United States joined World War II, not to be resumed for about 40 years. Work began again in 1981, but the 2001 fire delivered another setback. It is difficult to say when its transepts and crossing and western tower will be completed.

The cathedral has been cleaned not only of smoke residue but also of a century of use. Its 40-foot rose window, comprising more than 10,000 pieces of glass, is the largest in the country. The bronze doors were cast by the same Paris craftsman who cast the Statue of Liberty. The dozen Barberini Tapestries date from the 17th century. The intricately carved choir is considered one of the best pieces of Romanesque architecture in the nation.

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