Sunday, November 30, 2008

Big John is Back

The big Aeolian Skinner organ of St. John the Divine is back after 7 years of silence. Here is a recording of it from the 1950s. The big bass pipes are shaking the paving stones once again.

The organ, and the east end of the cathedral, were rededicated and reopened today after years of repair and restoration work since the 2001 fire. I've never seen the cathedral look so bright and tidy as it did this evening. They cleaned out most of that jarring modern art that either clashed with the setting, or more frequently, was overwhelmed by it. Happily, they kept Keith Haring's triptych, the only work of recent art that took the cathedral setting into consideration.
I was part of my parish's delegation to the rededication service. I got to process around in cassock in surplice beneath soaring ribbed vaults and arches. I had a great time.

Here's an old postcard that shows what the completed cathedral is supposed to look like, according to the design of Ralph Adams Cram.

An old postcard showing the original Heins and LaFarge design. The east end choir survives from this design, though the vaults were rebuilt and a clerestory added by Cram.

Cram's nave under construction in the 1930s. It remains to be seen how the giant crossing arches left over from the Heins and LaFarge design will be incorporated into Cram's vision of the crossing tower.

This is what St. John the Unfinished looks like today. The southwest tower remains unfinished and looking very truncated.

Here's why I think the Cram design is so brilliant and original. It's a huge French Gothic triforium and clerestory articulation screened behind a German hall church nave. It's so odd, and it works so beautifully.

I love Big John, that huge unfinished lummox of a cathedral up there in Morningside Heights. It has been under construction for more than a century; fitfully constructed at one end while being restored at the other. I doubt anyone alive now will see it finished. But remember, it took 600 years to finish Cologne cathedral in Germany. St. John the Divine will be finished before that.


Brian R said...

Good to hear this. I visited in April 2007 and was a bit disappointed at what I could see especially after having visited the Washington Cathedral a few days earlier.

Scott Hankins said...

Interesting, Doug. This afternoon we dedicated our new state of the art digital. Serendipity? I think not.

(follow the links)

JCF said...

My graduation ceremony (for Teachers College, Columbia U) was held in Big John in 2004.

It was gawdawful dark inside: hope the repairs have let in More Light!

JCF said...

Any chance on their starting this century on the central tower? (Funny to see that lil' dome-let from the 1930s photo: AFAIK, it's still there today!)

Counterlight said...

The little saucer-dome is still there.
I wouldn't bet on work on that crossing tower to start anytime soon, maybe not even in this century. To begin work on it, they will need to tear down, or move, a much older mansion house that sits right where the south transept is to stand. However, a crossing tower and transepts with windows would vastly improve the lighting situation in the cathedral. The 2 west front towers are far from finished (the southwest tower is a half built trunk, and the northwest tower hasn't even been started yet). There are still lots of blocks of stone all over inside and out that are supposed to be carved into statues and column capitals.

The cathedral is still fairly dark on the inside, though it was a dark day on Sunday. The glass supposedly has all been cleaned and restored (you'd be amazed at how fast windows get dirty in New York; this city is dustier than West Texas, and grimier than Pittsburgh).. There is all new lighting up in the vaults of the nave. I don't know if that will make a difference. I must admit that I always liked the theatrical gloom of the place.

Scott Hankins said...

It was always a fine cool respite on a hot summer afternoon during CPE at St. Luke's. I vote for keeping it dark.

Ponsonby Britt said...

I love "Big John" too, and I love the Hungarian Pastry shop across the street from the Cathedral where the love of my life and I had our first date.

I checked the Cathedral's website and there was no order of service for the re-dedication. Do you think they might be persuaded to post it, or will I have to pay for a copy. I don't mind paying.

JCF said...

I love the Hungarian Pastry shop across the street from the Cathedral

Oh yes! Thanks for that memory, PB!

you'd be amazed at how fast windows get dirty in New York

Um, no I wouldn't (it impressed me, too, Doug. The Big Apple grows in very gritty soil)

I must admit that I always liked the theatrical gloom of the place.

Have you ever heard them do the dramatic reading of Dante's Inferno there on Halloween? (I heard a bit of it, though it takes hours). And then, there's no place more dramatic to be on St. Francis Day! :-0 [Although I think the biggest beast there the year my mom and I went, was a camel strutting down the nave. Impressive enough!]

Damn: I read your blog, Doug, and I get homesick for NYC (though I only lived there 4 years) ;-/

Counterlight said...

I've never been there for St. Francis Day, though I understand that the biggest animal they've blessed there was an elephant.
I've also regularly missed Ascension Day services back in the days when Phillipe Petit used to do his tightrope walk up to the rose window.
Another tourist Mecca down 112th street from the cathedral on Broadway is the Seinfeld diner.
I really regret not getting to that Hungarian pastry shop. I will definitely include it on my next pilgrimage.

I spent most of my life in New York downtown in the East Village (13 years) daily running a gauntlet of drug dealers and stepping on tiny crack vials. It was dirty and dangerous in those days, and so much fun. I went out drinking all night with art buddies, had friends who played in punk bands, and prowled the bars packed with everybody who didn't fit into the conventional tidy fraternity vision of gay male life (a lot of people then and now).
I now live in east Williamsburg in Brooklyn among all the glamorously scruffy young hipsters; where the East Village went after it got priced out of Manhattan.

Dear old New York, love it and/or hate it (as most people do), it's a city of abounding irrepressible life in all its messy splendor. Neither the Draft Riots, nor the Great Depression, nor September 11th could kill it off.

rick allen said...

It's been over 20 years since I've been in St. Johns, but, if I remember correctly, the entry and the aisle are a very polished Gothic, but the style changes to a considerably rougher Romanesque when one reaches the altar.

It produced a remarkable effect, like going back in time--at least that was my sensation. I had no idea that there was any more work to be done, other than ornamentation.

Perhaps what I saw as deliberate was simply the result of the cathedral's unfinished state. In any case, it was quite beautiful.