New York provides an architectural feast, especially if you do not mind straining your neck. Not least among the city’s treasures are its many churches. I have already discussed Saint Patrick’s, the city’s Catholic cathedral, easily one of the grandest buildings in the city. But Saint Patrick’s is not the only cathedral in New York. 

Further uptown is a cathedral of even grander proportions: Saint John’s. This is a behemoth of a building, certainly the largest church building in New York City and arguably in the entire country. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington D.C., covers more area but contains far less volume.) And the building as it exists now falls far short of the original plan. Neither of the cathedral’s front towers has been completed, nor has the enormous tower that was to stand over the midpoint of the building. Indeed, after a fire destroyed the north transept in 2001, the cathedral has even lacked a crucifix floorplan. This has led it to be informally dubbed St. John the Unfinished.

Even with all of these parts missing, however, it is a giant church. Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Epicopalians conceived the project as a way to rival or even surpass St. Patrick’s. This cathedral, too, is built in an elaborate neo-gothic style that mimics the great cathedrals of France and Spain. Its hulking façade, with its three enormous doors sitting underneath pointed arches, beckons the visitor from the streets of modern Manhattan to a seemingly medieval world. All of the decorations carefully maintain this illusion, from the frilly spires, to the ornamental carvings, to the friezes of Biblical scenes above the doors. Even the monumental brass doors are covered in art, showing scenes from the life of Christ and representations of the four evangelists. Aside from the cathedral’s manifestly incomplete state, the only thing that breaks the illusion is the appearance of grey discoloration from car exhaust.

Note the person at bottom right, for scale.

The inside is fully in keeping with this aesthetic. Enormous pillars hold up a vaulted ceiling, while stained glass windows allow colored light to drift inside. The visitor is greeted by a beautifully carved wooden choirstall, holding an image of Christ against a golden background. (This is a real 15th century German work, on loan from the Metropolitan.) The cathedral even has a sort of poor man’s version of the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. As far as I know, there are no actual poets buried in this section of the church; instead, small tablets bearing the names and brief quotes of famous American authors cover the floor. According to the plaque, the idea was inspired by a rector in the church of Washington Irving in my hometown, Tarrytown.

All this is true to the style of highfalutin European cathedrals. Closer inspection, however, reveals a church very unlike those it imitates, even St. Patrick’s downtown. Saint John the Divine was conceived as a different sort of institution, a “Democratic Church,” as it dubs itself, open to any and all who would like to come. True to form, the rainbow colors of LGBT pride were displayed prominently near one altar. And this is not a pose. To pick just two examples of the church’s progressive tendency, the cathedral hosted a performance by Diamanda Galás meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and displayed Edwina Sandys’ statue, Christa, a portrayal of Christ as a woman (unsurprisingly, a very controversial work).

All of this is world’s apart from the staid, traditional activity of St. Patrick’s. On the other hand, it is free to walk into the Catholic cathedral, while visitors of Saint John’s have to pay.

Adjacent to the building is an attractive little green space, known as the West 111th Street People’s Garden. Here is located the building of the Cathedral School, a K–8 school for children of any faith; and during the summer it is common to see flocks of children in summer camp parading by. Nearby is the Peace Fountain, a sculpture by Greg Wyatt supposedly portraying the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and the triumph of good over evil. Yet to me the statue looks like an angel strangling a curious giraffe. In any case, the odd sculpture provides a nice illustration of the cathedral’s less orthodox attitude towards traditional themes.

To get to our next church, we must walk a good twenty minutes or so. The pleasantest route takes us directly through the main campus of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the oldest university in New York, and one of the best in the world. Suffice to say that everyone from Alexander Hamilton to Barack Obama have studied there. The campus leaves no doubt as to the honor, splendor, and pretensions of the institution. The grandiose Butler Library, for example, is adorned with the names of great thinkers and writers: Herodotus, Plato, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Voltaire… Directly opposite is the Low Memorial Library, another stately neoclassical edifice; and on the steps leading up to its entrance is the statue of Alma Mater, a symbol of the university, made by the same sculpture who designed the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French.

The thirsty or hungry traveler may also take a small detour to stop at Tom’s Restaurant, a diner used in the exterior shots of Seinfeld. (Though the outside looks exactly like it does in the show, the inside looks nothing like the fictional Monk’s Cafe.) It is a nice place to have a coffee.

The walk further uptown takes us alongside Riverside Park, and through some quite swanky neighborhoods, with upscale apartments attended by liveried doormen. It is an appropriate setting for a church intimately connected with wealth: Riverside Church.

Riverside Church was the idea of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Curiously, this was not the first Rockefeller church that I visited. Much closer to my home, Rockefeller helped to establish the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, a lovely stone building with beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagal and Henri Mattise. Riverside Church is much grander in scale, with an enormous bell tower that rises high up above the rest of the building, and which makes Riverside the tallest church building in the United States.

So big is the tower, in fact, that the actual church seems insignificant by comparison, though it is by no means small. The interior consists of a single nave, again neo-gothic in design, filled with pointed arches and stained glass. Architecturally, it is more perfectly composed, more pure of form than Saint John’s, which lends it a rare tranquility and grace. It is simple and beautiful. John D. Rockefeller was motivated to found the church partly out of a dissatisfaction with the Baptism of his youth. He wanted a more modern church, which is why Riverside is nondenominational, and also why great figures of science are carved into the decorations, including Galileo, Newton, and even Darwin.

Riverside Church is like Saint John’s in its history of progressive activism. Indeed, the church arguably has an even stronger connection to social reform. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a major speech against the Vietnam War here, in 1967; and there are still photographs of him on the bulletin board. A far more humble mark of the church’s ethos is the bathroom sign, which declares “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The church is still an epicenter for advocacy on many fronts, from anti-torture, to immigrants’ rights, to support for the HIV-positive. It is a model for a humanitarian church.

It is hardly sensible to visit Riverside Church without visiting the monument next door. Within a few hundred feet of the church doors is the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. It is the largest and grandest tomb of an American President, an enormous neoclassical structure complete with Greek columns and domed ceiling. Even though his presidency has been widely regarded as a failure, he was an immensely popular figure at the time of his death; his funeral drew one and a half million spectators. This explains the grandiose design of his final resting place, which is highly reminiscent of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides.

Nowadays, the tomb is a quiet and largely ignored corner of New York, with a handful of tourists respectfully poking about at any one time. Yet it is well worth a visit. Grant is interred in a massive granite coffin, alongside his wife in an identical sarcophagus. The coffins are below the floor level, visible through a hole in the floor, where they rise up from the lower level on a platform—again, much like Napoleon’s tomb. The visitor can descend and walk around the coffins, pausing to admire the busts of other Civil War generals, such as William Tecumseh Sherman. On the upper level, flanking the staircase, are two side chapels with historical flags from the war. And up above a mosaic depicts the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant. One could be forgiven for thinking that Grant was a general alone, and not a president, from the evidence of his tomb.

Here is where I will end my little tour, which can take as little as a couple hours. Separated by only a few blocks are the largest and the tallest churches in the United States—not to mention a historic university and an enormous tomb. But Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church are, for me, far more than architectural delights. They are living institutions, still engaged in the proper work of religion: to improve the lives of their congregations.

One thought on “Two NY Churches: Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church

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