Monday, January 16, 2012

St John the Unfinished

Last Saturday we had the chance to visit the cathedral of St. John the Divine, also known as St. John the Unfinished. We could see the cathedral from an unique perspective; within the walls.
Staircase of St John the Divine
This huge cathedral is the second largest Christian Church in the world after St. Peter in The Vatican. With a colossal dome in the transept of 132 ft. (40 m.) diameter built by the Spaniard Rafael Guastavino in 1909, the cathedral rises with its revival mix-style of Byzantine-Romanesque and Gothic. The size of the dome is breathtaking but from a structural point of view the most impressive aspect of it is the way it works and the way it was built. In terms of how it was built the dome is laid with 1” thick tiles and it varies in thickness from 7-1/2” (19 cm.) at the foot to 3-3/4” (9.5 cm.) at the crown. This technique of tile vaults was introduced and patented in the United States by Guastavino through his company the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Co. The construction technique to build this type of tile vaults is widely known in the Mediterranean area of Spain which name is Catalan Vault. No centering, falseworks or other provisional structures is necessary for this technique, only light scaffolds for workmen and dairy supplies are. I forgot to mention that it was accomplished in less than 3 months!
Besides the dome, the Church has other amazing elements such as the staircase which goes up the clerestory. The floor of the elliptical shaped staircase is made of 2 tile thick and a peculiar thing about the staircase is its inappreciable eye, because it does not exist. Instead of a common solid piece in the eye in this case there is just an elegant handrail made with the same tiles. The steps fly in the air, and they look like they don’t weight anything. I found a similar staircase in the medieval landmark “La Lonja de Valencia” in Spain, that was built in 1482. This latter has the same shape as St. John the Divine´s but made of curb stones instead of tiles. This staircase is absolutely beautiful. If you go to Valencia do not miss it.

Looking down

Another must see piece is the dome under the presbytery where Tiffany had his own chapel. It is made with the same technique and materials as the main dome with the advantage to watch the dome from a closer position.

Dome at Basement of the Cathedral
Finally I would like to mention the 50 foot 300 ton granite column enclosing the presbytery. With a diameter of 10 feet this columns were cut and shape in just one piece. The cylindrical shape was accomplished thanks to a big lathe made on purpose for this. When the first column was carving broke suddenly in a point close to the top, the second column had the same fortune and it happened in the rest of all columns. They were too large. That is the reason we can see a joint close to the top of the columns. The columns were cut and shaped in Vinalhaven, ME, shipped by boat to the wharf to Thirty-Fifth Street of Manhattan and carried toward 110th Street by a steam truck  moving just 50 feet per hour. The first column was placed one year after they started to dig the piece.

Column of the Cathedral before shaped
St John the Divine conjugates the magnitude of a middle age cathedral with the perspective of a church from the 20th Century breaking the rigid Middle-Age mold. There is no doubt that is one of the best buildings of New York, at least for me.

- John Lane Co. The International studio, Volumen 40. 1910
- Munn and Co. Scientific American,Supplement, Volumen 68. 1909
- The Association. The Cornell civil engineer, Volumen 25. 1916


*All the Photographies by the author, except the last one. 

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