Cathedral of St. John the Divine

Location: Financial District, 1 Bowling Green

Address: 1047 Amsterdam Av, New York, NY 10025

Date of Visit: April 3, 2017. (Visited Blockhouse #1 later that afternoon.)

Open Hrs. ADA Accessbility? Admission Tours Phone # Website
  • Church:
    Daily: 7:30am-6pm*
    Sun. (full access): 1-3pm
  • Visitor Ctr.:
    Daily: 8am-6pm
  • Pop-Up Shop:
    Daily: 9am-5pm
  • Gardens:
  • *Limited Sunday access
Yes. Click here for more. Free
  • Availble daily, optional.
    Click here for more.
212-316-7540 Website
Front of the cathedral.

Do you ever like to visit places of worship just for the fun of it regardless of what religion you are? I do, because more often than not, they’re works of very beautiful art. Everything about how they’re constructed is usually very awe-inspiring, from the concrete or granite or marble frame to the stained glass windows. Located in Morningside Heights, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine — the largest cathedral in the world — is a modern Byzantine art form.


In 1887, Bishop Henry Codman Potter called for the construction of a new cathedral to rival St. Patrick’s. A few years after a year-long design competition, construction began on December 27, 1892. During construction, service was held in the basement, starting in 1899. In 1911, the first part of St. John the Divine — the choir and crossing — was complete. Construction for the front began excavation five years later, but lasted for over two-and-a-half decades.

On November 30, 1941, the cathedral opened end-to-end for the first time. One week later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Afterwards, then-Bishop William T. Manning halted construction to use the funds for charity and World War II. Despite starts and stops over the next few decades, it remains unfinished.

Wide shot of the nave.

Over the years, soot coated the cathedral’s interior. And on December 18, 2001, a six-alarm electrical fire destroyed the gift shop, damaged nearby artwork, and temporarily silenced The Great Organ, an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Three-plus years later, restoration began to remove the filth, completing on November 30, 2008. During the restoration project, the organ was carefully taken apart, cleaned up, and began playing again weeks prior.

A Modern Majesty from Ancient Times

Outside, you can guess that St. John the Divine is the world’s largest cathedral. If you look at it from a three-quarter view, that church has a really long, hundreds-foot body that reaches to the point where it disappears behind trees. When you stand in front of this church, you begin to feel a little small, but not so small that you feel like a snail.

Into the Depths
South side aisle. Colors are from sunlight penetrating through stained glass.

Then walk inside. It is HUGE. How huge? About eight stories tall. Stare at the pillars and columns. Feel all that stone and granite, polished and unpolished. Stare at the base first; then trace your gaze up, up, up to the Gothic rib vaults along the aisles or in the nave. Tons and tons of stone tower hundreds of feet above. Sunlight dances through the stained-glass windows and sprinkle more colors than found on the rainbow.

Out of all the locations I’ve been to so far, this one is the most intricate out of all of them, and building it in the Byzantine style is exactly why. The level of detail and work used to construct this church is absolutely amazing. Everywhere you look, you always find something interesting. The angels, choir parapet, columns, ceiling, jams, door, windows, and others always have something unique in them. They’re not designed simply because they feel like it. Every detail carved for this church has a symbolic, spiritual meaning behind them. When you have a city that’s building more and more simpler, modernistic styles of buildings, the level of detail stands out even more. You can tell the artists were truly dedicated into building this cathedral while staying true to the Byzantine style. The fact that there’s no steel skeleton anywhere in this church (unlike St. Patrick’s) really shows their dedication to the Byzantine tribute.

Sometimes people lovingly tease St. John the Divine as “St. John the Unfinished” for being incomplete despite being one year shy of its 125th birthday. Outside, the south tower is about half-finished; in fact, the surrounding scaffold rusted away for being untouched for so long. Inside, walk closer and closer to the choir — you’ll pass the crossing, which has unpolished columns; a very dark, rust-colored dome; and covered-up windows. But would it be St. John the Divine if it actually looked finished? As a New Yorker, I don’t think so. Its unfinished state adds so much personality to this cathedral. Finish it, and some of its charm withers away.

Reims It In
Inside a chapel. Notice the rubble installed above the draped crucifix.

When I arrived, I bought a ticket to take part of the Highlights Tour, a daily, hour-long, ground-level exploration of the church (on Mondays, they’re at 11am and 2pm; I bought the 2pm ticket). Throughout the tour, the tour guide told our group (of only three people) secrets of the church, some of them literally hiding in plain sight. My favorite secrets are the Edith Cavell tribute on the Medical Bay window, the Reims Cathedral rubble in one of the chapels, the female angels, and the resealed column.

  • Edith Cavell was a British nurse who helped save soldiers’ lives regardless of nationality, including helping 200 Allied forces escape to Holland from Belgium during German occupation. In 1915, Germany arrested her for treason, tried her, and executed her, causing condemnation worldwide. Her execution became propaganda used by Allied forces against Germany and its allies. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine installed a tribute to her on the Medical Bay window in the upper right-hand corner. You can read more about her here.
  • Early in World War I, the Reims Cathedral in France was used as a hospital. On September 20, 1914, German shellfire severely damaged the building and destroyed lots of priceless artifacts. A piece of the cathedral was installed in one of the chapels as a propaganda piece for World War I. Very few people today know what it is and why it’s there.
  • On the column frame for the Chapel of Saint Savior, Gutzon Borglum (who constructed other famous/notorious landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and — with financial support from the Klan — Stone Mountain) sculpted angels — traditionally androgynous in Christianity — with a female look. After people panned the sculptures, Borglum covered their breasts to de-sex them.
  • In the back of the cathedral near one of the chapels is a column formerly severed during construction. That sever and reconstruction is shown through a permanent dark line around one of the columns.
Medical Window
Medical window. The Edith Cavell tribute’s located in the upper-right-hand side.

One of my all-time favorite things to see in any place of worship is the stained-glass windows, and at St. John the Divine, they’re absolutely gorgeous. Everything about them is intricately detailed. The Bay windows are rife in symbolism, from charity to religious; and they’re all dedicated to specific accomplishments by humanity along specific events, such as arts, medical, and labor. As mentioned previously, each window is packed with so many colors; and on a bright, sunny day, that light penetrates the glass like a prism and dances along the columns.

The Great Rose Window, used for their logo, is their most famous. With its forty-foot diameter, it’s the largest in the United States and third largest worldwide. Everything here is packed with Christian symbolism with — according to the cathedral’s website — references to the Old and New Testament. But personally, what makes it so captivating is how beautiful it is in both color and construction. At over 10,000 pieces of glass, the painstaking effort to create it adds to the cathedral’s majesty.

Even if you’re not interested in spiritual art on sand, there are always the bronze medallions. All three aisles are what the cathedral calls “Pilgrims’ Pavement.” According to the website, the side aisles show crests and names of important pilgrimage and Angelican sites, while the central consists of Jesus’s miracles. They don’t interest me personally, but it doesn’t make their detail any less significant objectively.


One hundred and twenty four years after construction began, the church stays true to ancient cathedral development and doesn’t rely on a steel skeleton. The windows, columns, vaults, and sheer size creates an overwhelming experience. I’ve been here a couple of times in the past, and each time, I can’t help but feel impressed. Each secret only adds to its allure. Overall, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine truly is a modern marvel. Whether you’re religious or secular, it deserves respect. If you haven’t appreciated it now, I guarantee you, if you tour there for a couple of hours, you will.

Best Directions:

  • By subway, take the 1 train via Broadway to W. 110th Street or the B/C via 8th Avenue/Central Park West to W. 110 (Cathedral Parkway).

    By bus, take the M4 (via Madison Avenue uptown, Broadway downtown) to 110th and Amsterdam, M11 to W. 110th and Amsterdam, or M104 (via Broadway) to W. 110th and Broadway.

Visitation Tips:

112 3/4
Three-quarter view of church. The ADA ramp is at the bottom of the picture.
  • Out of all of the places, St. John the Divine gets a lot of services and events and, thus, can get full. If you want to visit on a quiet day, Mondays are usually your best bet.
  • The cathedral is completely ADA-accessible. For more information, click here.
  • Sketching with paper and pencil is permitted.
  • Admission to the cathedral is free, but you must pay to take part in one of the tours.

    There are three guided tour types: Highlights Tour, Vertical Tour, and Spotlight Tour. It's recommended for you to pay in advance for the Vertical and Spotlight Tours. Each of them cost money, but some dollars are deducted for students. Click here to read more.
  • Photography and videography are permitted for private, noncommercial use only. Flash is prohibited during services and special events. If given permission from cathedral security, tripods are permitted. Wedding photography prohibitted except for the couples being wed there.
  • Welcome brochures (the cathedral's floor plan) is avaialble at the Visitor Center at the front left of the church in multiple languages. Online, here it is in English.
  • The transit system changes periodically, usually every quarter, so check the train, bus schedules, and traffic alert before planning.

    Bus options can be unrelible sometimes, so check traffic reports and MTA Bustime (a real-time bus locator) before taking one.
  • Parking is available in a variety of areas, which you can read here.