St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York (all photos by me)
New York is a thick forest of towers, many of them distinctive and running a gamut of styles. Its dystopian doppelganger is the imagined Gotham City of the Batman comics, in its consummate form the dark Gothic vision of Tim Burton’s Batman movies. The equally dark and romantic monumentality of Hugh Ferris’ moody, chiaroscuro-heavy renderings further the mythos of New York as an enigmatic metropolis whose primary axis is the vertical. The layering of architectural styles is remarkable and yet, in my mind at least, Manhattan is the epitome of a contemporary Gothic city: breathtakingly perpendicular, grotesque, and compact. Like a work of Gothic architecture, the complex whole is ordered and coherent, even as its constituent parts teeter on the brink of chaos.
I’ve always been drawn to Gothic architecture despite my decidedly modernist upbringing. I believe it’s an instinctual response. It’s a response that comes naturally to non-architects, one that many designers since the advent of Modernism have struggled to reconcile with their education and biases. The Gothic style relied heavily upon its ability to convey a narrative, most often of an ecclesiastical nature, striving for spirituality through lightness of form and a lavishing of expressive and didactic ornamentation, in contrast with the relatively spare ponderousness of the Romanesque forms that preceded it. The Gothic vocabulary would come to be distinguished by pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, large stained-glass windows, and elaborate tracery.
Of course, all the “Gothic” buildings in New York (and elsewhere in North America) are not actually Gothic but rather derivative and historicist. They are “Neo-Gothic” or “Gothic Revival.” The resurgence of the Gothic style during the 19th century was championed by A.W.N.Pugin, John Ruskin, and others claiming it was the style of the great age of faith and thus inherently superior to other forms. Even architects who were more secular in outlook would deem the Gothic appropriate for a variety of new applications, particularly those for which stylistic precedents did not exist. Thus, train stations, university buildings, parliament houses, country estates, and ultimately skyscrapers around the world would all utilize the style to imaginative effect.
Despite my characterization of Manhattan as Gothic in character, the actual number of buildings genuinely designed in the Gothic manner is small. I visited several of the most noteworthy examples while I was in New York for the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture. These included St. Patrick’s Cathedral, The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Saint Thomas Church, and the Woolworth Building.
Nave, St. Patrick's Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Definitely one of the highlights of my A’18 experience was a tour of the recently restored St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Members of the restoration team from Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects provided a wealth of informative details about the 3-year, $150 million project, which included 30,000 individual repairs to the stonework, plaster, wood, and stained glass.
Originally designed by architect James Renwick and constructed between 1858 – 1888, St. Patrick’s was upon its completion the tallest structure in New York (and remains the largest neo-Gothic Catholic cathedral in North America), which seems remarkable now that it is completely overshadowed by the bulky towers of the neighboring Rockefeller Center. The cathedral’s exterior is largely comprised of Tuckahoe marble and richly ornamented in a highly unified and consistent Flamboyant Gothic style.
Inside, the cathedral does indeed soar, appearing much larger than I’d imagined as I approached the cathedral from outside. The restoration repaired decay in the roof structure and removed decades of accumulated candle soot on the ceiling over the nave. The interior is bright, lofty, and very impressive.
West facade, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
Looming over the Morningside Heights neighborhood, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is the largest Episcopal cathedral in the world, and the fifth largest Christian church overall. Its list of superlatives includes the longest Gothic nave in the country, the largest rose window, being taller at its interior crossing than the Statue of Liberty, and seven apsidal chapels (a nod to the different national origins of various immigrant groups the church initially welcomed). It is, in other words, enormous.
Choir, Cathedral of Staint John the Divine
The cathedral has mockingly been dubbed “Saint John the Unfinished” because construction and restoration has continued ever since the first cornerstone was laid in 1892. Unlike St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Saint John the Divine is a mish-mash of styles. The original architects, Heins& LaFarge, intended the building to be of Romanesque-Byzantine design. Following the death of George Heins, the Cathedral Trustees elected to hire Ralph Adams Cram to complete the design along neo-Gothic lines. Saint John the Divine suffered a large fire in 2001, which destroyed part of the north transept. The south tower on the west façade has only partly risen, while the north tower lags even further behind. It’s immediately evident the cathedral remains a work in progress.
Saint Thomas Church
Saint Thomas Church
Like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Saint Thomas Church is located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, and like the Cathedral of Saint John Divine, Saint Thomas was designed by Ralph Adams Cram (along with his partner Bertram Goodhue). I was previously familiar with the building because of an essay written by Gerald Allen in the book Dimensions, co-authored with Charles Moore. In that essay, Allen explained how Cram and Goodhue designed the church in a way that addressed the particulars of its site within a modern city, as well as its general purpose as a place of worship. The result is an oddly asymmetrical design allied to its specific corner location at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 53rd Street.
As Gerald Allen wrote, Saint Thomas does not make the kind of coherent, self-contained sense that architects typically strive for in their designs. I like Saint Thomas’ consequent eccentricity. Cram and Goodhue demonstrated their mastery of the Gothic Revival style, expertly adapting it to its location within Midtown. The church confidently stakes claim to its location without attempting to compete with much taller neighbors.
The Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world when it was topped off in 1912. Architect Cass Gilbert, a leading proponent of the neo-Gothic style for tall buildings, designed the richly ornamented 60-story tower, which would aptly be nicknamed “the Cathedral of Commerce.” The building’s piers, pinnacles, pointed arches, and patinated copper roof all draw one’s eyes skyward. Gilbert over-scaled the Gothic detailing on its upper reaches so they remain legible from the street level far below. The design exploits the Gothic style’s use of vertical elements to emphasize its height. Somewhat incongruously, Gilbert used Romanesque forms for the building’s elegant two-story lobby.
While following Louis Sullivan’s adage that a skyscraper should be “every inch a proud and soaring thing,” the Woolworth Building also admirably functions as an urban block. Its lower 27 floors are configured around U-shaped floors that define the public space on all sides, while bringing daylight to the center of the plan by means of a central court open to the west. The Woolworth Building, like most pre-WWII towers, manages to work effectively at both the pedestrian level and as part of Manhattan’s impressive skyline.
Other New York skyscrapers employing features reminiscent of Gothic architecture include the American Radiator Building, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the Lincoln Building, and the General Electric Building. Following the completion of the General Electric Building in 1931, architects would largely eschew the Gothic Revival style in favor of the more fashionable Art Deco or Modernist idioms. The asceticism of most post-war skyscrapers may have reached its apogee (or nadir depending upon your point of view) with the completion of the astoundingly banal 432 Park Avenue in 2016, a supertall and slender tower that rises 1,396 feet without relief or any sense of proportion or grace.
432 Park Avenue
I’m no architectural revivalist or historicist; however, I do admire architecture regardless of style that inspires, is rich in detail and meaning, and joyous in character. Neo-Gothic works like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Saint Thomas Church, and the Woolworth Building greatly contribute to New York’s appeal and coherence as an incredibly diverse amalgam of memorable places, images, and ideas. I favor identity over anonymity, and architecture that connects people with their environment rather than alienating them from it.