After about a year of construction, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine isn’t the only structure casting its shadow on Amsterdam Avenue. A controversial effort by Saint John's to turn some of its land into condos to bolster the cathedral’s finances is well under way. The cathedral serves as more than a place of worship, playing host to art exhibits and political figures. Columbia art history and archaeology professor Barry Bergdoll and Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation professor Andrew Dolkart talk about the changing streetscape of this Morningside institution.
“The relationship of church building to urban real estate is as old as the church,” Bergdoll says. “So if you look at the development of the city of Florence, for instance, some of the major churches—Santa Croce, for example—were also making real estates around them, so the urban fabric of residents and the church were related not only architecturally and spatially but financially.”
“It is awfully close to the transept to be sure, but that’s not the best view of the cathedral,” Bergdoll says. “The cathedral’s best views are its front and its back—I mean, its most sublime view is really from Harlem.”
“There is not much direct sunlight on the north side of the building anyway, and, also, it is not really higher than the hospital, so it can’t be making a huge difference,” Bergdoll says.
“I can’t speak to the religious aspect. However, I do think that the grounds, and especially the grounds to the south, are really important to the character of the cathedral and of the neighborhood,” Dolkart says. “It’s a really beautifully aesthetic place, and I’m sure it has a quiet, spiritual nature, too.”