Picture the space in a house above the ceiling and below the roof. This is called an attic or a garret. Now picture that this ceiling is 124 feet from the floor and built of carved stone with ribbed vaulting. The roof is 168 feet from the floor, making a 34-foot tall attic. Clearly, this isn’t just any house; it’s a house of worship, and in this particular case, it is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the world’s fourth largest church.**
St. John the Divine was conceived of in 1828, construction began in 1892, and to this day is not yet completed. The back of the church is built in the Byzantine/Romanesque style and the front is clearly Gothic, with “height and light” as the predominant features.
Each Saturday at noon and 2 p.m., the “Vertical Tour” is offered. Not only do you get to be in the Triforium (the Bishop’s Walk), your guide (in my case, the thoroughly knowledgeable and enjoyable Bill Schneberger) takes you higher as you go outdoors on the roof of one of the flying buttresses that supports this massive structure. Then you go even higher, above the ceiling and below the roof, to the attic, or “la-Forêt,” and see how it’s all put together. In most churches, the enormous beams that hold up the roof are made of timber, and there are many of them, hence the name “The Forest” for this unique area. At St. John the Divine, la-Forêt is made of steel beams per City building codes, but it is indeed a forest of steel beams as well. It’s dusty and ill-lit up there, but amazing to see the tops of the vaulted cathedral ceiling below you, looking eerily like a series of clay firing kilns, with exposed bricks in symmetrical convex shapes.
Although this tour ascends to a place under the roof rather than on top of it, this is a great New York City roof find. Plus, along the way, you spend time on an actual, outdoor roof of one of the flying buttresses (how magical that sounds!) with fantastic south facing views of the City from 111th Street down past the rooftop water towers, tower blocks and skyscrapers that define Manhattan.
**I know you want to know the three churches that are larger than St. John the Divine: They are: St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil and the Seville Cathedral. By the way, the churches in this list are all Catholic, whereas St. John the Divine is Episcopalian.
Pictures by Ari Burling