Connecting with my Past at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York

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Cathedral of St. John the Divine outside

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York

In 1911, when world-renowned architect Ralph Adams Cram replaced Christopher LaFarge in the design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, my grandfather, Sherrold Garfield, was just 17 years old. For over 40 years my grandfather and Ralph Cram lived within a few miles of each other in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Although Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, had offices in both Boston and New York City,  Cram longed for a home in the country.   In 1900 he and his wife moved to the quiet, rural town of Sudbury into a 22-room mansion called Whitehall. He lived here until his death in 1942.  My grandfather was born in Sudbury in 1894 and except for his military service during WWI, he would spend his entire life there,  much of that time at the Garfield family home at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road. Exactly when  my grandfather came to know Mr. Cram is not known, but I do know that upon my grandfathers discharge from the service he would  move back into his family home, marry and  search for work to support his growing family.  Jobs  were not plentiful immediately following the War, but fortunately, Mr. Cram, who traveled frequently, was looking for someone to care take his property when he was away. A significant and life changing relationship developed between the two that would ultimately encourage my grandfather to pursue his passion in building and a life-long career as a “master carpenter.”

  One of the projects that my grandfather worked on for Cram was a small chapel that Cram designed and built from 1912-1914 on his property in Sudbury. St. Elizabeth Chapel was named for both his wife and daughter, Elizabeth.   Cram believed in using local materials and local craftsman whenever possible. My grandfather and other local artisans, were among those chosen to work on the small chapel in Sudbury.

“My grandfather, Raymond L. McPhail was also hired to help build the stone chapel for Mr. Cram. I have found a few photos of him at the worksite dating back to 1912-14. He was a stone mason by trade but went on to build at least 15 large homes in Wellesley, Chestnut Hill, etc. He also worked on a couple of church construction projects for Mr. Cram. Sounds like our grandfather’s worked together.”  – E-mail to Bonnie Paton Moon from William J. McPhail – September 2019

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Construction of St. Elizabeth Chapel, Sudbury, MA – Stone from the surrounding fields was used and local craftsmen were hired for the project – 1912-1914

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St. Elizabeth Chapel, Sudbury MA – 2018

During the 1920’s, Cram’s career continued to prosper and in December of 1926 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. During his prolific career he designed hundreds of churches, academic buildings and libraries, among them the Princeton University Chapel, the Chapel for the United States Military Academy at West Point, Rice University Campus, and Philips Exeter Academy Chapel.   Without doubt his most notable achievement, however,  was the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City – another project my grandfather worked on for Mr. Cram.  My mother talked often about staying at the Cram estate growing up when Cram and his wife traveled.   And she also talked about her Dad working on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

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Ralph Adams Cram – 1926

Despite having lived just outside New York City for over 30 years, I had never visited St. John the Divine , but this past December would change that.

 Sitting on over 11 acres of land, the Cathedral and its surrounding park  takes up an entire city block. Today it seems out of place among the modern buildings that surround it. Once farmland, Morningside Heights in the Bronx has become a bustling city landscape crowded with restaurants, businesses and apartment buildings. Here in the midst of city sprawl sits an oasis which draws thousands of visitors each year. Not only a place of worship, the Cathedral is also a cultural center hosting concerts, exhibitions, and lectures throughout the year.  Since 1980 it has been known as “the Green Cathedral”  promoting ecology, the environment and world peace.

The interior of St. John the Divine is even more stunning than the exterior. Outlining the Nave (considered Cram’s grandest achievement) eight massive granite columns rise 124 feet from the floor. They were brought to New York from a quarry in Maine by floating them down the river, rolling them across the city and hoisting them into place.  Just above the entrance is  the Great Rose Window. Forty feet in diameter it is the third largest in the world and holds over 10,000 pieces of glass.

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“The Green Cathedral” promotes ecology, the environment and world peace

Among the many concerts held at  the Cathedral throughout the year, one is Paul Winter’s Concert for the Winter Solstice. What a stunning venue for this celebration which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. And Paul Winter’s “earth music” fits the celebration perfectly. Sitting in the Nave surrounded by spiritual music, ones attention cannot help but be drawn upward to the magnificent vaulted ceiling. At one point during the concert  bolts of “lightning” flash across it, “thunder” roars, and then inch by inch “sunlight” radiates down the Nave representing the increasing light of the days to come. I  imagine my grandfather working here, decades ago. How exciting it must have been to be a part of building this magnificent Cathedral.

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Preparing for the Winter Solstice Concert at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, December 2019

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Celebrating the coming of spring,  light slowly spreads throughout the entire cathedral – December 2019

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The Great Rose Window – the third largest  in the world contains over 10,000 pieces of glass

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