Posts Tagged ‘Cathedral of St. John the Divine’

An 1843 orphanage behind a Manhattan cathedral

August 24, 2015

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine—begun in 1892 and still unfinished—is one of the city’s most magnificent houses of worship, occupying 13 acres on a plateau on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street.

Leakeandwattsorphanage

But there’s a building on the cathedral grounds that predates St. John’s by 49 years and stands as a reminder of how 19th century New York handled parentless or unwanted children.

LeakeandwattspamphletThe lovely building is the former home of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, built in 1843 when this part of Manhattan was wide open countryside.

Leake and Watts cared for “full orphans, between the ages of three and twelve years,” according to the 1892 King’s Handbook of New York City.

The orphanage was founded by wealthy lawyer John Leake, who died in 1827 with no heirs. He left his fortune to a good friend’s son, Robert Watts, on the condition that he either adopt the surname Leake, or forfeit the money so it could be used to open an orphan asylum.

Watts died before he could inherit the fortune, however, so the orphanage got the go-ahead.

Leakeandwatts19thcentury

At its opening, the orphanage housed 60 boys, and soon girls were cared for there as well.

Leakeandwattscathedral1900“Here the institution cares for homeless and friendless orphans, educating them and, at the age of 14, finding Christian homes for them,” states King’s Handbook.

After four decades in the open country of Morningside Heights, Leake and Watts sold their land to the trustees who planned to build the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Leake and Watts moved their orphanage to Yonkers, abandoning the Greek Revival-style building with its impressive Ionic columns.

LeakeandwattscathedralOne wing was sheared off in the 1950s, but the Ithiel Town Building—named after its architect, who also designed Federal Hall downtown and St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street—still remains.

It’s a link to the city’s institutional past, when orphanages abounded and were considered a humane alternative to turning unwanted and homeless kids out into the street. [Fourth image: MCNY Collections Portal, 1900]

The goofy grotesques of Morningside Heights

August 15, 2011

Morningside Heights is another New York neighborhood that seems to be filled with these wonderful, whimsical stone carvings.

                           Designers of Morningside Heights’ stately apartment buildings may have been influenced by Columbia University on 116th Street.

Or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at 110th Street served as the inspiration.

Or maybe it was just the timing; gargoyles and grotesques were popular with architects around the turn of the century, when the West Side blocks of the 90s and 100s were developed.

Whatever inspired their creation, these grotesques are charming to encounter, especially the silly guys at the Brittania at 527 West 110th Street.

A scholar. A soup-cooker. A soup gobbler. A chicken eater. (A chicken eater?) These limestone ornaments are found all along the circa-1909 building.

“Hands off my rotisserie chicken!” he seems to be saying. In fact, a 2009 New York Times article reveals that the grotesques are meant to symbolize “some form of the homely art of housekeeping.”

Progress made building the “great cathedral”

January 5, 2011

“The great cathedral on Morningside Heights is nearing completion faster than most of us imagine,” states the opening sentence of this New York Times article from November 28, 1909.

Well, not exactly—the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is still unfinished more than a century later.

The cornerstone was laid in 1892, and workers instantly encountered problems.

First, geological snags had to be fixed before the foundation could be poured.

In 1905, controversy erupted when it was discovered that sculptor Gutzon Borglam had created female angels in one of the chapels. Four years later, the Byzantine-Romanesque design was shelved in favor of a Gothic look.

Some of the seven planned chapels were completed, as was the crypt and nave, by the 1930s. Then World War II halted construction, postwar efforts to get things going occurred in fits and starts, and a fire in 2001 destroyed part of the northern end.

But even at only three-fifths complete, it’s still breathtaking and beautiful.