The largest Gothic-style cathedral in the world, even with its towers and transepts still unfinished, this divine behemoth comfortably asserts its bulk in the country's most vertical city. The seat of the Episcopal diocese in New York, it acts as a sanctuary for all, giving special services that include a celebration of New York's gay and lesbian community as well as the annual Blessing of the Bikes, when cyclists of all faiths bring their wheels for a holy-water benediction.
The cathedral hosts musical performances (www.stjohndivine.org) and has held funerals and memorial services for such artists as Duke Ellington, Jim Henson, George Balanchine, James Baldwin, and Alvin Ailey. Built in two long spurts starting in 1892, the cathedral remains only two-thirds complete. What began as a Romanesque-Byzantine structure under the original architects George Heins and Christopher Grant Lafarge shifted (upon Heins's death in 1911) to French Gothic under the direction of Gothic Revival purist Ralph Adams Cram. You can spot the juxtaposition of the two medieval styles by comparing the finished Gothic arches, which are pointed, with the still-uncovered arches, which are rounded in the Byzantine style.
To get the full effect of the cathedral's size, approach it from Broadway on West 112th Street. Above the 3-ton central bronze doors is the intricately carved Portal of Paradise, which depicts St. John witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus, and 32 biblical characters. Then step inside to the cavernous nave. More than 600 feet long, it holds some 5,000 worshippers, and the 162-foot-tall dome crossing could comfortably contain the Statue of Liberty (minus its pedestal). Turn around to see the Great Rose Window, made from more than 10,000 pieces of colored glass, the largest stained-glass window in the United States.
At the end of the nave, surrounding the altar, are seven chapels expressing the cathedral's interfaith tradition and international mission—with menorahs, Shinto vases, and dedications to various ethnic groups. The Saint Saviour Chapel contains a three-panel bronze altar in white-gold leaf with religious scenes by artist Keith Haring (his last work before he died in 1990).
Outside in the cathedral's south grounds, don't miss the eye-catching Peace Fountain. It depicts the struggle of good and evil in the form of the archangel Michael decapitating Satan, whose head hangs from one side. Encircling it are whimsical animals cast in bronze from pieces sculpted by children.
On the first Sunday of October the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is truly a zoo. In honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the church holds its usual Sunday service with a twist: the service is attended by men, women, children, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, and the occasional horse, sheep, or ant farm. In past years upward of 3,500 New Yorkers have shown up to have their pets blessed. A procession is led by such guest animals as elephants, camels, llamas, and golden eagles. Seats are first-come, first-served for this popular event, so come at least an hour ahead of time. Sunday services are at 8, 9, 11, and 4. "Highlight Tours" and "Vertical Tours" are offered throughout the week: check the website for details and to reserve space.
1047 Amsterdam Ave., at W. 112th St., New York, New York, 10025, United States
212-316–7540; 866-811–4111-tour reservations