To inherit an uncompleted building, requiring unattainable sums of money to finish it in the original style, would seem like one of the worst of fates. If this building should be a cathedral, and if the means of carrying out the first plan should be technologically as well as financially in doubt, the bishop in charge might be thought near to distraction.
It is so with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, crowning with its immense hulk the lordliest elevation of Manhattan Island. But Bishop Paul Moore is not at all dismayed, and his lieutenant, Dean James Morton, is downright cheerful. Indeed, after visiting the site recently I thought to myself it was beautiful to come into possession of a vast structure waiting for the touch of the modern age. How dead and unchallenging in comparison is the object completed once and for all, beyond the possibility of change or of a new approach!
The walls of Dean Morton's expansive study, once a sitting room or library in the house built by J. P. Morgan for Episcopal bishops (there was no reason, he is reported to have said, why bishops should not live as well as the rest of us) , are covered with architectural studies of the most imaginative and sometimes of the most fanciful sort. No idea seems too far-fetched for consideration. Perhaps a huge bubble should float above the ecclesiastical structure, allowing worshipers to sit on the ground where unbuilt sections of the cathedral were intended to be. Perhaps a kind of crystal palace, a large greenhouse, should enclose trees and greenery and provide solar heat to warm the congregations.
About one point, however, there is no questioning. The two western towers at the facade of the cathedral, now reaching only to the level of the roof, are to be built to a soaring height, as conceived by the architech, Ralph Adams Cram. When this project was announced, one could almost hear the groans of churchmen and philanthropists. But it turned out that there was to be no ordinary scheme of "bricks and mortar." This building program was to be a thing of life and the spirit, with money only one, and relatively minor, element in the plan.
The miracle is being wrought upon Morningside Heights through the enlistment of young people, mostly from the run-down area surrounding the cathedral, making them apprentices in the ancient art of stonecutting. I saw these cathedral builders the other day, a score of young men and women, working at their incredibility demanding job under the eye of a master stonecutter from Wells, England. They were hacking away at the obdurate material, shaping each piece with relentless exactitude. Sometimes it was a simple rectangular form they were carving out; sometimes a stone of complex curves.Yet even the plainest one had its exact position assigned to it, somewhere in the towers, whose dimensions still waited to be made visible.
Eight thousand of these varied forms and sizes will be shaped meticulously by the stonecutters' mallet, and one of these days, perhaps not too far off, the first of them will be set in place, there to remain as long as the history of Western man continues to be told. What other work could be so imbued with a sense of the ideal? What other young man or woman could gaze with so much inner satisfaction at the destined fulfillment of his efforts?
Rudyard Kipling, a much greater poet than the present generation sometimes concedes, wrote one of his finest poems upon the craftsman, taking as his symbol the hewn stone, or ashlar, shaped laboriously by those who built temples and cathedrals in ages past. My new-cut ashlar takes the light Where crimson-blank the windows flare: By my own work before the night, Great Overseer, I make my prayerm . . .
It did not seem to me an exaggeration, turning away from the stonecutter's yard to see those apprentices as the latest in an unending procession of blessed craftsmen and builders. Dean Morton, who had been exuberant during our tour of the site, now fell silent, and for a moment in that great city only the receding blows of the stonecutters' mallets sounded in my ears.