A Cathedral Tried to Approach Heaven, but the Earth Held a Deep Secret

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, set on a cliff, could have dominated Manhattan’s emerging skyline. It could have soared to dazzling heights, its central tower 445 feet high, dwarfing all else, including the Statue of Liberty.

“It was to be the end-all be-all,” said Janet Adams Strong, an architectural historian who wrote her doctoral thesis on the Episcopal cathedral. “They didn’t anticipate problems. And why should they? It was an era of great optimism.”

But nature demurred.

The cathedral’s chosen ground turned out to be honeycombed with springs and decomposing rock. The surprise led planners to delay the church’s foundation and eventually to scrap the looming tower, beginning what in time became known as St. John the Unfinished. Though it is now a defining New York City institution, it remains half-built after some 130 years, its front towers little more than stubs.

Manhattan — a land of steel towers and countless triumphs over nature — turns out to possess a lost history in which the subterranean remnants of springs and streams have destabilized many buildings, perhaps hundreds in all.

Early on, the hidden waters roiled St. John’s. Lingering trickles can still be found in a lair deep beneath the cathedral, deeper than even the crypt, which holds the tombs of deceased bishops and runs the length of the gigantic church.

The upwellings in the subbasement are largely unknown to the public and can evoke more fancy than fact among church staffers. One said the vault held a river; another, a creek. Such descriptions may reflect old impressions but today appear to be unfounded. Officials say the worst of the flooding has subsided in recent years. The keepers of the crypt have a theory as to what caused the flow’s reduction, but they have yet to pin down the water’s origin.

The uncertainties have prompted church officials to study old photos, books and records to better understand how the springs arose, begot the church’s early construction woes and gotelevated at one point into the waters of baptism. Eager for clues, staff members are discussing an experiment that would inject dye into the residual flows as a way to track their wanderings across the church’s 11-acre property.

The Very Reverend Patrick Malloy, St. John’s lead cleric, called the water “a great blessing,” despite the havoc it wrought. “It’s primal and real,” he said. “It connotes life.”

God, he emphasized, “is revealed in natural things.”

On a worldly note, Dean Malloy said the waters played a central role in the institution’s rise. If unacknowledged, he said, “the story wouldn’t be as rich.”

St. John’s crypt, a vast storage area for tombs and church paraphernalia. Beneath it lies a subbasement that holds lingering trickles of water from substantial flows that upended plans for the giant cathedral.

Left, The Very Reverend Patrick Malloy, St. John’s lead cleric. He called the water “a great blessing” despite the havoc it wrought. Center and right, artifacts from St. John’s crypt.

Tales From Beneath the Crypt

My wife and I live near St. John the Divine. When we toured the cathedral this year, my ears perked up when a guide mentioned deep waters in the subbasement. After months of research and questions, talks and interviews, I finally got a chance to take a look.

The scouting party was led by Lisa A. Schubert, head of public affairs for the cathedral, and Keith C. Hinkson, head of cathedral security. We descended a long staircase into the church’s crypt. Surprisingly, the area was well lit, its ceiling high. A vast storage area, the crypt held not only tombs and piles of equipment but elegant light fixtures from the long-demolished Pennsylvania Station.

As we moved through the crypt toward the subbasement’s entrance, I saw dark footprints ahead of us, their dampness making them stand out against the cement floor. “This is where it’s always wet,” Mr. Hinkson said.

We approached an area where the floor was covered with about a half-inch of watery sludge. Ms. Schubert said she had never been this way before. There was a staircase. It was dark. We switched on our smartphone lights and carefully moved down the wet cement stairs.

At the bottom, we stopped. The faint beams of our phones did little to dispel the dark. Our voices echoed. Down another short flight of steps, we peered into the gloom. To the left, against a wall, there were two large, industrial-size pumps, apparently for getting rid of the water.

I went down the short, wet stairway. Moving forward gingerly, I held my phone up high and could discern the dim outlines of a larger room and a sizable pit.

The reconnaissance over, we retraced our steps.

Our brief look was a reasonable start. But understanding what was really going on beneath the cathedral was going to take more digging.

The subbasement of St. John’s. Unlike the crypt above, its floor is bare of stored equipment and church paraphernalia. Instead, it holds shallow pools of water and stains from previous water damage.

From left, Keith C. Hinkson, head of cathedral security; water damage in the subbasement; Lisa A. Schubert, the cathedral’s head of public affairs.

A Metropolis Set on Stone

Manhattan’s bedrock is primarily schist — a hard metamorphic rock strong enough to support miles of skyscrapers. Typically, schist is also poor at letting water seep through its pores because its mineral grains are so tightly packed.

However, Manhattan schist is riddled with fissures through which water can flow. “We’re talking about relatively thin openings — not something a person could splash through,” said William H. Menke, a geologist at Columbia University.

But water running through schist can decompose it. Dr. Menke said the hard rock’s mineral components can turn into sand and clay. Over geologic time, the clay can turn into shale, a soft sedimentary rock that easily splits into fragile slabs.

In the last ice age, Manhattan was covered with an immense sheet of frozen water, perhaps one-third of a mile thick. Starting 18,000 years ago, the ice pack began to melt.

What emerged from the watery chaos was a heavily forested isle full of ponds, brooks, springs, rivers, swamps, marshes and tidal inlets. Eric W. Sanderson, author of a natural history of Manhattan, said hundreds of freshwater springs attracted the island’s first Indigenous settlers, then European colonists eager to avoid the Hudson’s brackish waters.

Early maps of Manhattan — dated 1782 and 1865 — depict a number of rivers and bodies of water on the plateau that became Morningside Heights, the neighborhood where St. John the Divine was eventually built.

Egbert L. Viele, a graduate of the Military Academy and Civil War veteran who made the 1865 map, became a public voice of caution on the dangers of building atop the old springs and riverbeds. In 1892, the year St. John’s cornerstone was laid, The New York Times quoted him as warning that subterranean water “is constantly bubbling out of the rocks on which the city is built.”

Public School 36, ten blocks north of the cathedral, rests on solid Manhattan schist.
William H. Menke, a geologist at Columbia University, sitting atop the Manhattan schist that forms the cliff on which the cathedral stands.
Dr. Menke with an 1865 map of Morningside Heights. “We’re talking about relatively thin openings — not something a person could splash through,” he said of Manhattan schist.

Morningside Heights was rural into the late 1800s. St. John’s was among the first large institutions to arrive, followed by St. Luke’s Hospital (now Mount Sinai Morningside), Columbia University and many other scholarly and religious bodies.

The developers of Morningside Heights found lots of Manhattan schist. They also discovered that the quality of the rock varied drastically from site to site.

A Site of ‘Commanding Dignity’

The foremost proponent of the cathedral was Henry C. Potter, a wealthy man who eventually married the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. The company’s tower in Lower Manhattan was briefly the world’s tallest. In 1887, when the Right Reverend Potter became the Episcopal bishop of New York, he had the connections and, it appeared, the financial backing to erect in Upper Manhattan what he saw as America’s pre-eminent church.

He and his advisers chose a parcel of sloping land that ran along a cliff extending from West 113 Street to West 110 Street, which became known as Cathedral Parkway. Set on the second highest point in Manhattan, the site offered a sweeping view of the rising metropolis.

“No cathedral in any great city in the world has today a site which, for commanding dignity, will approach that which we have secured,” Bishop Potter declared.

On a winter day in 1892, the prelate — aided by a silver trowel from Tiffany & Company, a harp, an organ, a 70-person choir, an orchestra, the secretary of the Navy, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of other dignitaries — laid its cornerstone.

During the spring thaw of 1893, workmen began to dig. They found not solid rock but springs, decomposing schist, sand, clay, loose boulders and shale.

“Fruitless Digging,” the New York World declared in a Sept. 9 headline. The article said the crews excavated a pit 40 feet deep but found no bedrock. The gargantuan hole, it added, “filled with water.”

A postcard, circa 1910, showed the cathedral based on its designs, including its giant tower.Credit…via New York Public Library
The chosen site for the cathedral ran from West 113 street to West 110 street, the second highest point in Manhattan.

Things got worse. The softest ground, it turned out, lay precisely under the spot where the colossal spire was to rise. “In one terrible instant,” Dr. Strong noted in her dissertation, “the cathedral’s glory, its great central tower, was transformed into its nemesis.”

After two more years of digging, the crews finally hit bedrock. In places, it lay 72 feet down, about halfway through the Morningside plateau.

In August 1895, The Times reported that St. John’s would build a supplemental foundation for the cathedral made of concrete. The newspaper said the dense mass had to be “flawless” because the central tower would weigh 136 million pounds — more than twice the weight, it noted, of the world’s tallest office building.

The cathedral’s tower, the newspaper added, “will easily be the most prominent object on Manhattan Island.”

J. Pierpont Morgan, founder of the nation’s largest bank, gave the cathedral $500,000 — or more than $17 million in today’s dollars. His objective, he told Bishop Potter, was to “get us out of a hole.” The Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Belmonts also donated.

But years of digging and pouring concrete were no help. The tower’s envisioned size was slowly reduced over decades. In the end, what was to have been the church’s main feature vanished.

“Why would you ever suspect there was water there?” Dr. Strong asked. “Who would ever imagine the ground would be so soft?”

Saved by a Sacred Rite

The nightmare, in time, became an ecclesiastical asset.

For baptisms, early Christians are said to have preferred the “living” waters of springs and streams. In fact, many early churches and cathedrals were built near or over springs. It follows that the founders of St. John the Divine may have been eager to make use of the church’s natural waters, even if they had been uncovered by accident.

The church’s ornate room for baptisms was modeled on the great baptisteries of Pisa and Florence. Its font is made of French marble. The descendants of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, paid for the baptistery’s construction.

Evidence that St. John’s used its waters for baptismal rites begins with the photographer James Reuel Smith, who toured Upper Manhattan on a bicycle from 1897 to 1901 to document its vanishing world of springs, wells and other pastoral features. Mr. Smith put his findings into a book that the New-York Historical Society published.

The ornate baptistry of St. John’s. Stephen A. Facey, a former St. John’s official, said water from the spring was “piped up to the Baptistery and fed the baptismal font.”

In appraising St. John the Divine, Mr. Smith noted that the land’s previous owner had a well, “just about” where the cathedral had planned to construct its baptismal font. Pure waters for the sacred rite, he declared, might arise “from the well!”

Stephen A. Facey, a senior St. John’s official in the 1990s and 2000s, said water from the spring was indeed “piped up to the Baptistery and fed the baptismal font.”

But at some point, many decades ago, Mr. Facey said, city water replaced the spring water. Why? Its acidity was seen as damaging to the font’s marble basin, just as acid rain can eat away marble tombstones and statuary.

A Hunt for Hidden Waterways

The church property slopes to the south. In 1897, downhill, near the intersection of Cathedral Parkway and Morningside Drive, the intrepid Mr. Smith photographed a spring that evoked the secret world of subterranean water.

He said the spring originated near the base of the cliff. His photograph shows a rivulet surrounded by a detached boulder, small rocks and weedlike plants.

“Recently the city had a sign placed at this spring cautioning people not to drink from it,” Mr. Smith wrote in 1897, “but the sign soon disappeared.”

So did the spring. Years later, when Mr. Smith revisited the site, construction workers were erecting a giant stone retaining wall along Cathedral Parkway that he described as three feet thick and 30 feet high. “It is today just covered,” he said of the spring.

For the cathedral’s sleuths, the photo is Exhibit A. The spring’s disappearance also evokes the challenges they face in tracking the subterranean flows.

Wayne Kempton, the archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, found two photographs made in 1907 during a large excavation on the cathedral’s south flank. The dig site was filled with water — from one of the springs, Mr. Kempton suspects.

A 1907 photograph showed excavations at the cathedral’s southeast side, filled with what Wayne Kempton, its archivist, believes is water from one of the springs.Credit…via Wayne Kempton

He also found evidence that the underground flow kept running downhill from the cathedral and carved out a new exit or exits. A 1916 photograph shows a continuation of the retaining wall along Cathedral Parkway that Mr. Smith saw in construction, its bottom edge revealing what appears to be large rectangular drain openings.

Some 90 years later, around 2006, the same continuation of the wall buckled and collapsed, according to Mr. Kempton. He suspected the spring was the cause.

Connecting the dots, Mr. Kempton envisions a hidden watercourse that flows across nearly three blocks of the cathedral’s property — starting at the church’s north side near West 113th Street and running southward across the 11-acre property to Cathedral Parkway.

“The question is, ‘Where has it gone?’” he said of the southern flow. Mr. Kempton sees using a dye test that traces where the water flows as providing a possible answer.

What’s clear already is that the cathedral site is geologically uncommon. A recent book found that the deepest cut went down nearly twice the early reports. Rather than 72 feet, it plunged 135 feet — roughly the overall thickness of the Morningside plateau. The unusually deep bedrock was needed to support the church’s eight giant pillars around its main altar. Each weighed 130 tons, making them the biggest ever cut from an American quarry.

“Very unusual,” Dr. Menke, the Columbia geologist, said of the property. “Rivers often follow pre-existing geological features such as faults and fractures. So there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here. The present-day water may not so much reflect the former rivers, but rather the old river channels reflect some deeper geological feature.”

The Keeper Below the Crypt

The cluttered office of Jim Patterson, the cathedral’s head of facilities, is lined with old photographs showing various phases of St. John’s construction. He’s a living encyclopedia of facts and lore about the place.

I visited him about a week after my short exploration of the subbasement. On his desk, he unrolled a detailed floor plan of the cathedral. The area we visited, he said, was on its north side — in other words, in the vicinity of the old well, the Baptistery and what Mr. Kempton had identified as the known point of origin on the church’s property for the hidden watercourse.

Mr. Patterson said he began working at the cathedral in the 1990s and was told the sub-crypt area held an artesian spring — a place where natural pressure forces groundwater to the surface. “We definitely had water coming up,” Mr. Patterson said. At times, he added, rainfall also leaked into the subbasement, allowing the rising and descending waters to mix.

As a result, Mr. Patterson found himself battling small floods. The waters could rise “maybe a couple of feet,” he said. “Whatever we had, we’d pump out temporarily.” Eventually, he added, the church’s officials agreed to seek “a permanent fix.” Around 2002, Mr. Patterson said, he installed the big sump pumps — the ones we saw along the subbasement’s wall during our brief look at its depths.

From left, of Jim Patterson, the cathedral’s head of facilities; a mop and bucket in the crypt; the muddy floors of the subbasement.

Mr. Patterson believes that the foundation of the Enclave, a rental complex next to the cathedral, formed a subterranean barrier that diverted much of the underground flow away from the cathedral and its subbasement.

Today, Mr. Patterson said, the sub-crypt flooding is much reduced. Why? His theory centers on the rise of Enclave — a 430-unit rental complex that runs the length of West 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive. The dwelling, built from 2014 to 2016, set off protests from opponents who said the 15-story complex obscured street views of the cathedral.

With a slightly bemused expression, Mr. Patterson argued that Enclave’s foundation went down far enough to act as a subterranean barrier that diverted most of the underground flow away from the cathedral.“They solved our problem.”

We left his office to take another look at the deep vault. Crucially, Mr. Patterson knew exactly where electricians had recently installed new light switches, so we had no need for cellphone lights.

The cathedral’s cavernous subbasement consisted of big rooms, its ceiling perhaps 25 or 30 feet high. It was all poured concrete, and, unlike the crypt above, it was empty, its floor bare. That and its cavern-like size helped to explain the echoes we heard. With the lights on, the sump pumps looked less spooky, especially when Mr. Patterson started them up manually and the pit water gurgled upward.

We moved into the bigger room. The large pit was about eight or nine feet wide, and Mr. Patterson said it served as a gathering point that fed water into the pumps. The surrounding floor, like the steps, was full of watery muck. Our shoes made splish-splashy noises.

During our tour, Mr. Patterson kept pointing out features of the sub-crypt area that were either old and unused or mysterious in purpose. There were pipes, stairs and a giant shaft that went nowhere — relics from 130 years of building and rebuilding.

Now, in passing, he mentioned another relic.

At the bottom of the large gathering pool, Mr. Patterson said, was a feeder pipe, its source unknown. “It’s another pipe from nowhere,” he said, his voice reverberating. “But it was put there intentionally to get water into that pit.”

Mr. Patterson, who seemed to know more about St. John’s riddles and hidden waters than anybody else, offered a final twist.

Truth be told, he said as we roamed the muddy vault, “we really don’t know where all this water is coming from.”

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