Good morning. Today is Thursday. Let’s explore underneath a famous Manhattan cathedral to find out why it didn’t fly as high as originally planned.
Credit… George Etheredge for The New York Times
Manhattan was rebuilt with stone and steel, but non-man-made factors often dictate what architects and engineers can design and what construction teams can build. This was the case at the Cathedral Church of Holy St. John, as my colleague William J. Broad discovered after going on a tour with his wife. A tour guide mentioned that there was deep water in the lower basement.
This caught his attention and led to months of research and interviews and more tours, this time to places below the cathedral that most people never see.
I asked him to tell us what was down there and how this affected the size and shape of the cathedral, one of the largest in the world and one of the principal churches of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
You wrote That the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is one of the greatest things that can happen. How so?
His planners saw him as setting new standards for religious greatness and grandeur, not just in Manhattan but around the world. Its massive central tower would rise more than 40 stories high, eclipsing the skyscrapers of the day.
But the ground chosen for the giant cathedral turned out to be full of springs and rotting rocks. This surprise paid off in the plans for the colossal tower, and in time what is jokingly known as St. John the Unfinished began.
So this is really a geology and hydrology story, but for a non-geologist like me it seems illogical. There are too many skyscrapers in Manhattan. I always thought there was a solid, impermeable bedrock below. What’s under the cathedral?
“Bedrock” is a misleading word because it connotes a flat surface. It tilts at various angles in Manhattan, and its top surface reaches hundreds of feet, which could hinder the construction of skyscrapers. In many places the bedrock is so cracked that groundwater flows easily through it. A book I read, “Hidden Waters of New York City,” describes how underground springs and rivers are upending many old Manhattan buildings.
Today, cavers are searching for the ruins. I spoke with someone who found a lost river – Nick Carr, who runs the website scoutingny.com. “These things linger even after it’s set on concrete,” he told me.
In early 1893, St. When John’s builders began digging on their Morningside Heights property, they expected solid rock, but instead found springs, decaying rock, sand, clay, and loose boulders. At one point, they had to dig 135 feet to find a solid bedrock.
In contrast, those who built St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue were lucky. They hit the bedrock immediately. That’s why that Catholic church has towering twin towers and has become surrounded by skyscrapers.
st. John’s officials took you to the cellar and a deeper cellar below it, where running streams of water can still be found. A guiding official has worked at the cathedral for years and tells you that he has never delved into the depths before. Were you wearing tights?
So many St. I was surprised that the attendant of John never visited the depths of the cathedral, despite mentioning the waters. Maybe it was superstition. After all, the deep vault is under the crypt, where the tombs of the bishops are located. One employee said it was a river, another said it was a stream.
I wasn’t sure what to expect and didn’t have time to prepare for our expedition group. We had no flashlights, no boots, no boots.
It was pretty suspicious and a little scary at times. A second visit under higher lighting was more revealing. There were many signs of past flooding. But right now the waters below the cathedral are more of a curiosity than a threat.
Didn’t those who planned the cathedral in the late 19th century know that the area was flooded with water? And couldn’t they do anything to make up for it?
An 1865 map of Manhattan shows three small rivers rising within a block of what became the property of the cathedral.
Egbert Viele, a Military Academy graduate and a Civil War veteran who made the 1865 map, became the voice of the public warning of the dangers of building on old springs and riverbeds. In 1892, St. In the year John’s foundation stone was laid, The New York Times quoted his warning that groundwater was “constantly gushing from the rocks on which the city was built.”
Andrew Dolkart, a Columbia professor who has written the architectural history of Morningside Heights, tells me that such observations are the St. He said John should alert his planners. “The map was good enough to know there was a problem,” he said. “The situation has been determined. Before they could build one of the largest buildings in the world, they should have known what was there.”
Other experts disagreed. Sergey Kadinsky, author of “New York City’s Hidden Waters,” said the selected piece of land contained no discernible warning signs. “If it were a valley,” he said, recalling an underground riverbed, “the possibility of groundwater would be very obvious.”
Architecture historian Janet Adams Strong, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the Episcopal cathedral, told me that modern knowledge would probably help. But geology and hydrology “wasn’t science back then,” she added.
When the builders realized to what extent the chosen ground was flooded and the bedrock was eroded, they took drastic action. In 1896, The Times reported that they reinforced the site with 351,000 cubic feet of concrete, giving the cathedral “the equivalent of two solid rock foundations.”
J. Pierpont Morgan, founder of the nation’s largest bank, gave the cathedral $500,000 – or more than $17 million in today’s dollars – to help cover costs. Even so, in the end, the fortification of the site of the cathedral was deemed insufficient to support what should have been the church’s hallmark. The massive tower was sent to the scrap heap of history.
What about the apartment built on the north side of the cathedral a few years ago? Did it affect the flooding under the tomb?
The Enclave at the Cathedral, a 430-unit rental complex that runs along West 113th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive, was built from 2014 to 2016. The cathedral’s head of facilities, Jim Patterson, said its foundation had become an underground barrier. which diverted most of the underground flow away from the cathedral. “They solved our problem,” he said.
But when Patterson took me on my second visit to the underground cellar, it became clear that there was still plenty of water around, including water flowing into a large collection pit. To tell the truth, “We really don’t know where all this water is coming from,” he said as he wandered through the muddy cellar.
The weather will be very cloudy, temperatures will be below the 50s. Showers are expected late at night as temperatures approach below 40’s.
PARKING ON THE ALTERNATIVE SIDE
In effect today. Suspended tomorrow (Three Kings Day).
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It was Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in April 1971, and a huge crowd was ready to see the Bronx Bombers begin a new season.
My aunt had reserved us a seat next to the family of the players and our field view was excellent.
As the fans began to pour out of the stadium in the ensuing kick-offs, I noticed some of them approaching a man sitting a few rows ahead of us and politely greeting anyone who asked for his autograph.
I couldn’t even tell who the man was. So, my curiosity overpowering me, I slowly went to where he was sitting and handed me my pen and my report card.
After I finished signing, I looked down and was delighted to see that I had just received an autograph from George Plimpton.
Drawn by Agnes Lee. Submit applications here and Read the rest of the Metropolitan Diary here .
I’m glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
PS Here is today’s Short Puzzle and Spelling Contest . You can find all our puzzles here. .
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].