Life returning to St. John the Divine in New York City

February 6, 2002

To the casual observer, activities at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City appear to be remarkably normal just weeks after the December 18 fire in the north transept that destroyed the gift shop and, for a time, threatened the great sacred space of the sanctuary itself.

Now regular worship services are held, large numbers of tourists have returned, and special events have resumed. Of course the congregation notices the absence of the soaring sounds of the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. It will remain silent for an indefinite period. Although it was not damaged, its pipe chambers must be thoroughly cleaned to prevent damage from the accumulation of soot from the fire. In the meantime, a sophisticated three-manual digital organ and speakers have been installed in the north and south galleries above the Great Choir to provide music.

Some questions remain. The financial implications of the fire are still being sorted out. Fire adjusters are currently working with cathedral officials to assess the damages. There was an outpouring of gifts following the fire but, regardless of the insurance settlement, the cathedral is experiencing a cash flow problem with the loss of the gift shop and the vertical tours that allowed visitors to climb 12 flights of stairs to the top of the cathedral. A temporary gift shop will probably open this spring.

As pointed out in a New York Times article, while the north transept is cleared all the interior spaces of the huge cathedral must be scrubbed because they are covered with a coating of soot. Usually firefighters would have smashed the windows to ventilate the building but, in this case, they preserved the stained glass but also trapped the smoke and soot inside.

The fate of two priceless 17th century tapestries is not known yet. They are currently in the cathedral textile conservation laboratory undergoing extensive examination to determine what can be done. The tapestries hung on the wall that separates the main sanctuary from the transept so they were exposed to the flames of the fire. Four other tapestries were not damaged but must also be cleaned.