Climbing Atop the Largest Cathedral in the World: An After-Hours Vertical Tour of St. John the Divine

NYC has many claims to fame, but one that you may not be aware of is that the city is home to the world’s largest cathedral: St. John the Divine. It’s also one of the top five largest buildings in the world, and it’s truly stunning, both inside and out. And, apparently, cathedral size is determined by length rather than height, just in case you were thinking of some other cathedrals that may actually be taller than dear St. John’s (who comes up with this stuff anyway???) The Cathedral is 601 feet long, which is almost twice as long as NYC’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

St. John the Divine
St. John the Divine’s South Tower

Recently, I attended one of the Cathedral’s after-hours “vertical” tours with the New York Adventure Club. We had the whole place to ourselves, and it was eerily quiet as we wandered around and learned about this fantastic building. St. John the Divine belongs to the Episcopal Church, and it is the bishop’s seat for the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1892, and work continues to be done today, though most of the current work is intended to maintain and restore the Cathedral rather than add to it.

St. John the Divine Statue
This wild statue is sitting outside of the Cathedral. So much going on here…

The most recent new construction was for the south tower, which was started in the late 70s and completed in 1993, though they ran out of money before they could complete it fully, so it’s actually still missing the spire that was originally designed for it (not to mention the north tower hasn’t even been started). As our excellent tour guide, Bill, explained to us, they often (lovingly) refer to the Cathedral as “St. John the Incomplete”. It’s not unusual for construction of a Cathedral to drag on for years and even decades, but I think we can all agree that 120 years is a long time to not finish a construction project. I mean, your contractor must be long gone by now, amiright? 😉

St. John the Divine Facade
Notice how there is only one tower???

The interior of the Cathedral is just massive, and it’s absolutely gorgeous in large part, I think, due to its beautiful Guastavino vaulting. Many NYC buildings have been graced by Guastavino’s signature vaulting system, which utilizes tiles rather than stone, including the abandoned City Hall Subway Station, the main immigration hall on Ellis Island, the building that houses the New York Federal Reserve, and even the interior of a crypt in the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral Catacombs.

St. John the Divine Guastavino Vaulting
Some of the beautiful Guastavino vaulting can be seen here overhead

And although the Cathedral offers their own vertical tours, one of the perks of the Adventure Club tour is that you get to go up inside one of Guastavino’s lovely spiral staircases, and this was where we started our tour. Though the staircase extends 40 feet below ground and all the way up to the roof, we only went up to the first level where we could look out onto the floor below and across the way to an identical staircase to the one we just climbed. Everything in the Cathedral is fairly symmetrical, even down to the staircases.

Entering the Guastavino Staircase
Entering the Guastavino staircase – you can see his signature tiles make up the spiral
Up into the Guastavino Staircase
The view of the staircase when looking up through the center. It continues on up for about 11 more floors from here!

From here we had a wonderful view of some of the Cathedral’s eight massive columns, each weighing around 133 tons and standing at about 50 feet tall. It’s crazy when you think about something so large standing upright and the amount of weight that each is pressing down on the earth below. New York is famous for its bedrock, which allows massive heavy buildings to built on top of it, but for the Cathedral, there are some places in which the foundation columns had to extend down to 72 feet below ground in order to reach the bedrock!

St. John the Divine Columns
A few of the eight massive columns. You can see the seams where two pieces were joined together to make one column. Apparently, when they had tried making the columns out of one piece, they kept breaking.

After, we headed over to another staircase where we would continue the rest of our “vertical” tour up to the top of the Cathedral. Our first stop was at the triforium level, which had some very tiny walkways (not intended for the claustrophobic). Bill explained that this level is fairly utilitarian and meant for more practical purposes and behind-the-scenes aspects of the Cathedral such as running wiring and cords and such. Which is sad, because this level features some really beautiful flowers, all hand cut out of limestone (though we were told that further down the tight corridor there is one carving that has the face of a baby of one of the stoneworkers rather than flowers!)

St. John the Divine Triforium Hallway
The tiny hallways we had to squeeze through!

Next, we continued upward and came upon one of the buttresses, which are basically built perpendicular to the exterior walls of the Cathedral to provide inward pressure on the walls. With vaulting, there is a tendency for the weight to push the walls outward and so buttresses help to counteract that. Inside, there is an extension of the buttress that goes a little ways into the interior of the Cathedral, and we gathered here shortly to enjoy the views and take in the sheer size of this place.

This is also where those in our group who are less keen on heights started to feel a bit more anxious while looking over the edge! We were definitely getting up there. But there was yet one more level inside, which brought us to the highest point within the Cathedral itself. GULP!

St. John the Divine Buttress
The view from atop one of the buttresses outside
St. John the Divine Inner Buttress Level
Getting closer to the top!
St. John the Divine Overhead Interior View
It’s a long way down there!

Finally, we made our way up onto the roof where we might have stayed awhile and enjoyed views of the Upper West Side of Manhattan if not for the fact that it was raining. We did get a great view of the more recently completed South Tower from here, and we learned of high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s journey across Amsterdam Ave. via a wire attached to the South Tower. Eep! No thanks…

St. John the Divine Rooftop View
The view from the Cathedral’s rooftop

And having walked up nearly 200 steps and 124 feet, we finished our tour on top of the Cathedral’s arched ceiling. From here, you could see the upper level of Guastavino tiling, and there is also a steel support system that was later installed to apply counterpressure to the buttresses.

As it turns out, the buttresses were pushing inward a bit too much, a consequence of having designed them to support a stone-arched design. However, Guastavino’s tile system is significantly lighter and simply doesn’t provide the amount of weight and force that the buttresses were designed to counteract and so the new system above the ceiling is helping to balance that out.

St. John the Divine Ceiling
This is what the other side of the Cathedral’s ceiling looks like. There is a layer of tile on both the top and the bottom in all of Guastavino’s arches and vaults. This is the unfinished, nondecorative side of the tile and the decorative tile is what you see when you stand inside the Cathedral. A 7-inch thick concrete roof is built over all of this to protect the Cathedral from the elements.

Though we couldn’t walk on top of the ceiling itself, we were assured that it was quite strong and that it would be perfectly safe if they chose to permit visitors to do so, but I’m pretty sure that would be a hard pass for me if they had been making the offer to climb on out there. They do check the integrity of the tiles and have been making repairs to any that have shown deterioration (and we were assured that none have ever fallen out), but I think I’ll just go ahead and trust them when they say it’s safe and sturdy enough without needing to test that theory in real life…

And with that, our tour came to end. Several people I’ve met through the NY Adventure Club had mentioned this was one of their favorite tours, and having taken it now myself, I’m inclined to agree that it was pretty spectacular!

And though it was wonderful to climb atop the Cathedral and it was definitely fantastic to have the whole place to ourselves, the downside of the after-hours tour is that it is also dark outside so you miss out on seeing the beautiful stained-glass windows. I have been to St. John’s a couple times before in the daylight, and I can attest to the fact that it is equally beautiful in the sunlight!

St. John the Divine Stained Glass
Some of the beautiful stained glass you can see on a bright and sunny day
St. John the Divine Stained Glass Dark
More of the Cathedral’s beautiful stained glass

So, if you want to visit and enjoy the after-hours experience, I would suggest arriving early while there is still daylight so you can enjoy the beautiful grounds and admire the lovely windows inside, too. Regardless of when or how you visit, though, if you’ve never been to St. John the Divine, I highly recommend you make your way there soon!

Have you already been to the Cathedral? Let me know what you think!

Plan Your Own Visit

Where to Go

  • The Cathedral of St. John the Divine: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street, New York, NY 10025
  • There is no on-site parking, so it’s recommended that you visit via subway or arrive early to allow plenty of time for finding parking.

When to Go

  • The Cathedral is open to visitors seven days a week. For a fee, you can visit the Cathedral, exhibits, gardens, and grounds.
  • Daily tours are available at the Cathedral, and the New York Adventure Club typically offers its own special vertical tour once a month.
  • You can check their calendar for special events in case you want to plan your visit around something in particular.
  • Finally, you’re always welcome to attend their regularly scheduled church services.

Tips for Visiting

  • There is no coat/bag check available, and the Cathedral requests that you do not bring any large bags with you during your visit.
  • There are a lot of events that could close part or all of the Cathedral when you want to visit. Be sure to check their calendar to ensure you will be able to visit on your chosen day and time.
  • The stained glass windows and the gardens are both very beautiful and can best be appreciated during the day, preferably with some sunshine! Keep this in mind when deciding when to go.
  • There are plenty of tours to choose from – pick the one you want to have the experience that is of most interest to you. Or skip the tours altogether and do a self-guided visit!
  • And if you want to visit after hours, check out the New York Adventure Club’s monthly after-hours tour, which includes access to the beautiful Guastavino spiral staircase that is otherwise off-limits to the public.

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