the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
The following history is based on documents from the Cathedral’s archives and local newspaper reports. Due to the 2020 Corvid-19 pandemic, access to the archives was not possible in an attempt to fill in gaps in the information. With the exception of the first photo, all photos are from the Cathedral’s archives.
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, located on Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the seat of its bishop. According to its web site, the Cathedral is the largest cathedral in the world, meaning a church that is also the seat of a bishop; measured by length or internal volume, it is one of the five largest church buildings in the world.
Beginning with the laying of the cornerstone in 1892, the Cathedral was constructed, in phases, over several decades as funds became available. The Cathedral remains unfinished today as the church’s priorities have changed over time and the church decided to use its available funds to serve the community through programming and social initiatives and to maintain the architectural integrity of the Cathedral.
While granite from many quarries was used for both the exterior and interior parts of the Cathedral, beginning in 1898 and into the 1930s, Mohegan’s golden granite was used for the exterior of various parts of the Cathedral, including the:
- Synod House
- Saint Columba, Saint James and Saint Ansgarius Chapels
- West Front
- North Transept
- Steps leading up to the central entrance
The contracts, especially the 1925 $5 million contract, provided Grenci & Ellis, the quarry’s owners, with the funds that enabled them to modernize and expand their operations which in turn enabled the quarry to become more competitive and financially stable throughout the 1920s and during the Depression.
A 1924 Master’s Thesis on the geology of the quarry noted that: ”So identified with the building of this great cathedral has the Buff Mohegan become that a series of photographs has been taken by a person interested, showing the various stages in the travel of a block from the ledges to the Cathedral.”1
Looking back over the quarry’s 50 year history, and based on available documents, the Cathedral was the quarry’s largest and most sustained customer over time.
THE START OF A RELATIONSHIP
In 1896, the Cathedral’s first architects, Heins & La Farge, began investigating the suitability of granite from a large number of quarries from Maine to Minnesota; it was reported that Heins personally visited some of the sites. According to a 1926 magazine article about the Cathedral, Heins, a Peekskill resident and avid hiker, “discovered” Mohegan’s golden granite on one of his hikes.
After a process of elimination that factored in durability, color, cost, and ease of working, the architects commissioned Ricketts & Bank, a laboratory described as being “public chemists,” to analyze the properties of both Mohegan and Maine granite. Based on its findings, in an 1897 “Certificate of Analysis,” the company stated, “There is every reason to believe that this [Mohegan] stone would prove to be a durable and satisfactory one.”
Comparing the color differences between the Mohegan and Maine granites, Heins & La Farge noted: “We consider its [Mohegan’s] color very nearly the idea color for such a building. It is not only light, but has sufficient warmth to prevent any appearance of gloominess and at the same time it is not so white as to make a glaring effect upon the eye. We consider it distinctly superior to the [Maine] stone in this respect.”
Based on the Certificate, the superior color and the fact that Mohegan’s closeness to the construction site would reduce transportation costs, in April, 1898 the Cathedral’s trustees decided to select Mohegan granite — but — in consideration of the fact that some Trustees apparently still preferred marble to granite, the Trustees asked the Building Committee, aka the Fabric Committee, to look into the marble versus granite issue once again. The resolution authorized an expenditure of not to exceed $40,000 for the purchase of eight marble or granite monoliths, each 60 feet long and six feet in diameter for use in the eastern end of the choir.
Sometime between 1898 and 1900, Evelyn P. Roberts, President of the Mohegan Granite Company but acting as a private citizen and not a representative of the company, purchased the necessary land and entered into a lease with the Cathedral for $3,250. Roberts’ purchase was designed to prevent the original land owners from knowing the true value of their property. 2
In a letter to the Cathedral’s secretary, the architects justified the circuitous purchase/lease strategy:
“…if the owner of the ground had any idea that it was intended to use it for quarrying purposes, he would undoubtedly put up his price very largely. It so happens that he is a farmer and does not appreciate the possibilities of what he regards as waste land. We did the next best thing however, and had borings made upon the land adjacent to his, on what is evidently the same stratum of stone, with entirely satisfactory results.”
Between 1911-1913, Mohegan granite was again used in the construction of the Synod House and the Saint Columba, Saint James and Saint Ansgarius Chapels and possibly two other chapels.
COMPETITION TO SUPPLY GRANITE FOR THE NAVE
In 1916-1917, when the Cathedral was again investigating competing proposals for granite from Mohegan and Maine for the exterior walls of the nave, the Building Committee had samples from both sites tested at the Testing Laboratory of Columbia University for both crushing and absorption qualities. The Committee also considered the amount of granite that would be available for shipment.
The competition was heated with the Maine quarry challenging the soundness of Mohegan granite; the company actually took samples of Mohegan granite from the site of the Schwab House in Manhattan then undergoing a renovation and sent the sample to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for testing.
After reviewing the Maine and the Mohegan proposals and visiting the Mohegan site, the Committee concluded that while both quarries satisfactorily met the Cathedral’s physical requirements, the Mohegan granite would save the Cathedral between $8,000-$10,000 dollars for two reasons: its closeness to the construction site would reduce shipping costs and also because the Maine quarry would have required the Cathedral to either buy or lease the quarry site at an additional cost as the Mohegan Granite Company had already acquired the property on its own and would be considered a subcontractor to the Cathedral’s general contractor, Jacob and Youngs.
In June, 1917, the Committee accepted the Mohegan proposal for $34,856 and in July the project’s new architects, Cram and Ferguson, who replaced Heins & La Farge when Heins died, determined that a representative of the firm should be sent to the quarry site in order to inspect the stone before it was shipped to the Cathedral. The architect advised the Cathedral that it would not charge for this added service but that it did expect that the travel expense of $4-$5 per trip would be reimbursed.
Work on the nave was suspended during World War I but in April. 1920 the Cathedral trustees voted to commence construction in spring 1921, subject to having raised the necessary funds, estimated at $500,000.
In the spring of 1920, the Cathedral received bids from the Mohegan Quarry and a quarry in Maine for the next phase of the nave’s construction. In recommending that the bid go Mohegan, a member of the Building Committee, together with William H. Burr, the consulting engineer who recommended Mohegan granite in 1917, cited two reasons:
- The Mohegan bid was $110,000 less than Maine’s
- “The Mohegan Quarries’ granite has been used in the construction of the Cathedral up to the present time, and is satisfactory to the architects, and further as it has successfully shown its enduring qualities under exposure to the elements, there can be no doubt as to the desirability of accepting the Mohegan Quarries’ proposition.”
There was also a third reason.
“It seems probable from such information as this Committee has been able to learn that without this contract the Mohegan Quarries may be obliged to close for lack of orders, while the execution of the contract, on the other hand, would greatly strengthen their business condition so as to be available to supply granite in the future as may be needed by the construction of the Cathedral. While your Committee does not regard the consideration as controlling, it may perhaps be regarded as a feature of the situation.”
Once again, a representative of the Maine quarry alleged problems with Mohegan granite. In a handwritten letter to Burr, the author wrote that he was speaking for the people who have the true interests of the Cathedral at heart and that he was not “…speaking or writing for the material interests of anyone but are only interested in seeing the proper granite material use in the nave of the Cathedral, so that results satisfactory to the building and all concerned in its erection will be secured.”
The Maine letter notwithstanding, in October, 1920, the Cathedral entered into a $150,620 contract with Grenci & Ellis, the quarry’s new owner, for supplying and delivering about 17,500 cubic feet of granite for the facing of the exterior walls of the nave up to a certain elevation, and also and for the facing of the walls of the four bays adjacent to the Crossing.
In 1925, the Cathedral solicited bids for the next phase of the nave’s construction. The competition for the multi-million contract between the Mohegan and Maine quarries was again intense. In a series of letters to the Cathedral’s trustees, Grenci & Ellis submitted the results of laboratory tests of its granite while the same Maine quarryman involved in the 1916 and 1920 challenges to Mohegan granite, advised the trustees, “there is a grave danger that an inferior stone is being given individual consideration to the exclusion of all others…..There is the danger that should this matter of defective granite become public it might retard the building programme and stir up a disagreeable situation.” The letter went on to state that cracks and other signs of weakness had appeared in other parts of the Cathedral that used Mohegan granite many years earlier. It also questioned whether the Mohegan quarry could supply a sufficient quantity of the golden granite.
In response to the letters, William Burr, the author of the 1917 report, undertook a new comparative study of the Maine and Mohegan granites. In his report to the Cathedral, Burr addressed the alleged problems with Mohegan granite, offering alternative reasons for the perceived weaknesses. 3 He also addressed the quantity issues, concluding that there was a sufficient quantity of the golden granite to meet the Cathedral’s needs. 4 , 5
After reviewing Burr’s report, the Secretary of the Fabric, aka Building Committee, dismissed the claims made by the Maine letter writer.
“[While] claiming to be disinterested, [he] is an employee of [the Maine quarry], large producers of a granite, the use of which would add a million dollars to our burden…He has assailed everyone in our organization with visits and letters, making many baseless assertions… Any firm employing such an agent, under cover, puts itself into a disreputable class. The importance of examining all [the letter writer’s] strictures has been fully recognized by all concerned.”
In March, 1925, the Fabric Committee recommended that Grenci & Ellis be awarded a $1,180,988 contract for the exterior walls and that the Maine quarry be awarded a $451,245 contract for interior columns. But in April, 1925, the Yonkers Statesman newspaper reported that Grenci & Ellis had been awarded $5 million worth of contracts for the nave. 6
In September, 1926, over 100 members of the Cathedral’s Laymen’s Club, including men, woman and children, boarded three buses to make what was labeled “a pilgrimage” to the Mohegan Quarry. The visitors were served a buffet lunch of tomato soup, ham, potato salad, tongue, cheese, coffee, peaches, ice cream and cake. According to the newspaper report, the visit was a fund raising initiative designed to arouse interest in the continuing construction project.
In 1927, two representatives from the Cathedral visited the site to view work related to the quarry’s west front contract.
In 1932, the quarry received a contract for 23 ”broad granite steps” leading up to the Cathedral’s central entrance. Given the economic conditions at the time, and the fact that construction proceeded only when the Cathedral had the funds in hand, when Bishop Manning announced the contract, he said, “It is especially gratifying to me that at this time, when business is not at its best, we find it possible to go forward with this important part of the construction.”
The last known reference to a contract with the Cathedral was for stage 4 of the exterior of the west front and possibly the north transept sometime in the 1930s.
- Many of the photographs were included in the thesis. Over time, the photographs came into the possession of a Peekskill photo archivist, Frank Goderre, who made them available to the Yorktown Trail Town Committee for this project.
- In subsequent years, Roberts, who died in 1910, transferred ownership of the land to his wife and eventually to the Mohegan Granite Company. The exact details of these land deals are not known.)
- Documents in the Cathedral’s archives indicate that Mohegan granite was used in the nave’s exterior walls for a veneer, i.e., a facing, and was not load bearing.
- Grenci & Ellis hired a different Columbia geology professor to look into the quantify issue. The professor concluded that while he could not provide a definitive statement about the quantity of the golden granite because of its “erratic distribution,” he felt comfortable stating that there should be no problem finding not over 40,000 – 50,000 feet of the desired granite.
- In a 2014 Master’s Thesis for Columbia University entitled “Sheet Scaling in Mohegan Granite: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Factors,” the author, Karen Stone, examined evidences of a “scaling” problem at several sites that used Mohegan Granite.
- Copies of the actual 1925 contracts was not available, but in a June, 1925 letter to the Cathedral, the building contractor suggested that the granite for the second stage of the exterior walls be ordered “at this time and accomplish the same purpose that would result from ordering the entire work for the second stage…If the work to this [elevation] is ordered at this time it would answer every purpose of our recommendation which was to provide sufficient work for the Quarry now and to enable it to be sufficiently ahead of the interior stone to cause no delay in construction when the work of the second stage is ordered.” This might account for the disparity between the Fabric Committee’s $1,180,988 recommendation and ultimate media reports of a $5 million contract.