Monday, July 21, 2008

Nave At St. John The Divine Reopens Years After Fire

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Nave At St. John The Divine Reopens Years After Fire

Nearly eight years after a devastating fire, sections of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights were once again opened to the public Monday.

The nave – the aisle leading from the cathedral's entrance – was almost destroyed by a five-alarm fire on December 18, 2001. The blaze ravaged the cathedral book store and spread smoke and soot through most of the church. Even when the fire was finally extinguished, the damage continued.

"Those contaminants go into the stone and eat away at it, so you have to clean it or you would, after the fire, continue the deterioration of the Cathedral," said the Very Reverend Dr. James Kowalski of St. John the Divine.

But it wasn't until April 2006 that a massive $16.5 million cleaning and restoration project got underway. Workers carefully cleaned the stained glass, including the Great Rose window and they peeled away layers of grime from the fire and from years of regular church use.

During that time, visitors had to use a tunnel-like walkway built along the center aisle.

"I came in here about a month ago and noticed there was a wall instead of the whole middle path and I was wondering when I was going to be able to see the whole thing," said one visitor.

Workers dismantled the construction scaffolding Monday to reveal the newly-restored nave for the first time. Visitors, tourists and native New Yorkers said it was worth the wait.

"Of course it's nice to see it this way," said one visitor.

"It's much brighter. It's absolutely a totally different feeling," added another.

"It's really monumental," said one visitor. "It's very moving to be able to come in again, I have to say, since the last time I was here, it was filled with smoke and water all over the floor."

"It's a very impressive cathedral," said another, who was visiting from Australia.

The public will now also be able to see the interior view of the Tiffany rose window.

Now that the work on the nave is complete, the restoration will continue on the eastern half of the cathedral, where the organ will be reassembled.

"Everything has to be done by hand – making all the pneumatics, cleaning all the parts, cleaning the pipes - there are almost 8,500 speaking pipes in this organ ranging from seven-eighths of an inch to 32 feet long and that pipe weighs a ton," said organ curator Douglas Hunt.

It's expected to take several months to reassemble the organ, slated to finish just before November 30th, the 67th anniversary's of the nave's first dedication. That's when the entire cathedral will be rededicated.

The cathedral welcomes about 250,000 visitors every year.

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