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Garden City's skyline has taken on a different look over the last several months and the big question is how long is this new look going to last. The venerable Cathedral of the Incarnation is having its first major renovation in over 120 years. The lofty spire, some 209 feet, of this magnificent Victorian Gothic cathedral, is now encased in scaffolding.

The Cathedral of the Incarnation's lofty spire, some 209 feet, is now encased in scaffolding. Photo by Kyle Bradford Smith

It has been known for almost a decade that the Cathedral's outer stonework has been deteriorating, evidenced by circumstances such as when a 700-pound section of pinnacle fell from the spire in a 1998 windstorm and damaged the roof. This in turn caused a 200-pound piece of plaster ornament to fall from the interior ceiling.

During the same storm another pinnacle fell from the sanctuary's roof into the moat at the Cathedral's western side. Since the Cathedral had endured windstorms and even hurricanes in its past, these were troubling signs of serious deterioration of the outer structure.

Also over the years, smaller stone debris has been found regularly around the Cathedral, necessitating a protective scaffold covering, similar to those seen on many New York City sidewalks, to be installed over the Cathedral's entrance a number of years back.

The Cathedral's entrance is on the eastern side, directly below the spire where much of the deterioration seems to be, especially on the southeast side. In checking with repair firms and house painters around Garden City, it is typical for the east and south to weather more rapidly given the heat expansion and contraction of the sun and morning dews.

The Cathedral began to investigate the outer structure when an engineering firm's workman lowered himself by rope from the spire to inspect the outer stone. His report led to the recognition that serious repairs are required to stabilize the stone and to repair the existing damage. Given the importance of the Cathedral to the Episcopal Diocese, its congregation and its position in the history of Garden City, the task of repair was both important and complicated, in some part by circumstance and other by bad luck.

The Cathedral came into existence as part of Alexander T. Stewart's vision of a utopian garden city on the treeless plains of Hempstead. A true man of vision, Stewart immigrated to the United States as a child from Northern Ireland. Stewart started his Garden City by building his own railroad here and constructing a large brick works in Bethpage to provide building material. He also planned a small church initially to serve the small (500 initial residents) population of Garden City. However in the midst of his new venture, he died suddenly. His widow decided to honor his memory by not only completing his vision of Garden City but also by building the magnificent Cathedral of the Incarnation to commemorate him and to serve as his crypt.

She started the process that resulted in the only American cathedral to be single-donor financed and unrestricted by city block size or street grid systems, such as the other major cathedrals, all in highly populated areas, were. She and her architects created one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in existence.

Its cornerstone was laid in 1877, although the very understated cornerstone is dated 1876. It is barely 10 inches - an emblem of a Celtic cross encased in a circle on the northeast corner. The Cathedral took almost eight years to complete and its consecration was June 2, 1885 when it became the Episcopal Diocese with Bishop Littlejohn as the first bishop of the Long Island Diocese.

Previously, the Diocese was headquartered on Remsen Street in Brooklyn. There was some reluctance to move on their part to the barely existing Garden City, which had a population of less than 500. But Mrs. Stewart's contributions were persuasive. She funded its entire construction and that of the Dioceses' other buildings, including a rectory, St. Paul's and St. Mary's and other buildings and gifted a bond for their upkeep.

However this is where bad luck began to intrude. A. T. Stewart's body was stolen for ransom from his temporary crypt at St. Mark's Cemetery in New York City while the Cathedral was under construction. Although Mrs. Stewart's attorney, Judge Hilton, advised against ransom, she paid a very large sum and a body was returned after many months of intrigue and speculation.

Of course, before DNA and even refrigeration, the returned body's condition left much to the imagination and some stories even claim it was not Stewart's body that was returned and now lies in the basement of the Cathedral.

Now after all this time, it seems that this history of bad luck (or bad advice) again intrudes. In this case it led to the use of New Jersey brownstone for its construction. One could imagine Mrs. Stewart, her architect and Bishop Littlejohn seeing the great stone carving possible with brownstone especially given her familiarity with the stone. It was in use at her mansion on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street and was also seen on the numerous brownstone houses throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The Cathedral stonemasons certainly made use of that stone's propensity for carving and it is replete with superb stonework details. But brownstone has a serious flaw, one that was not recognized then. It has long-term deterioration problems, it is simply not as strong as granite for exterior use, although granite is very hard to detail and may have been rejected for that reason. Although certain basement steps and retaining walls are made with granite, the choice was brownstone and now that choice had come to be the problem.

Likewise, many of the beautiful brownstone homes also built in Manhattan and Brooklyn during the same era are now also experiencing this severe weathering. In the Cathedral's case, the normal deterioration of the stone has been accelerated by the metal rods and rings originally used to internally reinforce the stone. Much like what one sees on highway overpasses where concrete spalls off and rusting rods can be seen, the same effect on the Cathedral has seriously damaged much of the stone and the superb detailing.

Since the metal rods in the brownstone have to be drilled out and replaced with stainless steel rods, the time and cost of these labor-intensive repairs will be very significant. Additionally, a large piece of stone near the top has a substantial crack in it caused by its internal iron ring and this will prove especially tough to correct. The core drilling will result in many smaller pieces and details to be likely destroyed. Replacement will have to be with colored concrete in all likelihood.

It is not that Mrs. Stewart looked to save money; she did not have surviving children, and ordered the very best for the Cathedral. Stewart's own brick factory supplied the massive foundation needed to carry the weight. The beautiful Celtic cross topping the spire was gold leafed copper and the slate roof is of individually shaped and varied color pieces, forming a series of crosses.

In order to replace the light bulbs illuminating the cross, workmen have to climb the interior of the spire, slip out a movable louver and climb embedded iron rungs to the cross. The spire and its cross were occasionally mistaken for a lighthouse by ships off the coast of Long Island.

Lawrence Sperry, one of America's greatest inventors and a resident of Garden City, who landed his biplane on Rockaway Ave near his Victorian home, would use the spire as his navigational landmark and buzz the Cathedral. This was the Sperry, along with his father, Elmer Sperry, of gyroscope fame, along with inventing many other aircraft instruments still in use today.

The interior details are also exemplary but will be covered in a later article as will the scaffolding, which has unique features to it.


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