A controversy over whether to make the largest church in the United States a national landmark is plaguing the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the seat of the Episcopal bishop of New York. A proposal to build on cathedral grounds is angering preservationists, and turning cathedral officials and community members against each other.

Most New Yorkers probably think that St. John the Divine, a massive urban Gothic cathedral on the corner of a busy block in upper Manhattan, is already a national landmark. The cathedral, which is 183 meters long and contains the largest stained glass window in the United States, is a major tourist attraction and home to many community and arts groups.

The cathedral almost became a landmark, but New York's City Council voted unanimously to reject a proposal that would have both declared the cathedral a landmark and allowed apartment buildings to be built on the nearby grounds.

Usually, when a building is made a historical landmark, the structure cannot be altered, or built upon, without first undergoing rigorous review by the city-run Landmarks Commission.

In this case, the commission agreed to further construction, because St. John the Divine is still a work in progress, even though it is 111 years old. Construction has never been finished, largely because of long-standing financial struggles.

Building was stalled after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and did not resume for nearly 38 years. A fire destroyed a portion of the cathedral's gift shop in 2001. Meanwhile, many buildings around the cathedral have been neglected, and are badly in need of restoration.

The head of the cathedral, Reverend James Kowalski, says cathedral officials used to view landmarking as a dangerous prospect, because construction was not complete. "For years, the trustees were concerned that to landmark the cathedral would simply serve to restrict future generations of trustees from making the decisions necessary to complete the cathedral," he said.

But last year, cathedral officials changed their minds, when they came up with a plan to pay off millions of dollars in repairs and secure the future of the cathedral.

They struck a deal with the New York City Landmarks Commission to designate the cathedral building a landmark, but leave out the 4.5 hectares of surrounding grounds.

That way, the cathedral could lease the land to nearby Columbia University. Apartment buildings for students could be constructed on the grounds. The cathedral would benefit from the revenue.

Robert Tierney, head of the Landmarks Commission, says the idea of separating the church from certain areas of the grounds, called "development parcels," immediately caused a stir. "There are some people who disagreed completely with the idea of the development parcels," he said. "But when all was said and done, the only way to designate the cathedral as a landmark was as part of that overall plan, and that is the route we chose to go. In a sense, one could say it was a compromise, but I think it was an intelligent one."

The Landmarks Commission approved the plan months ago, but neighborhood residents vowed to fight it. Carolyn Kent, co-chair of a local community group, says she is against the proposal, because it would involve erecting tall residential buildings right next to the cathedral.

"The many of us who are deeply opposed would see the intervention of modern construction as destructive to the original integrity of the cathedral church on its grounds," she said.

Critics say either all of the cathedral and grounds should be landmarked, or nothing at all. Some say the cathedral should try to raise money in other ways, because apartment buildings would obscure the view of the historical treasure.

Many residents who would have supported the idea of landmarking the cathedral found themselves having to oppose landmark designation entirely.

Reverend James Kowalski says the cathedral is already crowded by the tall buildings on the surrounding streets and by smaller buildings on the grounds. He says the view that critics are trying to protect is a figment of the imagination.

"We are very much an urban cathedral. And the truth is, you never can see the whole cathedral, because all around the cathedral for blocks are buildings," he explained. "Even when you come onto the close, there are other buildings that are here. So you are never seeing more at any moment, no matter where you are walking, than some portion of the cathedral. Your mind completes the picture."

Although the City Council recently rejected landmark status for St. John the Divine, that does not mean the cathedral's plans cannot go ahead. Reverend James Kowalski says he intends to continue negotiations with Columbia University. Residents who opposed landmark designation do not have any more say over the future of the cathedral than they did before.

Pictures courtesy St. John the Divine