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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Morningside Heights

This image, produced around 1915, shows the first phase of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (center), St. Luke's Hospital (to the right), and the oldest building in Morningside Heights, the Leake and Watts orphan house (the brick building to the left).

The Leake and Watts building (which blocks where the south transept of the cathedral would go if it were ever to be built), has an odd history. On June 2, 1827, merchant John George Leake passed away at age 75. He had no children or other lineal heirs, so he decided to leave his money to Robert Watts, the son of his best friend, John Watts. There was only one catch: Robert Watts would have to change his last name to Leake in order to claim the inheritance.

It is a little unclear what happened next, but before Robert Watts could get the courts to legally change his name he died of, in the words of one writer, "a severe cold contracted during a game of ball." John Watts was then faced with the dilemma. He didn't really want the money—after all, his son had forsaken him to become John George Leake's heir—but what was he going to do with it?

It turned out that had his son refused the inheritance in the first place, the money would have gone to found an orphanage. So John Watts approached the state to relinquish his claim on the money. In 1831, Leake and Watts Orphan House was founded and in 1843, they moved into their home in Morningside Heights. (At the end of the 19th century, a group of John George Leake's distant relatives wormed out of the woodwork to claim that they had been defrauded of their rightful inheritance. It took some time, but eventually their case was dismissed.)

The early history of the cathedral is almost as convoluted. As we write in Footprints in New York:
The building of St. John the Divine was plagued with problems from the start. The trustees, under [JP Morgan's] guidance, hosted a design competition, ultimately selecting the firm of Heins & La Farge, even though their design was no one’s first choice.

Work on the cathedral didn’t begin until the spring of 1893, and immediately the crew ran into trouble. A foundation that should have taken months to lay ended up taking years. Without anything to show for it, the cathedral was already over budget, so Morgan wrote a check for $500,000, “to get us out of the hole”—literally and figuratively. In 1903, the giant granite columns of the apse were hoisted into place, but by 1905, only one chapel had been completed. Then, in 1907, George Heins died of meningitis. Though the trustees were legally able to break their contract, they allowed La Farge to continue until the apsidal end of the church was complete. This small portion of the cathedral, known as the choir, was consecrated on April 19, 1911. With this milestone behind them, the trustees ended their relationship with Heins & La Farge and hired Ralph Adams Cram to finish the church.
Cram's nave of the church, completed in 1941, was the last major work done on the church, which is still decades away from completion—if, indeed, that day ever comes.

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Explore more NYC history in

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