Daily photographs by HANS VON RITTERN, with humorous, artistic and social commentary on life in the big city.

Photo of the day: THE DIVINE AUDACITY ~ CATHEDRAL IN NEW YORK CITY TO START CHARGING ADMISSION

ST JOHN DIVINE DOLLAR SIGN

Photo of the day: THE DIVINE AUDACITY ~ CATHEDRAL IN NEW YORK CITY TO START CHARGING ADMISSION – Over the weekend New York City’s gothic treasure, St. John the Divine had the ‘divine’ audacity/necessity to send a memorandum out to the tour guide industry advising us that as of February 1st of this year tour groups will be charged admission. Brace yourselves – $5.00 (4€ euros) – to enter a church! The 9/11 memorial charges a cover charge of $2.00.

For the many, many of you that I have taken there on my tours, you well know it is one of the mostly undiscovered treasures of the city. They are fascinated to see the unfinished towers and dome. They love the story of the center doors only opening three times a year for Easter, the blessing of the bicycles and the blessing of the animals. To see the World Trade Center Towers on the columns in front begins to fascinate the wonderful mixing of old and new history inside.

Inside there is always a sense of awe. I advise my guests to take a brochure and put a donation in the donation box at the entrance. You then pass wonderful hand carved 15th century German wooden choir stalls and enter this magnificent world of surprises. The fireman’s memorial, the American history stained glass window that has the prototype of the first television of 1926 in it as well as movie stars Jack Benny and Mary Livingston. Another stained glass window shows the sinking of the Titanic. I tell the touching story of how the cathedral cared for the AIDS patients of NYC when no one else dared to as we look at the AIDS memorial. I show them the plaque dedicated to the horrible bookstore fire that damaged the church in 2001, ruining the organ’s pipes for 10 years. I show them the ‘zipper’ of the church marking the finished and unfinished part of the cathedral. I show them such wonderful worldwide gifts as the 17th century Barberini tapestries, the golden chests donated by the King of Siam, the urns given by the emperor of Japan, the Keith Haring graffiti triptych in the Asian chapel donated by John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono. I lead them through the 7 chapels dedicated to the main 7 languages spoken in NYC in 1892. I take them up near the altar for one of the most breathtaking views of the front stained glass window containing 10,000 pieces of glass, 40 feet in diameter. I show them menorahs on the altar as well, explaining the church welcomes all faiths.

Well – they welcome all faiths, but they now do not welcome groups unless you pay to get into the house of god. Never at no time in New York has there been a house of god that has had the need to charge admission into what I thought is the house of the people. St. John the Divine is desperate for money, last year having sold off precious adjacent land to the church and allowing god awful high rise apartments to be built, therefore obstructing the rays of sunlight into the north side of the church. Now they are obstructing the tourists of New York.

As a fellow tour guide Tom said: “What they really, really, need is help to grow their endowment. Presumably they have an endowment, like Universities and Museums. With a massive old building that must have massive maintenance costs, there is no longer a massive congregation as in the old days to keep up the place. That’s where smart and competent money-managers take hold of the finances of the institution and go on a major campaign to grow a big endowment, sufficient for maintenance. This is how Carnegie Hall was saved. The famed Koch Brothers have contributed literally hundreds of millions of dollars: $100,000,000 EACH to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Lincoln Center and The American Museum of Natural History, total $300,000,000. So, who’s in charge of this program at The Cathedral?”

They are nickel and diming, almost literally, a huge problem. It will have the most unfortunate and unintended consequence of keeping some likely visitors O-U-T. The sudden sticker shock of $5.00 will leave many at the door. I can understand starting at $2.00 – but $5.00?! A full bus of 55 guests would cost $275!! The biggest losers here are the young visitors to New York, the student tour groups. My student tour groups from Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and all along the coast. They are already on a tight budget, eating at McDonalds to save money on the big trip from their home town. They enter St. John the Divine starry-eyed and filled with wonderment at this magnificent gothic structure, the likes of which most will not get to see unless they are privileged enough to go to Europe. Sadly, it is simply adding itself to the list of those famous cathedrals of Europe all forced to do the same out of necessity. Notre Dame in Paris charges €3/$4.10 to see the treasury of riches. The Basilica in Rome charges 12€ euros/$16.00. The Cologne/Köln Dom in Germany charges 4€ Euros/$5.00. Seville cathedral in Spain charges 8€ euros/$10 dollars. St. Paul’s cathedral in London charges 16€ euros/$21.85. The wonderful art-filled little adobe churches in poor Tucson, Arizona do not charge at all. St. Patrick’s cathedral on the wealthy Fifth Avenue here in NYC does not need to charge. St. John the Divine in New York now wants to be added to the world wide list of those charging admission.

Perhaps St. John the Divine got the idea from the very recent surprising November 2013 decision of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. to charge $10/7 € euros admission and perhaps I should feel I am getting a bargain. (In comparison, The Museum of Natural History’s full price adult admission charge is $22/16€ euros). But is this the beginning of a possible disturbing and disheartening trend in the famed churches New York City? Where the declining parish necessitates charging at the door? Most of the churches in Harlem are only surviving on the Sunday gospel tour dollars. It is no longer ‘the fashion’ to go to church in most large cities, therefore the declining membership results in declining donations. These grand cathedrals were built for the masses – church going masses who today – are tourists. A sad trend.

I am only a New York City tour guide and have no idea how this cathedral functions. But, what is needed at St. John the Divine is a professional, knowledgeable, experienced, committed, well paid, position of fundraiser to grow a serious endowment. Considering their list of well connected parishioners, their current plan seems like nothing more than a high school-level accounting class solution…if that.

Here is the memo: 

To: Professional Guides, Tour Operators, and Guest Lecturers
From: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Department of Public Education and Visitor Services
Please note the following updates in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s visiting group policy, effective February 1, 2014.
• Self-guided groups are encouraged to schedule their visit at least two weeks in advance. Groups are defined as ten or more visitors. Scheduling requests can be made through a web site request form, or through the Public Education Office by phone or email below. The group will receive confirmation of a one-hour time period to visit the Cathedral.
• Group arrivals are permitted between 9am and 5pm daily.
• Groups should enter through the Cathedral’s southern door at Amsterdam Avenue. The group leader or guide must check in at the Visitor Center upon arrival.
• Payment of the discounted group admission of $5 per person must be made upon arrival. One group leader or guide receives complimentary admission.
• Groups that do not pay group admission may only enter the Cathedral as individual visitors.
• The Cathedral accepts cash, checks, and Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express. Checks should be made payable to The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
• Tour companies are encouraged to join the Cathedral’s voucher program to obviate admission payment on arrival in exchange for discounts and quarterly billing. To join the voucher program or receive more information please contact the Public Education Office.
• Scheduled groups will be given access to the entire Cathedral, including restrooms, as well as brochures for their participants. Confirmed groups will be alerted of changes to access as soon as possible. Groups that schedule to arrive during times of limited access will be notified in their confirmation.
• Late or early group arrivals will be accommodated as best as possible, however we do not
guarantee access to all parts of the Cathedral.

4 responses

  1. Jerry Travis

    Bravo, Hans! You’ve said what we all think!

    January 14, 2014 at 9:01 am

  2. Thank you and you’re welcome Jerry. Please forward/re-post this to as many people as you can.

    January 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

  3. Pam

    Well said, Hans. The first time you took our student group to St. John’s, we were overwhelmed…and still are each time, We did not budget for this as an expense, so I can only hope we can get the money alloted for our students to tour this magnificent cathedral.

    January 14, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    • Thank you so much dear Pam. It’s a sad comment on our times, esp. in this city.
      Big hug, Hans.

      January 14, 2014 at 8:41 pm

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