Grace Cathedral Architecture
The cathedral nestled on top of Nob Hill.
Grace Cathedral is the third largest Episcopal Cathedral in the nation, after sister cathedrals in New York and Washington D.C. All evoke the Gothic style, chosen to express the Anglican roots of the Episcopal tradition and the piety and spiritual focus of the medieval church.
The Gothic revival was energized by the Oxford Movement, a 19th century renewal of Anglicanism that found final expression in American Episcopal cathedrals. In a nod to Mrs. W. H. Crocker’s love of French art, Grace Cathedral architect Lewis Hobart chose French Gothic. The cruciform plan, twin towers, central fleche and polygonal apse are all French in origin, with the cathedrals of Amiens, Paris (Notre Dame), Beauvais and Chartres being principal influences. Inside, the wide nave, narrow piers, and absent triforium are Spanish (Aragonese) Gothic features, seen especially in Palma (Majorca) cathedral. The nave clerestory is typically English. The Chapel of Grace was inspired by the famed Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Hobart skillfully blended these varied strands into a convincing whole. The Cathedral is 329 feet (100m) long, 162 (49m) feet wide at the transepts and the nave vaulting rises to 91 feet (27m).
The use of raw concrete and steel for the Grace Cathedral fabric is daring and unusual, but the 1906 earthquake made structural strength necessary. Similarly concrete cathedrals are found in New Zealand, Colombia, Ecuador etc. along the seismically-active Pacific “Ring of Fire.” The first part of the cathedral was built of riveted steel lattices, beams and rebar (1927-1943), and the last portion of clustered steel rebar and beams (1960-1964). In both cases, wooden and plaster forms were built up around the steel framework and semi-liquid concrete poured into them, accumulating pour by pour, to the rooftops. Prefabricated cast stone was used for some decorative detail and Guastavino acoustic tile for the vaulting. Much interior vaulting, and cast stone wall finish, has yet to be installed. Roof work has replaced the old lead outer roofs with durable lead-coated copper. The cathedral exterior was water-proofed with a siloxane application in 2000.
Dimensions and Statistics
Grace Cathedral is 329 feet (100m) long, and 162 feet (49m) wide at the transepts. The façade towers rise 174 feet (53m) from street level (154 feet (47m) from entry floor level). The fleche, or central spire, rises 117 feet (35m) from the roof ridge to the top of the cross, which is 247 feet (75m) above adjacent street level. On the interior, the three-bay choir/five-unit apse is 87 feet (26m) long, 47 feet (14m) wide, and 88 feet (27m) tall. The sanctuary/crossing is 38 feet (11m) long by 47 feet (14m) wide. The seven-bay nave is 169 feet (51m) long, 46 feet (14m) wide and 91 feet (28m) tall (average height), and the floor rises one foot (.38m) from east to west. Each bay of the six-bay nave aisles is 24 feet (7m) long by 18 feet (5m) wide and 54 feet (16m) tall (average height).
Larger and equivalent American Gothic-style cathedrals are the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, NY (601 feet (183m) long), the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Washington D. C. (518 feet (157m) long), Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, NY (341 feet (104m) main body length), the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, MA (295 feet (90m) main body length) and the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Newark, NJ (291 feet (88m) main body length).
The French and Spanish inspirations for Grace Cathedral are on a larger scale. Amiens Cathedral, France, is 45% longer (exterior) and 49% taller (nave vaulting) than Grace Cathedral. Paris (Notre Dame) Cathedral, France, is 28% longer and 13% taller. Palma Cathedral, Majorca, Spain, is 21% longer and 58% taller.
- Grace Cathedral (center of high altar) is located at 37.791˚NLat, 122.413˚WLon.
- The cathedral faces 9˚15’south of due west, parallel to adjacent California Street.
- The sanctuary floor, surrounding the High Altar steps, is at 299.5 feet (91.4m) above mean sea level.
- Grace Cathedral’s ‘footprint’ covers 36,132 sq. feet (3,357 sq. m.).
- The cathedral was built in four campaigns; 1928-30, 1931-34, 1939-43, 1961-64.
- Grace Cathedral (together with the bordering Crocker walls and Diocesan House) became San Francisco City Landmark #170 in 1984.
For further information, contact the cathedral archivist, Michael Lampen, at [email protected].
a sacred and welcoming place
Aids Interfaith Memorial Chapel
The AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel at Grace Cathedral is a sacred and welcoming place that serves many needs. It is a site of pilgrimage, and only one of a handful of such chapels dedicated to people impacted by AIDS.
The chapel was completed and dedicated in 2000. In 2017, a restoration of the chapel was undertaken and it was rededicated on World Aids Day, December 1, 2017.
Grace Cathedral was in the forefront of response to the AIDS crisis when the disease first appeared in San Francisco, in the early 1980s. Vice Dean Frances Tornquist led the cathedral’s compassionate reply, and the death of cathedral congregants and staff members had a serious impact. The idea for a cathedral memorial chapel began to form, and the north tower lobby area was set aside in 1995. The AIDS Chapel remembers victims and honors caregivers, and is one of only a handful in the United States. The first major furnishing obtained for the chapel was a casting of the striking triptych altarpiece “The Life of Christ” (1990) by New York pop artist Keith Haring, one of his few religious pieces, and his last work before his own death from AIDS. The altarpiece was obtained with the help of his friend Yoko Ono and local activist Frank Malifrando. Shaped like a Russian icon, it depicts a multi-armed figure of compassion bearing symbols of Christ’s life. Soaring ‘angels’ flank the figure, and a restless crowd of victims surges below.
More furnishings were added over the following years. These included symbols of world faiths on the corner piers, a reminder of the worldwide nature of the pandemic, which has taken over 40 million lives worldwide. A book of remembrance with nearly 500 names is displayed in a corner. A panel of the NAMES AIDS Quilt hangs from the chapel vaulting. The now 48,000 panel project was begun in San Francisco in 1987, each panel being made up of smaller units created by family and friends in memory of AIDS victims. The chapel panel is changed periodically.
The restoration of the chapel in 2017 was inspired by a generous gift from the estate of Thomas M. Dross and the guidance of the Venerable Anthony Turney before he died in 2014. The goal of the restoration was to make the chapel an even more welcoming place by making it lighter in look, feel and use of space. Paint colors are lighter; dark steel architectural elements have been replaced by golden metalwork; a graceful new entryway to the chapel enhances the sense of lightness and welcome; and there is a new lighting system.