Saint Mark’s Cathedral: spectacularly incomplete

John Feit is an architect on Capitol Hill, and works at Schemata Workshop. He blogs frequently on design and urbanism, with a focus on how they relate to and effect the Capitol Hill community.

The history of architecture is enriched by buildings that are either incomplete, or, if completed, are monuments to plans gone awry. If it were straight, few would have heard of Pisa’s famous bell tower, despite its being the campanile to an adjacent duomo and baptistery both of which are outstanding examples of Italian architecture. The bell tower’s lean is a result of its being built on an inadequate foundation resting on soils incapable of supporting the tower’s tremendous weight. Part of the tower’s charm is that its builders attempted to correct its lean during construction, resulting in its top being kinked compared to its lower levels. So famous is its lean, it is a Unesco World Heritage site and tremendous intellectual and financial resources have been invested to preserve its construction flaw.

St. Mark’s

The tower, or course, was a completed structure. Incomplete structures provide another chapter in the what “might have been” in the history of architecture and engineering. New York City’s George Washington Bridge, on the northern end of Manhattan and crossing the Hudson River (the only bridge to do such a crossing) is an example of a structure whose charms and grace result from its incompletion. Built during the Great Depression, the bridge was designed to be of similar appearance to its famous neighbor to the southeast — the Brooklyn Bridge — with the GW’s steel structure intended to be clad in stone. The financial crash of the 1930’s prevented this, and it stands to this day in unadorned magnificence. Le Corbusier, after his only visit to New York City, commented that the George Washington Bridge was: “ . . . the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city.” Although I disagree with the later, I certainly agree with his initial assessment, the bridge is beautiful in its unfinished state.

Here on Capitol Hill, we have at  least two incomplete buildings whose final appearance was unanticipated from their designer’s original intentions. Although certainly not of the notoriety of the two above examples, both have, I would argue, greater beauty because of their incompleteness, and are among Seattle’s finest structures. A future post shall examine St Joseph’s Catholic Church; today, we shall have a peak at the grand interior of St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.

St Mark’s Cathedral Interior

Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral is located on 1245 10th Avenue East, and when viewed from either Queen Anne or Lake Union is one Capitol Hill’s most visually prominent buildings. Its construction began in 1928, but due to the Great Depression funds were unavailable to complete it as originally designed, a design that included ornate, granite-clad  Gothic towers and a lush stone and wood interior (see: for greater detail).  What one sees today from both the exterior and interior is a cast-in-place concrete structure, only partially finished in stone, brick, and wood. Although St Mark’s exterior appearance is somewhat awkward, the interior evokes a magnificence and mystery that alludes to a time prior to its original Gothic precedents, perhaps to an ancient, Byzantine or Romanesque basilica, precursors to the Gothic.

The Cathedral is organized about a large cubic volume. Sub-dividing this space are four massive, concrete columns that not only hold up a great wooden roof, but were most likely intended to support the un-built Gothic tower. The columns must be the largest in Seattle, and have a faceting that gracefully sculpt the daylight entering the space. Facing each other from opposite ends are an impressive organ and a stunning rose window/altar structure. The organ’s wood echoes that of the great ceiling, while the aesthetic of the steel and glass rose window complete the atmosphere of the unfinished worship space.

The organ forms the portal through which one enters the main worship space, and is accessible via a set of stairs from the Cathedral’s lobby. It provides an excellent prospect from which to see the interior.

The Wood Ceiling

The Cathedral ceiling is an expressive wood beam and joist construction, suggestive of Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Science Church, in Berkley California (The Saint Mark’s architects were also from the Bay Area). Its rough-hewn appearance and gently water stained appearance harmoniously match that of the adjacent, exposed concrete (and water stained) walls.

The Organist

During my Visit to St Mark’s, I was entreated to hearing the Cathedral’s organist at practice — the voluminous  space with its hard surfaces provided the perfect resonating chamber for this impressive instrument.

The Rose Window/Altar

I began photographing around 3:00 pm New Year’s Eve, with the low, winter sun piercing the Cathedral’s windows.When I was finished a few hours later, I had the good fortune to witness the transformance of the space from one illuminated with the winter sun’s fleeting spectrum, to one provided by a stunning lighting design.

Rose Window and Water


Open to the public, I encourage all to visit this grand building.

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7 thoughts on “Saint Mark’s Cathedral: spectacularly incomplete

  1. There is a similarly incomplete church in Toronto: St Alban’s. It was designed on a truly grand scale to become the Anglican cathedral, but only the choir and apse were completed. By contrast to St Mark’s, it isin Victorian neo-Gothic style.

  2. Thank you for writing about it. Some years back there was a mis-guided scheme to “complete” it by adding Chihuly chandeliers – fortunately the funds never materialized. It’s simplicity is perfect for a magnificent house of worship.

  3. Thank you for this lovely bit of history. My lingering question is why would the church not take advantage of it’s magnificent vista? Seems a shame to have a multimillion dollar view and not have a window out.

  4. Thank you for this article and for the photos.

    I was also there taking pictures on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve (I remember another photographer there in the organ loft while the organist was practicing, it was probably you) and was really taken by the feeling of connecton with the community and a sense of dignity and timelessness when one walks in the door. The interior is truly spectacular and offers a quiet meditative space. The lighting is at its most dramatic at night and if one stands just right, just inside the door to the sanctuary, one can see the eye of the rose reflected in the font.

    It is also worth taking a tour and poking around the other areas of the church, including the crypt (the basement) where some graffiti murals by soldiers who were using the space in WWII still remain, as well as the columbarium that was dedicated in 1969.

    As I tell my friends, this is a church that even an atheist (like me) can love.