Landmark Security

The world’s largest cathedral seeks world-class security

How do you secure the largest cathedral in the world when it sits on 11.3 acres, is considered a New York City landmark, and is a busy destination for worship, cultural arts, social services and tourism?

Skyscrapers and a Cathedral
When it comes to world-famous architecture, Manhattan is best known for its skyscrapers, but the island is also home to the largest cathedral in the world and the world’s fifth-largest church building. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, is a world-famous landmark. A combination of Romanesque-Byzantine and Gothic Revival architecture, the Cathedral itself is an awe-inspiring work of art.

Services are held every day of the year, while the cathedral also plays host to a busy schedule of art exhibitions, concerts, receptions, public and private events and visiting dignitaries. It also serves as a place for community programming and social outreach.

Construction of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine began in 1892, and like the great medieval cathedrals and churches of the world, it remains a work in progress. So does its security system, which is continuously being expanded and refined to meet the rigorous demands of such a high-profile and heavily trafficked historic site. Its latest update is a Vicon’s new Valerus VMS, and the addition of 23 new high-resolution IP cameras.

The new system, which combines more than 70 high-resolution cameras, a Valerus application server, and multiple recording servers, provides coverage of almost the entire 11.3-acre complex, called “The Close.” This includes the Cathedral, administrative and residential buildings, a world-class textile conservation laboratory and all of the surrounding grounds. Cameras are also focused on the visitor center and information booths.

Expanded Coverage
The cathedral upgraded its VMS platform to take advantage of its superior user interface, capabilities, and ease of use. Each year, more Vicon cameras are added to the system to expand coverage and enhance visibility in areas of concern.

Providing safety for visitors, staff, residents and students, as well as protecting the property and its many valuable artifacts, are primary concerns. One of the problems they deal with regularly is tourists who are so busy looking around that they aren’t paying attention to their footing. There have been accidental falls, and sometimes lawsuits arise. Having cameras everywhere provides them with a visual of how accidents occurred, and ultimately helps protect them from liability.

Other challenges relate to the services the cathedral provides to the indigent. They have a soup kitchen in the basement that feeds as many as 300 people on Sundays. Sometimes they have guests who are disruptive, and the cameras allow them to capture footage that they can show to first responders.

Camera Placement
The cameras are important for protecting property as well as people. Strategic placement of the cameras within the cathedral has given them another resource to supervise the church’s many art exhibitions, and keep an eye on its priceless artifacts. Famous tapestries, sculptures and paintings are displayed within the chapels around the perimeter of the Cathedral’s interior. With the recent addition of cameras in each of these spaces, individual guards are no longer assigned to each chapel. Instead, security officers can monitor the surveillance cameras from security booths and dispatch roving guards to specific chapels, as needed.

In all of these scenarios, having the right cameras, in the right places, is critically important. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine makes use of a wide range of Vicon megapixel models. PTZ cameras with a powerful zoom mounted on the exterior of buildings, provide coverage of the streets bordering The Close. On occasions when the NYPD has come to look at the video from their cameras, the officers have been amazed at the detail captured. They’re able to read the license plate off a bus from a block away.

Within the cathedral, cameras need to accommodate challenging lighting conditions, such as sunlight passing through stained glass windows and low lighting in certain chapels to protect artifacts on display. The Vicon cameras adjust automatically throughout the day, and they also have night vision cameras.

The new software platform has made managing video from the network of cameras much easier for the security team.

A Health Dashboard
“We are able to view more cameras simultaneously and more expeditiously. Health monitoring, archiving, searching, and exporting…all those features are also so much easier now,” said the cathedral’s technology director. “When we look at the health dashboard and see that there are no errors, it gives us confidence that everything is working as it should. And one of the really nice things about Valerus is that because it uses a thin client, the interface is always the same.

“The security director and others routinely log in from home, the user experience is consistent. There are no limits to features or different ways to navigate if you’re using a mobile device or connecting remotely.”

With system expansion and enhancements, and an ongoing project with no end in sight, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine’s new security system – like the Cathedral itself – now has a foundation equipped to grow and evolve along with the community it serves.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2022 issue of Security Today.

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