Video System Protects Landmark

Manhattan cathedral expands and refines its security system with Vicon cameras.

A combination of Romanesque-Byzantine and Gothic Revival architecture, Manhattan’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is a work of art. Services are held every day of the year.

When it comes to world-famous architecture, Manhattan, NY, 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, of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, is a world-famous landmark located in the Morningside Heights section of Harlem. A combination of Romanesque-Byzantine and Gothic Revival architecture, the structure is a work of art. Services are held every day of the year, while the facility 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 began in 1892 and, like the great medieval cathedrals and churches of the world, it remains a work in progress, as does its security system. The system is continuously being expanded and refined to meet the rigorous demands of such a high-profile and heavily trafficked historic site. The latest update is a Valerus video- management system from Vicon Industries Inc., Hauppauge, NY (vicon-security.com), and the addition of 23 new high-resolution Vicon IP cameras.

Responsibility for the security system falls to Keith Hinkson, the cathedral’s director of security, and Geoff Smith, director of technology. For the past decade, they have worked together with ITsavvy (itsavvy.com), a Chicago-based IT products and technology solutions provider, initially for managed support of their exchange server, and in more recent years, for the installation and maintenance of their physical security systems. Greg Montgomery, director of project management at ITsavvy’s Hauppauge, NY, office, has played a key role in guiding them through the evolution of the cathedral’s surveillance system, bringing it to the highly advanced state that it is today. When Vicon launched Valerus in early 2017, Hinkson recommended that the Cathedral migrate to the new solution from an older Vicon platform to take advantage of its enhanced features and simplified user interface.

Security Objectives

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

As head of all security operations within The Close, Hinkson decides where each camera goes. Providing safety for visitors, staff, residents, and students as well as protecting the property and its many valuable artifacts, are his primary concerns. One of the problems he deals with regularly is tourists who are so busy looking around that they aren’t paying attention to their footing. “We have accidental falls, and sometimes lawsuits arise. Having cameras everywhere provides us with a visual of how accidents occurred and that can protect us from liability,” he said.

Other challenges relate to the services the Cathedral provides to the indigent. “We have a soup kitchen in the basement that feeds as many as 300 people on Sundays. Sometimes we have guests who are disruptive. With cameras, we are able to capture footage that we can show to first responders,” Hinkson explained.

The cameras are important for protecting property as well as people. Technology director Smith explained that strategic placement of the cameras within the Cathedral has given them another resource in addition to the security guards they employ 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 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.

Having the correct security cameras in the appropriate places is critically important. The facility makes use of a wide range of Vicon megapixel models.

The Security Solution

In all of these scenarios, having the right cameras, in the right places, is critically important. The facility makes use of a wide range of Vicon megapixel models. PTZ cameras with powerful zoom, mounted on the exterior of buildings, provide coverage of the streets bordering The Close.

Smith said that on occasions, when police have come to look at video from their cameras, the officers have been amazed at the detail captured. Hinkson elaborated, “If we want to give an image to the NYPD, we can zoom in and we can actually see a mole on the person’s face. These are high megapixel cameras.”

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 we use adjust automatically throughout the day,” said Hinkson. “We also have night-vision cameras.”

Smith explained that installing cameras in and around a property with landmark status requires coordination with city authorities. “Ultimately, aesthetic concerns will never trump security, but we do need to be sensitive to preservation of the building’s historical significance.” Before any cameras were installed, a complete study was done and all camera locations were approved according to landmark-status rules.

The Valerus software platform has made managing video from the network cameras much easier for the security team. Smith explained, “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. 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.”


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