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Pittsburgh’s Gothic Legacy

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Pittsburgh’s Gothic Legacy

Ralph Adams Cram and others built churches that enriched our national architectural patrimony. Autumn 2015
Photos by CATESBY LEIGH
Ralph Adams Cram’s East Liberty Presbyterian Church, completed in 1935

Gothic is a challenging style for the modern architect, and considering the ancient precedents, it’s easy to see why. The sculpted masses of medieval cathedrals and large churches display an overwhelming profusion of statuary and ornament. Such abundance is carried into nave, transept, and choir, with piers surging upward like trees, while stained glass bathes lofty, vaulted spaces in a celestial aura. An array of crafts—wood carving, work in gold, silver, and wrought iron, even needlework for altar coverings and priestly vestments—contributes to the richness of detail at a variety of scales.

Largely obscured by classicism’s Renaissance-era reemergence, the Gothic idiom began to attract attention again during the eighteenth century; a full-fledged Gothic revival got under way in Britain during the nineteenth century and echoed across the Atlantic. Starting in the 1820s, American church buildings with essentially classical proportions displayed pointed windows and other whimsically “Gothick” frills. At midcentury, Richard Upjohn raised the bar with his more scholarly Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street. But after the Civil War, increasingly ambitious attempts to scale the heights of Gothic glory yielded generally unsatisfying results.

Eventually, an American architect arrived on the scene with profound insight into the logic of Gothic design, along with a determination to avoid antiquarianism and make Gothic a living tradition again: Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942), a Yankee Anglo-Catholic who was the son of a Unitarian minister. Cram’s oeuvre includes his titanic, partially executed design for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine as well as his Post Headquarters at West Point and Graduate College and Chapel at Princeton. But Pittsburgh, which boasts three excellent Cram churches, is as good a place as any to appreciate not only his artistic prowess but also his broader influence on a period too narrowly associated with beaux-arts classicism.

Cram’s family couldn’t afford to send him to college, so at 17, he was apprenticed to a small Boston architectural firm, where he came under the spell of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–86). The mighty granite and brownstone masses of Richardson’s Romanesque Trinity Church (1877) on Boston’s Copley Square signified to Cram and other architects of his generation that American architecture was finally emerging from a dark age besotted with uninformed eclecticism and that hapless striving for picturesque effect that particularly infected the nation’s Gothic buildings. It’s fitting that Cram would do some of his best work in Pittsburgh, home to Richardson’s masterwork, the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail (1888).

Like Richardson and two other architects whom he admired, the classicist Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909) and the supreme exponent of English Gothic on our shores, Henry Vaughan (1845–1917), Cram focused on the imposing arrangement of masses. This preoccupation is evident in one of his first realizations of a contemporary Gothic idiom: Calvary Church (1907), in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. Outside, this white limestone temple owes much of its power to the simple treatment of its well-proportioned masses. Cram’s approach, while inspired by the ruined Cistercian abbeys he had visited in England, takes a strikingly modern cast at Calvary. The exterior’s limited carved detail is astutely deployed; the tower, with small hooded openings in its spire—also inspired by English Gothic—is an abstract creation of a high order. On the belfry, Cram masterfully deployed corner buttresses as chamfers to effect the transition from the square lantern below to the octagonal spire above. The tower is also modern in its construction: iron columns within the four stone piers at the crossing of the church’s nave and transepts support an iron frame for the tower’s lantern and belfry, with the spire erected on a lattice-like steel armature.

Inside, the architecture is mostly restrained, with large expanses of plaster wall surface left unornamented. Cram focused instead on enriching the space with stained-glass windows—commissioned over the course of several decades from different fabricators to avoid monotony—while marking the entry to the chancel with a magnificent rood screen carved in white oak. (“Rood” refers to the central crucifix that the screen supports.) Cram enriched the shafts of this intricate structure with grapevines and colonnettes, the latter capped with fan vaults. At the altar, an equally gorgeous oak reredos is richly encrusted with niches and sacred statuary.

Cram saw himself, among other things, as a coordinator of the decorative arts. At Calvary and other churches, he employed the exceptionally skillful Bavarian-born wood-carver Johannes Kirchmayer. Cram shared the distaste of Arts and Crafts devotees for the naturalistic, “painterly” qualities of the Tiffany window glass so popular in his day. At Calvary and elsewhere, he promoted the work of glassmen who had adopted medieval techniques and the more hieratic, two-dimensional design that those techniques encouraged.

Cram’s other well-known Pittsburgh church arose nearly three decades after Calvary, amid the Great Depression and at cathedral scale: East Liberty Presbyterian Church (1935), whose Gothic grandeur looms over its uninspiring urban surroundings. The church seats 2,000, but Cram’s ensemble includes chapels as well as a parish hall with an auditorium and Sunday school and other facilities arranged around a courtyard. The church’s broad tower, rising 300 feet, is more elaborate than Calvary’s. As befits its cathedral-like character, East Liberty’s interior is finished in stone. The scale of the main vault running from nave to chancel is majestic, with the massive nave piers configured as clustered colonnettes, from which a network of ribs spreads across the ceiling. Architectural detail in the nave—bathed in the dominant deep blues and rich reds of the stained glass—is restrained, though an elegant gallery runs above the low, narrow aisles and only terminates at the reredos, uniting the vast interior.

The chancel’s richly carved marble reredos resembles an elaborate Gothic façade, with towers at each end. The towers frame a relief sculpture, 11 feet wide, of the Last Supper by the Englishman John Angel, another noteworthy Cram collaborator; solitary saints stand in niches above the relief. The stone pulpit nearby is sculpted with panels showing Christ and others preaching the Gospel. Over the pulpit hovers a stunning wooden canopy shaped like the church’s great tower. Outside, the tower over the entrance to the parish office, with its weather vane configured as a two-dimensional rooster, also plays off the design of the great tower, but it, too, is no miniature clone. As with the reredos and pulpit canopy, we encounter here an intimation of the fractal nature of Gothic design, in which microcosm echoes macrocosm but not schematically.

Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church (1930)

Cram did some of his best work at an intimate scale, including his Gordon Chapel (1919), which serves as the Lady Chapel of the Episcopalian Church of the Ascension (1898), located, like Calvary, in Shadyside. The chapel’s woodwork, probably wrought by Kirchmayer, includes exquisite openwork rinceaux, or swirling foliated ornament, framing an Annunciation sculpture over the entrance. An altar with a carved and painted triptych looks as if it were made for a late medieval palace in Italy or Spain. The impressive church within which Cram installed this chapel was the work of William Halsey Wood (1855–97), another gifted architect inspired by Richardson. Yalies will do a double-take at the sight of the church’s broad tower, modeled, like Yale’s own Wrexham Tower (1931), on that of Saint Giles, Wrexham—the Welsh church where Elihu Yale is buried.

Cram built Calvary mainly with money from the industrialist, financier, and art collector Henry Clay Frick, and East Liberty was underwritten by Richard Beatty and Jennie King Mellon, whose tombs rest in another beautiful Cram chapel within that church. But not all of Cram’s patrons were plutocrats. In the Homewood neighborhood, east of Shadyside, Cram built the Church of the Holy Rosary (1930) for a large Catholic congregation with a modest budget. Now closed, it inhabits what has become a troubled neighborhood. Holy Rosary is mainly inspired by the Gothic architecture of Catalonia, especially in the spacious interior, with its elongated piers. But in the way its brilliant massing turns a tight corner site to the church’s advantage, in the reworking of old architectural motifs—French as well as Catalonian—into a vitally new synthesis and in the sure grasp of monumental scale and ornamental enrichment that it conveys, this magnificent church, with its array of pinnacles and superb corner porch, is pure Cram.

Cram’s insistence on stained glass’s historical character as an architectural membrane—a diaphanous mosaic rather than a backlit tableau of the Tiffany ilk—yielded abundant fruit in Pittsburgh. Tiffany windows are translucent but not transparent; fabricators generally limited their use of paint to the depiction of human flesh, relying on fused glass to model narrative scenes in depth. Louis Comfort Tiffany also rejected the simple color harmonies of medieval glass and opted for the chromatic palette that helped define Art Nouveau—but that too often has a mawkish effect.

Calvary is home to some of the earliest windows fabricated in this country in the medieval manner. The technique involves setting small pieces of “antique” or transparent, handblown glass within leaden calms or dividers that are soldered together, with the resulting glass panels separated by iron bars. Forms are painted in dark enamel that fuses with the glass when fired. The level of intricacy is higher than in Tiffany glass, in which the lead is used to delineate forms. Cram employed antique glass not to infuse Calvary’s interior with a uniform glow but to enhance the modulations of light, shade, and shadow that the architecture generates.

The mosaic-like richness of traditional stained glass shines with special brilliance in the windows at First Baptist Church (1912) in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. This church, a handsome, if more emphatically faceted, even slightly glacial, interpretation of Gothic by Cram’s sometime partner, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869–1924), is decorated with grisaille (“grayish”) glass. Each window features a row of small but brightly colored figurative Christian symbols that stand out amid floral and abstract patterns stenciled repetitively against a background that shifts in tint and tone in a subtly irregular manner. Some of the symbols are easily recognizable, some not, but all are tied to the themes of Christ’s birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. This highly abstract as well as two-dimensional approach to religious imagery reflects the traditional Protestant aversion to Catholic iconography. These windows bring not color but an ethereal light into the church. They are the work of Charles Connick (1875–1945), perhaps America’s greatest glassman and a western Pennsylvania native whose career flourished largely thanks to Cram’s patronage. (Connick’s beautiful but much smaller and more traditional grisaille windows enrich the intimacy of Cram’s Gordon Chapel.)

Goodhue’s emphasis on simple, dominant masses was even more pronounced than Cram’s. Eventually, such emphasis entailed the use of figurative sculpture less as decoration than as an integral part of the architecture—most famously at Goodhue’s Capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska (1922). At First Baptist, sculpture still serves as surface enrichment. Across from Calvary stands a fine Catholic church, Sacred Heart (begun in 1924 but only completed decades later), whose broad masses and stoutly proportioned and richly decorated entrance reflect First Baptist’s influence. Designed by the Pittsburgh architect Carlton Strong (1862–1931), Sacred Heart is known for its inventive, richly eclectic interior.

It is doubtful that the enchanting Heinz Memorial Chapel (1938), the work of the distinguished Philadelphia architect Charles Zeller Klauder (1872–1938), would grace the University of Pittsburgh campus if not for Cram’s impact on American architecture. Klauder was one of the most prolific campus planner-architects of his day; his stylistically varied legacy extends from the University of Colorado at Boulder to Wellesley College. At first glance, Heinz Chapel, with its emphatically vertical massing and crowning flèche, might register as a knockoff of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. It isn’t. The transverse volume housing the transepts that rises above the longitudinal nave-and-chancel volume is distinctive, and so is the interior treatment of the great crossing piers. The four main crossing arches are crowned by crescendos and diminuendos of minor arches—open athwart the transepts, blind athwart the nave—suggesting Gothicized Roman bridges or aqueducts. Inside and outside, decorative details are superbly arrayed, often with great delicacy.

The shallow transepts contain four double-lancet stained-glass windows by Connick—at 73 feet, among the tallest in the world and the reason for the emphasis of the transepts in the chapel’s massing. The holy figures atop the transept lancets are eight feet tall. Connick’s two dozen Heinz Chapel windows bathe the interior in rich blue tints, flecked with flaming reds along with green, violet, and yellow accents. Jewel-like vignettes in the windows house almost 400 identified figures and many others besides. The arrangement is medieval, but the figure work is modernistic. Connick produced charming windows devoted to American historical events and legends in a similarly naive style for Calvary’s narthex (or vestibule) and parish hall. Thematically, the Heinz Chapel windows encompass an almost scholastic vision, in which the labors of spiritual and secular luminaries, male and female, testify to biblical verities. It is a celestial evocation of that sanely progressive Protestant social gospel eradicated by our postmodern world.

Though clad in limestone inside and out, Heinz Chapel has a steel frame—not that you would notice. (Cram’s East Liberty church, by contrast, is made of solid masonry apart from the great tower, which is framed in reinforced concrete.) Across a green from the chapel stands Klauder’s Cathedral of Learning (1937), a 535-foot-tall skyscraper, its receding, asymmetrical, and generously detailed masses also limestone-clad. In astutely fusing Gothic and art deco elements, it seemingly answers Cram’s call in his memoirs for “tradition plus modernism.” True, a 42-floor classroom building was not a practical idea, and the idea certainly wasn’t Klauder’s. And to judge by the tall buildings that he designed for Boston late in his career, Cram might have preferred a more overtly modernistic structure, while Heinz Chapel’s concealed steel frame violated his romantic insistence on “truthful” construction. The Cathedral of Learning is nonetheless a cherished landmark and a sobering reminder of the humanistic path not taken in the design of tall buildings in the postwar era. Along with the fine Pittsburgh churches erected by Cram and kindred spirits, it testifies to an enlightened artistic outlook that, over two generations, accommodated informed emulation of past achievements along with sound innovation—all to the enrichment of the nation’s architectural patrimony.

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