A-spiring to God
The traditional religious architecture of Ralph Adams Cram.
By Matthew J. Milliner
“When I was wandering through North Italy, I had come to Assisi, and there… before the tomb of St. Francis, by some unaccountable impulse I had found myself on my knees and trying to say something in the way of prayers.” This is how a gifted young man from a family of New England Unitarians described his first step towards classical Christian faith. He continues, “I did not make out very well, for it was actually the first time in my life when anything of the sort had happened. With a mystical philosopher for a father and a mother of keen rationalistic convictions (albeit a poet), prayer, or indeed, anything approaching formal religious action, was out of the question...” The year was 1887, and the young man, then 24, was Ralph Adams Cram, soon to be one of the 20th century’s most prodigious American architects. Following the Assisi experience came Christmas Mass in Rome, an event powerful enough to result in his conversion.
Just as Cram sought more traditional fiber in matters of the spirit, so did he in his chosen profession. “Gothic is less a method of construction,” he suggested, “than it is a mental attitude, the visualizing of a spiritual impulse.” It was an impulse that resonated deeply in early 20th-century America. After Cram won his first major design competition—a robust Gothic makeover of the Academy at West Point—commissions followed nationwide. As a result, Cram’s fresh interpretations of the Gothic tradition continue to shape daily life in Boston, Chicago, Washington, Detroit, Houston, Princeton, South Bend, and dozens more American towns. His crowning achievements were saved for Manhattan: St. Thomas’ Fifth Avenue and St. John the Divine. The latter, like so many of the European Gothic cathedrals that inspired it, remains incomplete.
Cram is an unusual addition to the pantheon of modern American architects, for in the much that he wrote, he was never shy about his faith. Perhaps because of this he remains unfashionable, but it would be wrong to say that Ralph Adams Cram has been neglected. Lately, scholarship on him has been decidedly thorough, such that readers seeking unusual interpretations of every detail of his life and thought can consult the over 1,000 pages of Douglass Shand-Tucci’s exhaustively researched, two-volume biography of Cram, which is both highly informative and heavily saturated in Queer Theory. Others will prefer architect Ethan Anthony’s more straightforward approach, The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office, out this year from W. W. Norton.
As president of HDB/Cram & Ferguson, Anthony is perpetuating the legacy of the firm founded by Cram. Using his access to firm archives, Anthony is able to provide a handsome catalogue raisonnée of Cram’s achievements. Many readers will likely examine the entries, surprised to find that a familiar church is in fact one of Cram’s designs. The book’s biographical essay provides a coherent and faithful account of his life and motivation, notwithstanding a few missteps. Cram was not Time’s 1925 Man of the Year (the first was Charles Lindbergh in 1927), but he did, at the peak of his influence, appear on the cover of Time in 1926. And while Cram may have liked to think he was received into the “Anglican Communion of the Catholic Church” or that the Oxford Movement was “a revitalization of the English Catholic Church,” both Cram and the Oxford Movement were Anglican.
Still, from co-founding Commonweal to securing a Nihil obstat and imprimatur for one of his books, Cram was never far from Rome. His faith was deeply sacramental, and he believed that “Protestantism has been a purely destructive force so far as religious art is concerned.” The Brooklyn Tablet, a Catholic journal of his day, exasperated that “God alone understand why Cram did not embrace the faith.” But an Episcopalian he remained. Cram’s “Gothic quest” was an ecumenical one, seeking to resume that organic and flexible style which, he believed, had been not exhausted, but prematurely murdered by Henry VIII, by whose intervention “the doom of Christian architecture was sealed.”
Ethan Anthony observes that both Cram and his more celebrated contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, were in a constant search for architectural absolutes. But “unlike Wright, Cram found his most emphatically in medieval Europe,” an era which served as his antidote to 20th century industrialization, global war, and moral decay. Still, Cram was not a slave to the past. He denigrated mere “Gothic revival” as “archaeology not architecture,” insisting on creative development of the tradition. Cram conversed with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and admired Pablo Picasso, while still insisting on swimming against the modernist stream. As his principles became out of step with the style that consumed the fillet of the 20th century, Cram persisted; yet, Anthony explains, “Ultimately, [Cram] was happy to acknowledge that most of his work appealed more to the public.” One imagines that Ethan Anthony’s experience as a traditional architect today enables him to relate.
Cram sought to make an enduring contribution to modern life, but without severing connection to past Christian culture. In this he succeeded. “I have scant sympathy with that entirely modern view of art that makes the artist a rebel against a constituted society,” he wrote. “An abnormal phenomenon feeding upon his inner self, cut off from the life of his fellows and issuing his aesthetic manifestos in flaming defiance…” For Cram, such art could not succeed because it contained no “conscious and vital link with the art of past generations.” In retrospect, Cram’s vision for 20th-century art was itself a sort of flaming defiance. North Americans would do well to save on European airfare, and rediscover the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram. Thanks to Ethan Anthony, we now know where to look. Better yet, from Anthony’s firm and ones like it, we can expect more new buildings with a conscious and vital link to the past.
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Matthew J. Milliner is a graduate student in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com.
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