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The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office

by Ethan Anthony

W.W. Norton, 176 pages, $60

Ralph Adams Cram”the twentieth-century church builder, neo-medieval social critic, spinner of ghost stories, and modern knight-errant”is ready to take on a whole new century.

In fact, if architect Ethan Anthony is to be believed, his spirit never quite left the building. Anthony begins The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office with his 1991 discovery that Cram’s successor firm was still hanging on in a Boston basement a half century after the great man’s death. As the revamped firm’s principal, Anthony has combed Cram’s old archives to produce this profusely illustrated volume, which bequeaths the whole of the man’s kaleidoscopic output to a new generation of architects.

Cram was once a household name in America. A Unitarian minister’s son turned Anglican high-church polemicist, he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1925. But even at the time he seemed a little peculiar. As the architectural historian Walter C. Kidney once commented, “It was not that he was eccentric; indeed, confronted with Cram, the modern world probably seemed aberrant.”

Yet, as Anthony carefully points out, he was not merely a crank reactionary. He condemned communism and the labor movement but also untrammeled growth, imperialism, and the loss of communal life that had been exemplified by the monastic ideal. While teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he remarked that the ideal school of architecture would be “half college and half monastery.” That idea never took off, but Cram’s master planning of the Princeton University campus canonized the prototype of the American Gothic college, with its thoroughly monastic plan.

Cram is largely ignored today, save by self-professed young fogeys and the occasional cultural critic. His name remains unspoken in the dustily trendy halls of academia, in limbo alongside the other great traditionalists of this age”Edwin Lutyens, Sir Ninian Comper, Giles Gilbert Scott, and Cram’s agnostic business partner, the ornamental genius Bertram Goodhue.

Indeed, The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram may be the first volume to catalogue Cram’s architecture since his death in 1942. It is the fruit of years of original research, numerous site visits, and even a little architectural detective work. In addition to a brief biographical introduction detailing Cram’s life, the book presents a brief description of each of his projects, accompanied by a cornucopia of plans, perspectives, and photographs.

In between, we are given snapshots of a vanished America where religion and culture still played a vital role in public life, as well as odd and unexpected little tidbits: a craze for church bell towers in the 1920s; Cram’s home life with his beloved wife, Bess, and their children; the messy business breakup with Goodhue; Cram’s mildly embarrassing foray into the horror genre, Black Spirits and White ; his strange proposal for an island to be raised ex nihilo in Boston’s Charles River; the problems inherent when working with rich Swedenborgians; and a Japanese Christian university he designed on a mix of Oriental and Dutch Modernist themes.

Anthony covers religious, academic, and institutional projects, as well as curiosities such as Cram’s unfulfilled proposal for the Japanese parliament, an Art Deco high-rise, and a surprisingly pragmatic bridge. The breadth of the man’s work still amazes. And, by focusing on the undeniable fact of Cram’s works, Anthony avoids the pitfalls present in the only other recent treatment of Cram, Douglass Shand-Tucci’s bloated two-volume extravaganza, the 1995 Boston Bohemia and the 2006 Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests .

While critically acclaimed by many academics, Shand-Tucci’s doorstopper was so stuffed with digressive social commentary and bouts of architectural psychoanalysis that Ralph Adams Cram and his buildings often recede into the background. Anthony restricts himself to commenting that he has found nothing in the firm’s archives to back up Shand-Tucci’s more controversial theses.

Cram’s architecture is relevant today both to the layman intrigued by Cram’s rich theological imagination and to architects eager to enrich the future through the sophisticated reinvention of the past. And in this, Cram did not limit himself to his own Episcopalianism.

He eagerly hoped that one of his earliest projects”the startling Mexican Baroque parish church of SS. Peter and Paul in Fall River, Massachusetts”would revolutionize Catholic architecture in America, then dominated by cheap catalogue-bought plaster saints and gimcrack Victoriana.

It did not, but Cram would go on to work for Catholics time and time again. One employee, Charles Maginnis, would effectively become Cram’s Catholic alter ego, designing the Byzantine Moderne National Shrine in Washington, D.C., among many other projects.

Some of Cram’s most remarkable works were intended for other denominations”for instance, Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Presbyterian Church, with its Gothic-cum-Empire State Building silhouette, and the curious Swedenborgian cathedral built by an authentically medieval workforce of guilds at Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. At the end of his life, Cram noted in My Life in Architecture that one of his greatest regrets was never having had the opportunity to design a ­synagogue.

Through all his projects runs a remarkably consistent strain of liturgical ecumenism. Even his earliest Episcopalian churches are characterized by a faithful transcription of the then controversial catholic principles of the Oxford movement”prominent altars, side-aisles, and a cruciform plan all underpinned by a profound understanding of the spirituality of religious ritual. This ethos was adapted with great sensitivity by Cram for his mainline Protestant projects, balancing specific denominational concerns with a larger ideal of unity represented by the ancient, life-affirming font of Christian ceremonial. For Cram, worship of the living God was the lifeblood of ­society.

Today, with many architects reconsidering the endemic modernism of church architecture, Cram’s design process is worthy of study as a model in its inventive balance of tradition and innovation. Cram was deeply suspicious of the formal approach of nineteenth-century beaux-arts classicism, preferring what Anthony terms a more holistic approach. The result is timeless yet uniquely American”learning from the ancient models he studied but always avoiding direct archaeological imitation.

Cram felt free to bring his distinctive methodology to a quiverful of regional approaches, ranging from colonial revival academic ensembles to more exotic”and even controversial”styles. Who else would have had the reckless imagination to create a Park Avenue Methodist church in an Italo-Greek Byzantine mode, complete with Russian icons over the altar?

While it is regrettable that he never made his peace with Italian classicism”one wonders what Cram might have learned from the delicate austerity of Florentine arcades or the freewheeling geometric brilliance of Borromini”his early embrace of the Mexican Baroque (spurred by his partner Goodhue), his late interest in the Iberian Renaissance, and his numerous forays into American colonial revival show he was no mere Gothic fanatic. As Cram himself remarked in the introduction to the 1924 edition of his Church Building : “There is nothing in the early ­editions that the author would retract . . . unless perhaps it were the rather narrow enthusiasm for the latest phase of English Gothic as the sole basis of religious architecture so desired at the time. Apparently, one becomes less of a purist, or rather stylist, with advancing years, finding beauty in unexpected places and significance in things once discarded.”

In the end, it is the animating spirit of his compositional genius that distinguishes his work. The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office marks a milestone in the rediscovery of the architect. After a extensive hiatus, we can now see the entire sweep of Cram’s lengthy career and the deeply Christian and humanizing message inherent in his work.

Long the poster child of pure Gothic, he is revealed in Ethan Anthony’s work as the possessor of an imagination that displayed the Christian spirit in a myriad of expressions. His work is contemporary not because of its rejection of the past but through its judicious and organic development of history’s architectural best. While only a comparatively few architects today may espouse Cram’s creed, perhaps his example will reach many more through the pages of this book. It sounds quixotic, but then Cram always loved a challenge.

Matthew Alderman , a graduate of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, recently completed designs for the sanctuary furnishings of Most Holy Mother of God Catholic Church in Vladivostok, Russia.