Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Floridian Gem: St. Edward, Palm Beach


For a born-and-bred Florida boy, I know appallingly little about the ecclesiatical architecture of my native state. For one thing, it took me a while to discover there was any. I only recently realized the peninsula contained not one but two works by Ralph Adams Cram, or that my own parish church growing up had traces in its 1960s hybrid design of the last collective gasp of the Liturgical Movement. So I was delighted when a friend sent along these glorious photos of St. Edward Church in Palm Beach, a stunning bit of Miznerian Mediterranean fantasy by Mortimer Dickson Metcalfe, the New York-based designer of the Palm Beach Hotel. (For the record, he is unsure how he got hold of these photos, so my apologies if one of my readers recognizes his work.)

Florida in the early days of tourism sought to bring a sense of place to a region that, while in theory the earliest settled territory of the present-day United States, had little recognizable history on the ground. Addison Mizner, the flamboyant, larger-than-life architect and developer who transformed the region in the 1920s, developed a romantic, eclectic vocabulary (sometimes called, with wild inaccuracy "Boca Roccoco") for the area derived from a semi-imagined Spanish past and a wealth of other Italianate, Venetian, and Spanish Colonial references. Purists may sneer at such fantasy, but Mizner made it work, just as Cram had invented a whole new style for Texas at Rice University by drawing on the example of the Byzantine Mediterranean. (Indeed, Cram's own Floridian work has a marked Hispanic turn.)



Metcalfe's work at St. Edward's shows an equally Miznerian sense of imagination in its use of varied sources knitted into a coherent and topical whole. Unfortunately, I do not know much about his other ecclesiastical work, or even about the church itself, though it is interesting to note that J.F. Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy's father, was a founding member of the parish.

The interior to some extent is reminiscent of the exuberant but slightly awkward eclecticism so characteristic of late nineteenth century Catholic work, such as the somewhat odd juxtaposition of thickset Romanesque columns along the side-aisles below the upper range of straightforwardly classical Corinthian pilasters. The broad central nave also lacks the forward movement of a narrower, high-ceilinged space. There is less of a sense of concentrated, well-edited ornament amid moments of rest that one finds in the more nuanced Hispanic Baroque work of Goodhue and Cram, operating at around the same time. Yet, the general impression is one of beautifully-detailed splendor and of a remarkably intelligent and nuanced use of color. The ceiling is particularly wonderful in that regard, mingling greens, reds and golds that draw the eye upward and down to the bright murals surrounding the textured purity of the marble high altar. [A very fine close-up photo of the high altar and its surroundings can be found at the parish's website here.]



Such a building deserves to be celebrated and studied, and also serves as a potent reminder that America's architectural heritage, and especially its ecclesiastical heritage, is by no means limited to the narrowly Nordic, the Gothic, and the Anglo-Saxon, and that it, too, may inspire us to create future beauty that is uniquely American and yet undoubtedly Catholic.

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