Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in Cuba

I spent part of yesterday under the gilded coffers of the ceiling of the New York Public Library's immense reading room, paging through an oversized copy of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue's Architectural and Decorative Designs as if it were a storybook. Goodhue is one of my favorite architects of the first half of the last cventury, and did a vast number of truly amazing churches in spite of the peculiar and rampant strain of freethinking he professed. His pleasant eclecticism meant he was comfortable in Gothic, Spanish baroque, or even a sort of deco classicism which comes across today as remarkably fresh and vigorous, much more so than other experiments of the period. I took some snaps of the book (no flash, at the librarian's insistence) with my digital camera, and I bet this is a first for the world wide web as I've been unable to come across any of these drawings from this rather rare book online to date. A few other of these images are from other sources, but they're also unknown, as far as I know, on the web. (And they let me use the flash on those ones...)

Proposed Episcopalian Cathedral for Havana, Cuba (1905)

Goodhue's interest in many styles, particularly his reputation as a Gothicist in light of his great love of the Churriguesque and other Hispanic styles, particularly intrigues me, as I often find myself in the same place. One of my favorite designs by the man is a curious and rather crisp Spanish-English Baroque hybrid for, of all things, a Methodist auditorium church in the presumably Puritan stronghold of Newton Corner, Massachusetts. This design Goodhue's sometimes rather cranky collaborator Ralph Adams Cram called "the worst I had ever built."

Newton Corner Methodist Church, Newton Corner, Massachusetts (1895)

Cram himself had a love for the Sicilian baroque. He was much more excited with the design he and Goodhue did in that style (with a bit of San Marco in Venice tossed in for good mesure) at another Massachusetts church, SS. Peter and Paul. This one was more appropriately a Catholic parish. Cram excitedly exclaimed it would revolutionize Catholic architecture in the country, but it seems to have been sadly forgotten. The Baroque component, though, is curiously flat and rather gentle in spite of its riotous acreage of shallow-relief plasterwork. Cram and Goodhue were never quite able to approach the sublimity of the curve that so animates the highest examples of Sicily's wild and quite wonderfully unruly Baroque. But that they loved it showed that Gothic and Baroque were not incompatible, or at the very least, there was room in the world for both.

Los Todos Santos [sic] Parish Church (Episcopalian), Guantanamo, Cuba (1905)

A particularly esoteric bit of Goodhue's oeuvre (done when he was a member of the firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson) are a number of church designs he did for Episcopalians in Cuba, after the inrush of Yankees that had come in the wake of the island's independence from Spain. They are in plan the standard Anglican parish with chancel and choirstalls, done up in what he assumed was the vernacular of the place. To me, they appear more Mexican than Cuban in their stucco-walled flamboyance (Cuba's architecture being more restrained, classical and Carribean in outlook), but remain marvels of a strong, planar, blocky Baroque proto-moderne of sorts.

Despite my fondness for the gilded flamboyance of Spanish Catholicism, I do have to admit that the Hispanic mode of the Baroque, while splendid, lacks much of the metropolitan sophistication of its Roman counterparts. It is more applied than sculptural, an architecture of decoration rather than structure. Still, these examples of it show its relevance to today, and also to the peculiar problems of the church-builder today. The concentrated bursts of ornament that decorate its otherwise blank and often beautifully textured walls provide a model which might not be outside the grasp of a parish's finances today. (Spain, in spite of the baroque, ornament-by-the-yard stereotype, has a history of doing simple things well--take for example the "plain style" of the Escorial). Certainly the country chuch of Los Todos Santos must have been a comparatively low-budget affair, even then.

Santisima Trinidad Episcopalian Pro-Cathedral, Havana (1905)

The only problem, of course, is that Hispanic baroque or its country cousin, the Mission style, is very much a regional architecture. Still, consiering Mexico ranges in climate from the blistering cold of the Sierra to the warm humidity of Vera Cruz, its sunny, southern nature is largely an imposition of the Yankee mind, and need not be so. While we must continue to push for the revival of craft and sculptural traditions, such architecture which knows how to make a virtue of economy (in its less high-flying forms, that is) provides fruitful ideas for the churchbuilder of today.

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