Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Forgotten Architectural Styles III: New Amsterdam Revival

Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church, West End and 77th Street, 1892

Of this edifice, Stern in his New York 1900 writes:

The sense of the West End [of New York] as a new New Amsterdam was most vividly articulated by Robert W. Gibson's Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church [...] which linked the broad traditions of a congregation founded in New Amsterdam with the new spirit of Metropolitanism. Despite its modest height, the powerful stepped gable, the rigorous articulation of the masses separating church from school and providing a modest suggestion of a cloister, and the vividly-colored combination of brick, stone, terra cotta and Dutch tile contributed to the building's commanding presence. In the interior, the need to provide unobstructed sight lines for each parishioner led to a novel solution in which columns supporting the roof timbers were confined to the edges of the room, where they screened the aisles from theauditorium proper. Gibson's church was closely inspired by the Meat Market [!] in Haarlem, the Netherlands. It was a more literal adaptation of Dutch sources than previously seen in New York, reflecting the increasingly "scientific" eclecticism that came to dominate the architecture of the Composite Era later in the 1890s.
While undeniably Protestant in its architectonic values, this striking structure offers some food for thought for the Catholic architect, both as a positive and a negative example.

Deriving as it does from secular Dutch examples, it is largely devoid of the liturgical elements common to the Gothic churches of the era, either at a superficial level, as with those which took a meeting-house plan and veneered it in Gothic, or more deeply, as in those high-church constructions which adopted reredoses, deep chancels and side-altars. This is hardly unsurprising, given the aliturgical quality of Dutch Reformed worship, and an intriguing illustration of how divergent theology may be reflected in divergent architecture.

As a negative example, its architecture, while handsome, is more in line with the market buildings of the Netherlands. It suggests an elegant town hall more than a place of worship, particularly in the auditorium's low massing in relation to its surrounding parish complex, the hierarchical aspect of which is somewhat (probably deliberately) frustrated. A Catholic church building should, however, always rise substantially above its outbuildings--indeed, simply raising the walls just another ten feet or so, or adding a fleche to its steeple, would render the building far more sound from the standpoint of a more liturgical ecclesiology. Still, one is struck less by the inappropriateness of designing a preaching-hall that looks like a meat market than by the remarkable splendor of a culture which could ennoble an ordinary building with such ornaments as an embodiment of civic pride.

As a positive example, the component elements of the structure offer much delicacy of detail and an intelligent, subtle treatment of color--both useful tricks for an architect trying to give greater dignity to a structure which the constraints of reality may not be as lofty or handsome as he might like. Indeed, it is remarkable how this low little building splendidly dominates its corner. The charming stepped gable is particularly wonderful, and by itself hardly Protestant or even solely Dutch in character as it appears in a number of more conventional Polish Catholic churches in Chicago, often flanked by more strictly ecclesiastical bell-towers.

Quite a few other examples of neo-Dutch architecture appeared in New York at the time, concentrated amid the growing neighborhoods of the Upper West Side of the city. A few examples follow.

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