Wednesday, May 28, 2008

St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles

One facet of the flowering of the American Gothic during the early twentieth century was a certain degree of overlap with a parallel enthusiasm for Spanish Renaissance and Baroque styles growing in California and the Southwest, most clearly evident in some regional works of Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Goodhue, both of whom at various times in their careers fell under the sway of Mexico and Iberia. Indeed, much of Cram's later work had a colorful Mediterranean tinge, ranging from Byzantine to Spanish Gothic and beyond. Why this family of styles--often densely ornamented--took off in the often-puritanical United States is somewhat surprising, and may have something to do with ecclesiastical perceptions of cultural continuity in Spain between her Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as its (somewhat tenuous) anchoring in the highly simplified Baroque of the American Spanish missions.

A splendid specimen of this Spanish Baroque revival, possibly the finest church on the Pacific coast, is Los Angeles' St. Vincent de Paul, with a 1927 interior largely by Cram and an exterior by Albert C. Martin drawing considerably on earlier work in San Diego by Cram's sometime partner Goodhue. The church is placed diagonally on a corner lot for maximum visibility and blends nicely with the surrounding Spanish Revival architecture while at the same time establishing itself undoubtedly as a church. The interior furnishings are a fascinating mixture of Cram's rubrical decorousness and occasionally polychromatic medievalism with the riotous sculptural splendor of eighteenth-century Mexican baroque, heavy with gilding and scrollwork. It is a fascinating sight: Cram, often wrongly stereotyped as the prim, archetypal Anglo-Saxon Episcopalian medievalist, throwing himself headlong into the giddy vortex of Latin Catholic warmth.

This is not to say he does not bring something of his own to the design. His personal mixture of modernity and medievalism grant a degree of clarity and focus--both artistically and liturgically--to the design lacking in some of its earlier Hispanic prototypes, which display a certain craftsman's lack of hierarchy with regards to the exotic and sometimes indiscriminate plastering of ornament on every conceivable surface characteristic of many of the outlying regional Baroques (Sicilian, Mexican, German, Spanish) if not its more balanced, subtler, hierarchically-sequenced Italian progenitors. He even manages to discover a tasteful way to give Our Lady a light-up halo, which is surely something in which we can all take pleasure as good Catholics.

Extensive photography of the church, interior and exterior, available here.

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