Monday, October 27, 2008

St. Barbara's, Bushwick, and Some Remarks on Spanish Neo-Baroque in the United States

Here are some photos I've found around the internet of a very interesting parish church in the Bushwick neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn, New York. St. Barbara's is a former German ethnic parish now hosting a largely Latino congregation and an almost-unique anomaly in the city as an example of (more-or-less) Spanish Baroque revival architecture, a phenomeon mostly associated with California, the American Southwest, and occasionally, and somewhat mistakenly, Florida, where most original mission architecture tended to be wood-sided and thatch-roofed, due to the persistent damp.

The parish was named for the patron saint of the wife (or, in some sources, possibly the daughter) of local brewer Leopold Epping, and the work of local Beaux-Arts classicists Helmle & Huberty. The building was completed in 1910.

Spanish, Mexican Baroque or "Mission Style" churches are not unknown outside these regions but often take peculiar local shadings, such as, in Chicago's Holy Innocents, where it takes on an eclectic esthetic that can only be described as Byzantinizing Polish Baroque, and, in the same city, the the equally delightfully incongruous Spanish Renaissance feeling of Presentation parish (now presumably derelict or demolished, according to local friends who had never heard of it). I've also seen photos of an imitation adobe church in, of all places, Minnesota. (This is, I suppose, no more incogruous than the extraordinary Churrigueresque feel of Coral Gables Congregational Church near Miami!)

Even Cram and Goodhue, whose work in the style tended to be in the west, got in on the act with their exuberant early work of SS. Peter and Paul in Fall River, Massachussetts. Sometimes ethnicity was a factor (as at the shuttered apartment-front parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the edge of Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and at Our Lady of Esperanza near Audubon Terrace, both particularly high classicizing takes on the style) but more often than not, there was no discernable connection besides a shared religious heritage with Spanish America. Presentation Church in Chicago was actually Irish, for instance. (Though, for truly mind-boggling strangeness, there is the wonderful little Mexican Baroque Methodist church by Cram at Newton Corner, Massachusetts, since converted into apartments. Cram himself thought it the worst building he had ever designed.)

St. Barbara's lacks the studied erudition and innovative vigor of such similar works on the west coast, and instead works out its Spanishness within the framework of second-tier turn-of-the-century classicism. It is nonetheless an intriguing local masterpiece, and another indication that the architectural tastes of turn-of-the-century Catholics were far more varied and eclectic than we often suppose.

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