Thursday, February 12, 2009

Arthur Brown and St. Mark's, Seattle

Writing about the architectural golden age that characterized turn-of-the-century America entails discussing a lot of major building projects undertaken by Episcopal parishes and cathedrals, in addition to the Catholic churches erected in the same period. I am sure this is of great interest to our Anglican and Episcopalian readers--whose contributions in the comments box I appreciate--but I would also encourage our general readership to study these examples, if only for the fact that the most interesting stylistic and structural developments in America church architecture frequently occurred there first, or were on the whole better-designed. There were a few notable exceptions, of course, such as the Catholic churches of Chicago, but there would have been no Maginnis and Walsh or Joseph McCarthy without the still rather larger figures of Richardson, Cram and the rest. In that spirit, I pass onto you the sad story of Seattle's incomplete Episcopalian cathedral, and what it might have looked like, excerpted from Jeffrey T. Tilman's Arthur Brown: Progressive Classicist:

The project began in 1922, when the diocese [of Olympia] hired parishioner Champney to draw up an image of a proposed cathedral, to be located at Tenth and Galer streets in Seattle. The project was delayed with the appointment of a new bishop, and by 1926, [Frère] Champney's fortunes had taken a decided turn for the worse. [...] Brown was Champney's closest professional colleague, the most prominent architect working on the Pacific Coast, and the one person with whom Champney might be able to work. [John] Eddy [Champney's brother-in-law] wrote to [him] on July 19, 1926, promising Brown 'rescue the church out of its difficulty,' and accept Champney's proposal to associate on the cathedral, which he was to suggest to him in the next several days.
Brown, the architect of the San Francisco City Hall and the vaguely nozzle-shaped Coit Tower--apparently a coincidence, despite the fireman connections--was the finest beaux-arts classicist and was, around the same time at work on a handsome Byzantinoid synagogue, also in San Francisco, Temple Emanu-El. The story continues:
The architects started with Champney's drawing of an English Gothic church [above], a sketch that captivated the imagination of the former bishop and many members of the building committee. Brown immediately saw the scheme was not constructible, but he worked with Champney to derive a plan that was structurally possible. [...]

The team set to work in September 1926 and made good progress in developing the plans through the remainder of the year. Brown considered three cathedral projects, in particular: Ralph Adams Cram's St. John the Divine in New York City, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral, and Lewis Hobart's Grace Cathedral in San Francisco [a dignified concrete structure that I think Cram had some role in as well--MGA]. All three of these structures attempted to reconcile traditional Gothic architectural forms with contemporary construction techniques, although to a varying degree. Grace Cathedral was most relevant to Brown, as Hobart's use of concrete and structural steel permitted the construction of the great church in a fraction of the time and budget the masonry construction would have required, and at the same time protected the building against seismic forces. Bakewell, Brown and Champney proposed a steel structure that was to be faced with stone, braced with concrete infill walls, and vaulted with concrete shells. The building was intended to evoke the architectural qualities of an English thirteenth-century cathedral church--through the use of the most modern materials available.

The church, as constructed, was square in plan [a rare centralized Gothic plan --MGA], with nearly identical high bays that radiated from the crossing; the north and south bays were to serve as transepts, the east as a narthext and the west as the choir [below, in a drawing by the famous renderer Hugh Ferriss]. Each elevation was regulated by massive buttresses that framed large lancet windows. At each elevation a rose window with stone Gothic tracery was planned, but none were executed. The dominant visual feature was the crossing-tower, rising over 200 feet from the church floor. [An elevation can be seen here]. The tower and the subordinate transept and corner-towers were to have been crowned by a myriad of pinnacles and arcaded screens, which would have given the building a highly active silhouette against the grey skies of Seattle.
The rest of the story is a fairly dismal one, with the construction hobbled by rising costs and the onset of the Depression. The bank foreclosed on the parish, the building was sold off, was used as an anti-aircraft gun training center by the army during the Second World War, and then bought back by the diocese. St. Mark's is functionally finished today--and nicknamed 'the holy box' due to its low profile--seating about 1,000 with some extensions by Olson Sundberg Architects begun in the mid-1990s, but, towerless and still rough in spots, it looks nothing as fanciful as the vision conveyed by Brown and his colleagues in 1926.

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