Thursday, April 16, 2009

St. Robert's, Shorewood, Wisconsin

On the advice of fellow Domer and former Milwaukee resident Lucy, I drove down to St. Robert Catholic Church in Shorewood, Wisconsin, a handsome Lombard Romanesque structure in dark brick and pale stone that was raised in 1937. When I first saw it, I assumed it was a work of the more high-flying, expansive 1920s; I am even more impressed to discover this rather late date. The website does not specify the architect, but Lucy mentioned it was by the same architect as the National Shrine.

The principal firm on that other project was Maginnis and Walsh, led by the once well-known Charles D. Maginnis. I do not know if he was personally involved on this project, or whether it was some other, associated architect, but perhaps Lucy can comment. While many of my friends tend to not like the Shrine--I like several aspects of it, even some of the dated ones, and mentally edit out the others--it was a late work, and does not compare favorably to the majority of the firm's projects, which were part of that remarkable outburst of ecclesiastical design that marked the period of the turn of the last century to the Second World War in America. That Maginnis is now largely unknown is somewhat surprising.

An emigrant Irishman and colleague of Ralph Adams Cram, while never as famous a polemicist as the Boston Gothicist, he in some ways had even greater professional success, becoming president of the American Institute of Architects from 1937 to 1939 and the recepient of their Gold Medal in 1948. While his work is generally not as well-known as Cram's, it is peculiarly ubiquitous--alterations to Trinity Church's chancel in Boston, the interior of the Basilica in Minneapolis, college campuses everywhere, including many of Notre Dame's dorms, and the chancel of St. Pat's in New York.

If this church is indeed the firm's work, it certainly is one of their more pleasant projects. While not monumental or heavily ornamental, its detailing and masses are well-articulated and possesses a carefully-edited intellectual thoroughness which surprises us, amid today's budgetary constraints. There are none of the shortcuts of the forties and fifties, though one sees the font of what survives, in abridged form in many later projects of that period. I was unable to get inside but, given the hints of stained glass I saw, hope to remedy that at some point soon.

While not lavish, it is enlivened with carefully-placed touches of marble and a carefully-chosen program of sculpture expressing key figures in the life of St. Robert of Newminster, another surprise. There is always just enough to surprise, in some respects, a trickier proposition than managing a massive spread of decoration. I had expected St. Robert Bellarmine to be the patron, the great Counter-Reformation powerhouse; instead, it was this lesser-known English abbey-building monk, suggesting less the rah-rah Catholicism of the forties than a genteel appeal to pre-reformation Catholic Anglophilia. Though, given the occasional medievalism of the Liturgical Movement, this too, is perhaps less unusual than I might think. A small, anonymous bust taken from the ruins of Newminster sits on a bracket by a canopied side-entrance. The only aspect I don't like as much are the two broad strips of white stone quoining bookending the front elevation, but that is a minor quibble.

Other details, large and small, have a particular appeal--small and strictly speaking unnecessary spires towards the back, a circular apse when a square end might have saved a bit of cash, a massive campanile, all serve to make the difference between better and best--it is a fine example of the Romanesque mood of this period of the Church's life in America, both very much of its era and yet transcending it with remarkable ease.

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