Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Other Modern: Renovating the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains, Cincinnati

One of the more unjustifiably overlooked of America's historic churchbuildings must be St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Cincinnati, an interesting survivor from the period of American Catholicism's first widespread forays into monumental architecture. The structure was dedicated on All Souls' Day (a curious choice!) in 1845 and is in a crisp, straightforward Greek revival typical of the period. While Gothic may have more of a hold on the pious imagination and Colonial Revival seem more "national," most of our early churches--such as St. Joseph's in New York or the Baltimore basilica--are in some permutation of the sober classicism of the early 19th century. The exterior, with its single spire and colonnaded front portico, may strike some readers as Protestant in flavor, and indeed, it does repeat the classic Georgian typology of St. Martin's in the Fields in London, the template for numerous Methodist, Baptist, and low-church Episcopal structures across the country. However, here it is rendered in sober stone rather than warm brick, and has an almost French air to it reminiscent of the Madeleine in Paris.

The interior was, for a long time, a bland yet strangely restless Victorian pseudo-Roman affair, despite its sober exterior, but to mark the church's rededication as a cathedral (the bishop's seat had moved to a parish to the north in 1938), the building received a thorough renovation in 1957 by the hand of distinguished local son Edward J. Schulte. Schulte's liturgical work has been covered here in the past. His was the firm behind La Crosse, Wisconsin's intriguing modernized Gothic design dedicated some years later in 1962. One learned friend has told me Schulte's son was behind the firm's shift towards a more transitional modern-traditional hybrid aesthetic, though Schulte showed a facility for stylization throughout much of his career, if not necessarily quite to this level.

The new interior boasted a new sanctuary in the typical late Liturgical Movement layout that Schulte was so adept at designing--ample and deep with choirstalls flanking a well-placed high altar atop a lofty predella and crowned with a hanging tester overhead.

A unique set of stunning Stations of the Cross done in a style reminiscent of the paintings on Greek amphorae fill up much of the side-aisle walls, harmonizing and elevating the existing architecture. The renovation also included a new baptistery, in a more explicitly modernistic style, and a handsome organ case spiked with gilded angels.

The sanctuary is striking, but while strong in composition, the rear mosaic and its architectural surroundings feel perhaps unduly minimalist in its treatment in contrast to its surroundings--both the historic context of the church and the more ornate choirstalls on either side. The tester, while beautifully-executed is too high above the altar to establish a solid visual connection, as well--an occasional problem in works of the period. Incidentally, somewhere in there is a crucifix by the great (and extremely rowdy) Renaissance artist-goldsmith-rake-layabout-braggart-genius and all-round wild-and-crazy-guy Benvenuto Cellini, who famously picked off a German landsknecht with a single arquebus shot from the ramparts of Castel Sant' Angelo during the siege of Rome.

However, the general impression is one of restrained yet glittering splendor with many bold and original touches that nonetheless fall within the realm of tradition. The use of color--gold and white in the nave, darker terra-cotta reds and blacks in the side-aisles--is also particularly intelligent, both subtle and colorful--marrying both the polychromy of the Greeks with the refined palette of Greek Revival. They are by one Carl Zimmerman, with the less-impressive but still somewhat majestic sanctuary mosaic by Anton Wendling. I am not sure I would have advised quite so strong a stylistic hand had I undertaken the project myself, but especially in view of the era in which it was undertaken, it is quite the gem. At the very least, it offers one interesting option among many as an example to future tradition-minded architects.

(Photos via Flickr and Wikipedia.)

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