Review of a Biography of Ralph Adams Cram, Gothic Architect

Shand-Tucci, Douglass.  Boston Bohemia, 1881-1900, Volume I of Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture.  Illustrated (Amherst:University ofMassachusetts Press) 569 pp., hardcover $50, recently available softbound $20.

Review by NEAL CAMPBELL

This review appeared in The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, Vol. VI, No. 9 (November/December 1997).  It also appeared in abbreviated form in The Living Church, January 11, 1998.

If readers of the Journal know Cram’s name at all, it is for the famous churches and collegiate chapels he designed, among the best-known being the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Church in New York, and the chapels of Princeton University and the University of Chicago, together with scores of parish churches of various denominations throughout the country.

However, I doubt that even the most ardent and knowledgeable aficionado of his work would know of Cram’s pursuits outside architecture.  He was a prolific author and playwright and the editor and architectural reviewer for a quarterly journal on the liberal arts.  His name first achieved prominence in a letter to the editor criticizing a proposed plan to alter Copley Square in Boston.  His poem “Nottingham Hunt” was set to music by Frederick Field Bullard, a member of a coterie of artists, craftsmen, poets, and musicians known as the “first American Avant-Garde,” according to Steven Watson (quoted in Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde, New York: Abeville, 1991), who lived in proximity on Pinckney Street “just on the fringes of polite society” in Boston’s Beacon Hill.  The work was successful enough that it was performed at a concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall.

The present book is the first of two proposed volumes detailing Cram’s life and work, and at 569 pages, brings us to Cram at age 37, before he had completed his best-known churches.  His early life is covered in a few paragraphs.  The chronicle really begins when Cram moved to Boston’s Pinckney Street in 1881 at the age of 17.  It was there that he was surrounded by a who’s who of Boston’s artistic community, from which the book derives its title.  The pages chronicle a parade of persons such as Charles Eliot Norton, Bliss Carmen, Bernard Berenson, Louis Imogene Guiney, a cameo appearance by Khalil Gibran (who, although today the best-known of the group, was a minor player at the time), Daniel Gregory Mason, Fred Holland Day, and Henry Vaughan—noted architect of St. Paul’s School Chapel in Concord, New Hampshire, and the first architect of Washington’s National Cathedral, whose relationship with Cram Shand-Tucci likens to that of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, in one of his endless attempts to read sexual pseudo-psychology into virtually everything and everyone, including relationships between persons and their respective artistic works.  This collection of Boston aesthetes was presided over by the unquestioned grande dame-patroness of the day, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose home was the repository of many artistic works of the group and is the present-day Gardner Museum.

Ralph Adams Cram

In his attempt to make sure no stone toes unturned, Shand-Tucci makes generous use not only of parenthetical expressions, but footnotes as well.  The reader who truly wants to keep track of each of the principal players, their roles and works, and their relationships to each other—to say nothing of Shand-Tucci’s commentary—will want to keep a legal pad and several sharpened pencils nearby.  It is not a casual, easy read.  Those who are tempted to skim for information on specific churches will have to work at it.

But the information is there, and important information it is.  There are those who will fault the book as unnecessarily expanding the definition of a biography, and, to be sure, there are indeed extended forays into areas not expected in a biography of an architect.  I will simply offer the observation that the material could easily be split into two or three shorter monographs on different subjects and that there is a lot of material only peripherally related to Cram.  As it stands, there are several levels at which the book may be understood, and depending on your points of view, most readers will identify with one or two levels and cautiously question some of the rest.  These levels, as they occur to me, are as follows—and it is my opinion that the author’s contributions to each individual sub-topic are listed in order of significance:

  1. Actual biographical information on Cram and his buildings.
  2. A social history of Boston and its artistic community at the turn of the 20th century.
  3. Shorter biographical material on artists and craftsmen working in conjunction with Cram.
  4. A history of architectural modernism.
  5. Homosexuality and religion.

Shand-Tucci is at his most convincing, and overwhelmingly so, when he sticks to specific architectural commentary within the biographical context.  He has obviously spent a lifetime studying Cram and has the sort of intimate knowledge of Cram’s buildings which could only have been obtained from many first-hand visits.  He has written other articles on Cram, obviously knows his subject thoroughly, and has a way of infusing compelling commentary within the context of another topic entirely.  For instance, the following few sentences appear all within the context of discussing Cram’s acceptance into New England societal spheres:

“Cram and Goodhue’s [Cram’s equally well-known partner Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue] splendid St. Stephen’s Church in Cohasset, outside Boston, designed in 1899, boldly modern in its square-headed fenestration and strikingly skewed in its profile, ravishingly picturesque for all its severity, quite overwhelms the old meetinghouse visible from its precincts across the town green . . . As a matter of fact, the way Goodhue stylishly elongated the curved oaken towers of St. Stephen’s high altar reredos so that they reach up daringly, like exotic tendrils of detail, to engage the stained-glass window above the altar, thus integrating superbly reredos and glass in service to Cram’s principle of liturgical art, distinctly foreshadows Goodhue’s later masterpiece of reredos and glass, the high altar at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York.”  [Typically, it was Goodhue who designed the interior detail of the firm’s churches.]

Ralph Adams Cram on the cover of Time Magazine, Dec 13, 1926

On the biographical level, Shand-Tucci also quotes significant portions of Cram’s own non-architectural writings, albeit for the purpose of filtering them through his own psychoanalytical musings, suppositions, and mind-readings, of which there are equally significant portions.  Shand-Tucci’s insights into areas two, three, and four above are valuable, though less so than his biographical-architectural material on the subject.  For instance, there are several vignettes of Cram and his coterie and their influence on the founding of important clubs in Boston such as the Tavern, St. Botolph, and Papyrus, and the building of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.  There is also interesting commentary throughout the book on the parallel arts of the era: poetry, fiction, playwriting, painting, photography, and publishing.  For lovers of Cram’s churches, there are identifications and accounts of many contributing craftsmen, whose work we may have admired for years, knowing little about their creators, such as stained glass artist Charles Connick, wood carver Johannes Kirchmayer, the Irving and Casson firm, and Lee Lawrie, who carved the reredos at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, the pulpit, lectern, and altar rail at St. Bartholomew’s, and many secular works in Rockefeller Center.  There is, as well, ongoing dialogue on the historical context of architecture in the post-Victorian, Richardsonian era, the era immediately preceding cubism in painting, imagism in poetry, and dodecaphony in music.

The author is decidedly at his most controversial in the fifth level, where he analyzes in great detail the relationships between homoeroticism, aestheticism, Anglo-Catholicism, and architecture.  It makes for very interesting reading, however, especially in the climate of church politics in the present day.  Shand-Tucci takes us on a virtual tour of the psychological foundations of gay culture.  From the early Freudian-Jungian movement, through Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde—each well-known to the Pinckney Street crowd—we are told of the early attempts to define and label the term homosexuality (Whitman), to the first use of the term gay as a euphemism for homosexuality in 1912 (Gertrude Stein).  The book is full of speculation and deduction about who was and who was not, analysis of Cram’s relationship with his partner Goodhue, and repeated themes of decadence and aestheticism.  Much of Shand-Tucci’s assertions are hard to take, especially when assigning erotic symbolism to things architectural, as he does in his discussion of the rood-beam iconography at All Saints, Ashmont, Boston.  But he makes his case strongly, complete with citation for further study, should the reader want to explore the avenue he opens.

Lee Lawrie’s reredos at St Thomas Church

For my part, I tend to agree with Walter Kendrick, professor at Fordham University, in the New York Times Book Review of July 30, 1995, shortly after the book’s initial publication:

“Mr. Shand-Tucci’s tireless ingenuity finds everything it seeks in Cram’s columns, spires and reredoses, yet the enterprise of “sexing architecture” seems to me both unconvincing and, in the end, unnecessary.”

Having said that, the book is an important work which should be in the possession of anyone with more than a cursory interest in church architecture, the allied religious arts, and the liturgical revival brought about by the Oxford Movement—the implications of which are still strongly felt today.

Volume II, in preparation and to be titled American Gothic, will cover Cram’s life when he designed his most famous churches.

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