High Priest of American Neo-Gothic: Ralph Adams Cram

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Ralph Adams Cram (1863—1942) was a Bostonian Bohemian, writer, historian, lecturer, social critic, and above all a highly successful architect in his time. Cram and Ferguson, the practice he founded in the late 1880s, survives to this day.

Cram was one of those Americans born during the War between the States who came of age in the troubled times of the late nineteenth-century, the so-called "Gilded Age" and the crisis decade of the 1890s.

His was a generation afflicted by a restless malaise: impatient with the worn-out legacies of their parents’ culture and the asphyxiating, heavily draped claustrophobia of dark Victorian interiors, some of them sought stimulation in novelty, constant change and perpetual motion for its own sake. They tore down the old with no particular conception of what they wanted to put in its place. In Cram’s own words, "the aim of destruction was sure, but the substitute revelation was murky in the extreme."

Chartres Cathedral

In matters of art and architecture, Cram recognized the need to sweep away the stale constructions of the immediate past: looking back to the early years of the century, he wrote in 1929, "the sterile formulae of the Edwardian era, the last desiccated remnants of the Victorian age, which in itself was the last flare of a tradition and a tendency already moribund, had to be destroyed; there can be small question as to that." But beyond the destruction, he himself sought worth and permanence in the glories of the medieval past, by breathing new life specifically into church and college architecture in America: “We must return for the fire of life to other centuries, since a night intervened between our fathers’ time and ours wherein the light was not.”

Men and women who shared Cram’s belief were "anti-modernists." For them the world that was changing so fast between 1890 and 1930 — especially in the nineteen-noughties and the naughty twenties, was also changing to no good purpose. In the aesthetic realm, the relentless energy of the revolutionary modernists — postimpressionists, cubists, vorticists — was seemingly dissipating into nothing but hunger for the next novelty, itself soon to be discarded.

Oxford

Cram sought to counter this descent into civilization’s abyss by creating artifacts of beauty and permanence that would evoke and preserve the true spirit of those earlier centuries. The tradition he revered and revived was the Gothic architecture which had inspired the builders of the great Christian cathedrals of the Middle Ages like Chartres, and the soaring towers of ancient seats of learning such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Architecture

Today Ralph Adams Cram is hardly known outside architectural circles, but if you travel around the churches and universities of the United States, especially in the North-East, you will everywhere find his architectural legacy, American Collegiate Gothic. At Princeton, perhaps his major achievement in college buildings, he was consulting architect for 22 years, between 1907 and 1929, having been appointed under then college president Woodrow Wilson. A mini-biography on the web describes his impressive record:

McCormack Building, Boston

He was the Campus architect at MIT, Princeton, Wheaton, Sweet Briar, Boston University, University of Richmond and Wellesley Colleges. Major buildings are at Williams, St Georges School, Phillips Exeter School, Blue Ridge School and St Paul’s School.

Great public buildings include the McCormack Federal Building in Boston, a group of delightful public libraries including Fall River, Wakefield, Sturbridge and Roxbury, the Japanese Garden at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California.

Cram designed buildings for the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Unitarian Churches, among others. His work culminated in the great, and still incomplete, Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Doheny Library, University of Southern California

The Doheny Library, like much of Cram’s work, has lately been undergoing extensive and careful restoration. This is a tribute to Cram’s enduring vision, following an age when much modern architecture was indeed the soulless admixture of reinforced concrete and glass which he had decried in the 1920s as "fatally logical and therefore exceedingly ugly architecture."

Of course, there are those who see such attitudes as reactionary, and would say Cram was out of tune with the inevitable rise of the logicality of modernism. But, in line with the pragmatist philosophy of his age, the issue for Cram was not that his architecture was of universal application, but that it was fitting and true for the purpose at hand: in a centre of higher learning like Princeton he sought to create a built environment which would stimulate the reverence for spiritual and philosophical contemplation which similar Gothic structures had encouraged down the centuries.


Japanese Garden, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Photo courtesy of Ethan Anthony; Copyright © 2008. All Rights Reserved.


Public Library, Wakefield, Mass.

As Princeton graduate Jane Chapman implies in a recent article, Cram would turn in his grave if he saw what was done at Princeton (and elsewhere) in the 1960s:

Highlights of the [Cram-designed] Graduate College include the imposing Cleveland Tower and the medieval Procter Hall dining hall, but Cram’s vision was not fully realized. In his book, [My Life in Architecture,] he proposed an additional Graduate College quad, including a chapel, in which services would be conducted in Latin. In this, he admitted, he had received "scant sympathy and no support whatsoever."

Cram would have been horrified at what was eventually added to his masterpiece. The New Graduate College, built in 1963, is described on the Graduate School’s Web site as "built in a style that originated at the Bauhaus and has since become synonymous with International Modernism."


The Chapel at Princeton


Princeton, Cleveland Tower


The Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge

Biography

Generally acknowledged as the definitive biographical study of Cram is the two-volume magnum opus by Douglass Shand-Tucci, historian of art, architecture, Boston and New England. Volume 1, Boston Bohemia, 1881—1900 was published in 1995 and volume 2, An Architect’s Four Quests — Medieval, Modernist, American, Ecumenical, in 2005.

Some reviewers of these books have grumbled about their "camp and prolix" style and the poor quality of final editing and production, but it is the contemporary relevance of the issue of homosexuality and Anglo-Catholicism which has generated the most heat. Shand-Tucci’s thesis is that "late nineteenth-century Boston aestheticism and bohemianism served as code words for homosexuality, and that Cram, both formed in and contributing to that cultural model, cannot be understood without taking account of it." Thus says Joseph Goetz, reviewing the first volume in Commonweal, March 1996, who goes on to write, "The vexing question which keeps recurring as one reads this long and fascinating book is, “Who cares?” He answers it himself:

"Shand-Tucci obviously does, for he sees in the very diverse productions of the Boston Bohemians a sensibility charged with homoeroticism which in turn bestows on them a “modernism” hitherto unremarked upon by cultural historians. The author describes Cram’s early masterpiece, All Saints, in Ashmont, Massachusetts, as “voluptuous,” arguing that his buildings were “not only expressive of [Cram's] conscious beliefs and convictions, religious and artistic, but also of his unconscious life.” He likens Cram’s churches to “Trojan Horses in Puritan New England,” but reads into all of Cram’s early work a startlingly contemporary aesthetic."


All Saints’ Church, Ashmont, Massachusetts

Architect Ralph Adams Cram’s first church, designed in partnership with Bertram Goodhue, was All Saints’, Ashmont. A significant landmark in American architectural history, All Saints’ is, of its type, Cram and Goodhue’s masterpiece, and a model for American parish church architecture for the first half of the 20th century (Source: Douglass Shand-Tucci, quote at Dorchester Athenaeum)

Personally, I am not sure that sexual orientation necessarily implies a greater ability to develop an aesthetic sensibility or produce great and enduring art, and the ancient Athenians would say there is nothing very modern about homoeroticism. As far as Anglo-Catholicism is concerned, Br. Christopher Jenks points out that the role of the homosexual community within it is well documented since at least the thirteenth century. It has long been a source of conflict between the more liberal and inclusive “Catholic,” and the more exclusive “Puritan” wings of Anglicanism. Confirming that this is no big deal, Jenks adds, "Cram’s homosexuality has always been something of an open secret within the Episcopal Church. [...] Furthermore, nobody I knew found [this] at all surprising or out of character. Growing up in Anglo-Catholic parishes in the 1960s I was quite used to hearing people referred to as “confirmed bachelors” or “an elderly gentleman couple. [...] In those pre-Stonewall days the language used was perhaps more circumspect than it is today, but I knew what these terms meant, even as a nine-year old, and I don’t remember anyone ever having to explain them to me.”

What is true is that great and enduring artistic achievement is often produced against convention and against the grain, and this can take many forms (as well as the sexual): rebellion against parental or social norms, feelings of exclusion from an oppressive majority culture on the grounds of "being different" in race, nationality, religious belief, skin color, upbringing, physical deformity or handicap, exceptional mental ability, temperament, and so on. To say this is nothing more than to agree with the editorial team at Amazon.com that Cram was "a complex man."

This complex and talented man, who, before finding success as an architect had been an accomplished writer of horror stories, eventually became a celebrity, on the cover of Time magazine in December 1926. Shand-Tucci traces the influence on him of such disparate figures as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fellow-Bostonians Phillips Brooks and Henry Adams, and Ayn Rand. Some of Cram’s lifelong “quests” may have failed, he writes, but "in each he left a considerable legacy, ultimately transforming the visual image of American Christianity in the twentieth century." A recent lecture delivered by Shand-Tucci at the Boston Athenaeum on the topic of The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram’s Boston can be watched or downloaded here.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the touchy-feely, let-it-all-hang-out sensibility of the Clinton/Bush II years should have spawned a biographical work along these lines. Peter Davey in The Architectural Review, February 1, 2006 describes reading it as "rather like being smothered in a feather boa," an appropriate image for one who reached the height of his fame in the flapper era, but concedes that "this will be the best portrait of Cram for a long time." Jenks agrees, labeling these books "superb, comprehensive biography."

Reducing Government’s Place in our Consciousness

An aspect of Cram which I personally find interesting, at least until the Fascist era came along in the 1930s and unfortunately got the better of his earlier classical liberal instincts, was his belief in the appropriateness of small government and the delegation of political and social authority to the smallest level, the localized. He was also a strong believer in the importance of the family. I will let his own words do the talking. Here is an excerpt from his 1922 lecture series, "Towards the Great Peace:"

As a matter of fact, government has come to occupy altogether too large a place in our consciousness; naturally, for it has come to a point where it pursues us — and overtakes us — at every turn. Democracies always govern too much, that is one of their great weaknesses. Elections, law-making, and getting and holding office, have become an obsession and they shadow our days. So insistent and incessant are the demands, so artificial and unreal the issues, so barren of vital results all this pandemonium of partisanship and change, that the more intelligent and scrupulous are losing interest in the whole affair. And while they increasingly withdraw to matters of a greater degree of reality, those who subsist on the proceeds gain the power, and hold it. At the very moment when the women of the United States have been given the vote, there are many men (and women also) who begin to think that the vote is a very empty institution and in itself practically void of power to effect anything of really vital moment. I am not now defending this position, I only assert that it exists, and I believe it is due to the degradation of government through the very modifications and transformations that have been effected, since the time of Andrew Jackson, in a perfectly honest attempt at improvement.

The best government is that which does the least, which leaves local matters in the hands of localities, and personal matters in the hands of persons, and which is modestly inconspicuous. Good government establishes, or recognizes, conditions which are stable, reliable, and that may be counted on for more than two years, or four years, at a time. It has continuity, it preserves tradition, and it follows custom and common law. Such a government is neither hectic in its vicissitudes nor inquisitorial in its enactments. It is cautious in its expenditures, efficient in its administration, proud in maintaining its standards of honour, justice and “noblesse oblige.” Good government is august and handsome; it surrounds itself with dignity and ceremony, even at times with splendour and pageantry, for these things are signs of self-respect and the outward showing of high ideals — or may be made so; that is what good manners and ceremony and beauty are for. Finally, good government is where the laws of Christian morals and courtesy and charity that are supposed to hold between Christian men hold equally, even more forcefully, in public relations both domestic and foreign. Where government of this nature exists, whether the form is monarchical, republican or democratic, there is liberty; where these conditions do not obtain the form matters not at all, for there is a servile state.

~Ralph Adams Cram, "Towards the Great Peace," 1922, chapter 5

Perhaps, in Cram’s lingering advocacy of "splendor and pageantry" for "august and handsome" government we may discern the fateful origins of his later surrender to the temptingly seductive charms of Mussolini’s "good government" and the "noble aims" of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Never mind. These his later sins may be unpardonable, but for having left us such an effective paean to small government, and his still grandly impressive church and campus buildings, I for one am certainly ready to forgive Ralph Adams Cram at least his earlier sins.

References

Anthony, Ethan. 2007. The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office (New York, W. W. Norton)

Bourne, Randolph, 1913. The Handicapped. The Atlantic Monthly, 1911; revised and collected in Youth and Life, 1913.

Chapman, Jane. 2006. "Great Halls of Learning," Princeton Alumni Weekly web exclusive (issue dated April 19, 2006)

Cram, Ralph Adams. 1922. Towards the Great Peace (Online at Project Gutenberg).

Cram, Ralph Adams, 1929. "Will This Modernism Last?" in House Beautiful (January 1929 issue)

Davey, Peter. 2005. "The Great Goth" (Review of An Architect’s Four Quests) in The Architectural Review, February 1, 2006.

Goetz, Joseph. 1996. Review of Boston Bohemia 1881—1900. (Commonweal, issue dated March 8, 1996)

Shand-Tucci, Douglass. 1995. Boston Bohemia, 1881—1900 (University of Massachusetts Press)

Shand-Tucci, Douglass. 2005. Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests — Medieval, Modernist, American, Ecumenical (University of Massachusetts Press)

Warneck, Stephen. 1995. Ralph Adams Cram. The Man, His Work, and His Legacy at Princeton University.

Additional Links

Richard Wall (send him mail) is currently reading for a PhD in American History at the University of Birmingham, England.

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