Holy spaces: Ralph Adams Cram’s legacy seen in 4 majestic local churches
It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say, on Easter Sunday morning, that we are blessed in the Pittsburgh area to have four prominent churches designed by the most eminent church architect of the 20th century, Ralph Adams Cram.
Cram was a seriously religious man, and he gave our town three of his finest churches, with spaces that continue to inspire many every Sunday of the year. These are spaces that provide awesome, soaring grandeur in some cases; contemplation-encouraging intimacy in others.
Two of his “Modern Gothic” towers dominate the skyline in the East End. They are the almost skyscraper-like 300-foot-high tower of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and the smaller but beautifully wrought spire of Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.
The two churches are barely 700 yards apart and the towers of both stand out, often visible at the same time from many vantage points on the relatively flat plain that comprises East End neighborhoods like East Liberty, Homewood, Shadyside, Friendship and parts of Highland Park.
You can’t drive toward East Liberty on Friendship, Highland or Centre avenues, for example, without being aware from many blocks away of East Liberty Presbyterian. One of the most stunning architectural vistas in Pittsburgh occurs when Calvary Episcopal suddenly appears ahead of you on Walnut Street.
Calvary, built in 1907 on Shady Avenue, came near the beginning of Cram’s career, while East Liberty, built almost three decades later on Penn Avenue, was among the last of his big commissions.
Moreover, one of his finest churches — and one that emphasizes a significant stylistic turn in his work — is the richly detailed Holy Rosary Church in Homewood, dating to 1928. This Roman Catholic church is no longer in everyday use, unfortunately, and is currently undergoing repairs.
Cram also designed the First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg — a solidly granite building near the center of that town that manages to be both imposing and inviting at the same time.
As the leading church architect of his day, Cram appears to have been consulted by the building committees or architects of churches in other towns in this area as well. Adding to all this, his sometime partner, Bertram Goodhue, an equally talented architect, designed Pittsburgh’s First Baptist Church on Bellefield Avenue in Oakland in 1910.
Cram disparaged the idea of architects directly copying the original Gothic churches. He called that mere “archaeology” and said he was adapting old principles to answer contemporary needs for holy spaces.
At Calvary, a mostly unornamented exterior nevertheless recalls for us the massive power of medieval churches. Its style was derived from Cram’s studies of the ruins of 13th-century abbey churches in England, which themselves were comparatively austere. It gains its impact from his mastery of proportion and scale. The massiveness of its tower, set at the crossing of the transepts and the nave, fits well with the impressive height and length of the main part of the church. Its tall and narrow stained-glass windows have little of the “tracery” (those fine filigree stone dividers in the windows) that might otherwise help define a Gothic church.
The relative plainness of Calvary continues inside until you see the rood screen — an intricately carved oak divider that separates the altar area of the church from the nave — and the similarly carved oak backdrop to the altar.
Cram could summon some amazing detailing when he wanted to. Holy Rosary displays rows of ornamented pinnacles along its roof lines and copious ornamentation around its doors. The tracery in its largest windows is among the most fluid examples of tracery you would ever want to see. Holy Rosary was designed after Cram took a long tour, midway through his career, of the architecture of Spain, and he derived Holy Rosary’s spirit from some of Spain’s best medieval churches.
East Liberty Presbyterian was similarly inspired by Spanish cathedral architecture. The church was funded by the Mellon family, which could trace the origin of its fortunes to this part of Pittsburgh.
There is nothing about this church that isn’t large. It consists of a richly appointed complex of Sunday school and study rooms, offices, chapels, meditation rooms and social spaces, including some used for the community. Until recently, a shelter for homeless men was housed in this vast building, which fills a whole city block.
The worship space is magnificent. Stone columns on each side of the church rise 75 feet to the vaulted ceilings. It is flooded with light from huge stained-glass windows high up along the sides. Behind the altar, the entire backdrop is made of carved white marble. The Mellons wanted this church to be like a cathedral, and it is.
Cram is sometimes quoted as calling this church his masterpiece. Among other things, though, it basically kept his office alive during the Great Depression, as there was little other work to be had. Cram died in 1942, seven years after East Liberty Presbyterian was dedicated.
Cram and his partner Goodhue came into national prominence in 1902 when they won a competition to design a new chapel and cadet headquarters at West Point. They had offices in Boston and New York before they split. Cram spent many years as the supervising architect for Princeton University and is known for his academic quadrangles and chapel there. He also developed the final designs for the still-unfinished Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Goodhue’s most famous building is the Nebraska State Capitol.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.