Monday, August 14, 2017

Postcards from Boston #2 - Trinity Church

H. H. Richardson’s design for Trinity Church on Boston’s Copley Square firmly established him as the most important architect in this country, and also made him the first to be recognized and respected abroad.  This distinction was reinforced when his fellow architects selected Trinity Church to head the list of the ten best buildings in the United States in 1885.  A century later, it was the only building from the original list to be included in a similar survey sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.  More recently, Geoffrey Baer included the building in his PBS documentary “Ten Buildings That Changed America.”

Richardson received the commission through a competition in the spring of 1872, of which he was one of six architects invited to submit.  By the time construction began on the building itself in 1874, Richardson had moved his home and office to Brookline, so that he could closely supervise the building.  He would remain in Brookline for the remainder of his life, resulting in the largest concentration of his work being located in Boston and surrounding towns.

One of four piers supporting the tower

Work began in 1873 when 4,500 wooden piers were driven into the ground to support the enormous weight of the building.  Four huge piers in the sanctuary support the weight of the tower, and sit upon granite pyramids underground, measuring forty feet wide by twenty feet tall.  This massive engineering feat was essential, given that the site sat in the middle of the Back Bay, a former swampy area that had been filled in over the preceding fifteen years.  

Parish House

The overall plan of the building is in the shape of a Greek cross, with the Parish House extending to the northeast, reflecting the original irregularly shaped plot of land.

The exterior comprises four different types of local granite and is trimmed with Longmeadow brownstone.  Richly carved ornament is set amidst walls featuring Richardson’s trademark polychrome stone work, including checkboard and zigzag patterns on the front fa├žade, and eight-petaled flowers on the apse.  

Inspiration for the overall design includes the French Romanesque which Richardson studied extensively during his years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the early 1860s.  His refinement of the style led to what later became known as Richardsonian Romanesque and characterized the buildings in the later years of his career.  The cathedral at Salamanca, Spain served as a model for the large tower. 

In 1876, at Richardson’s request, the congregation hired John La Farge to complete the interior decoration.  As noted by Keith Morgan in his Buildings of Boston, “(La Farge), assisted by Augustus St. Gaudens and a team of American artists, produced the most extensive scheme of figurative and architectural painted ornament of any American building up to that time, influencing the emergency of mural decoration in American public buildings.”

The interior features an exceptionally open auditorium for Rev. Phillips Brooks, a Harvard classmate of Richardson, considered one of the finest preachers of the late 19th century.  A marble bust by Daniel Chester French dominates the baptistry, and was completed in 1897.  It commemorates Brooks’ 22 years as rector of Trinity Church, and his two years as Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, in which position he served until his death in 1893.

Christ in Majesty (detail)

The church features a dazzling collection of American and European stained glass windows.  Five are by La Farge, including the Christ in Majesty window set into three lancets over the main entrance, and his New Jerusalem window in the north transept.  

The New Jerusalem (detail)

That area features a series of windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones for Morris & Co., who also designed the window, David’s Charge to Solomon, located in the baptistry.  

David's Charge to Solomon

William Morris as the head of Goliath (detail from upper right of window)

A humorous note is that Burne-Jones incorporated Morris’ image in the window, as the severed head of Goliath being held in the right hand of David.  Other English windows include a series of seven surrounding the chancel by Clayton & Bell of London and several by Henry Holiday, also of London, including Three Scenes in St. Paul’s Life, shown below.

Three Scenes in St. Paul's Life

The building was consecrated in February 1877 with the total cost of the site and building at $635,000.  In 1897, Richardson’s successors, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, added the richly carved west porch, combining Richardson’s general scheme and the design of St. Trophime, a Romanesque church in Arles, France.  The firm returned to add the massive sculptural pulpit in 1914.  Architects Maginnis and Walsh extensively remodeled the apse in 1937-1938 to reflect the shift toward a more ceremonial form of worship.



A major restoration and expansion was begun in 2003, and continues to this day, with significant work on the exterior being undertaken during 2017. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Postcards from Boston #1 - First Spiritual Temple

During the first week of August 2017, nearly two dozen docents, staff, and supporters of Glessner House Museum journeyed to Boston, Massachusetts to explore the work of H. H. Richardson and his contemporaries.  Over the next few months, we will be bringing our readers a series of "postcards" from Boston highlighting some of the buildings we saw - some well known, some less so.  

We begin our series with the First Spiritual Temple located at 26 Exeter Street.  

The building was designed by the architectural firm of Hartwell & Richardson in 1884 and was completed the following year.  Hartwell & Richardson was a Boston-based architectural firm founded in 1881 by Henry Walker Hartwell and William Cummings Richardson (no relation to H. H. Richardson).  The firm was prolific through the late 19th century, designing numerous churches and municipal buildings in its early years, and many residences later on.  Their most significant commission is generally regarded to be Osgood Hill, the Moses T. Stevens estate in North Andover, Maryland, completed in 1886.  

Osgood Hill and First Spiritual Temple both owe much to H. H. Richardson, and demonstrate the enormous impact he had on other architects of the period.

The First Spiritual Temple, a classic example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, was the first house of worship built in the United States for the Spiritualists, who popularized the idea that the living could commune with the dead.  The movement originated in New York and gained popularity in the mid- to late-19th century and included the use of mediums, seances, the Ouija board, and other ways of connecting with the dearly departed.  The popularity of Spiritualism declined in the early 20th century and for seventy years the Temple operated as the 900-seat Exeter Street Theater.  After years housing various commercial enterprises, it was converted into the Kingsley Montessori School, which currently occupies the structure.

Classic features of the building which show the influence of Richardson include the rusticated stone in two contrasting colors, the tall dormers rising up from the wall surface below, clustered columns around window groupings, polychromatic stone work in checkerboard and leaf patterns on the front facade, and of course, the extensive use of the arch.  

Looking at the building as a whole, it is composed of a simple large box richly ornamented to give it an imposing presence on its corner site.  

The name "First Spiritual Temple" is set into the stone above the entry arch, amidst richly carved foliate decoration.  Immediately below, two medallions depict the words Religion and Science atop a globe sitting over a cross, and a triangular arrangement of the words Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity with a downward flying bird at the top point, and six-pointed stars at the lower points.  (Another six-pointed star sits over the side entrance on Newbury Street).  

Above the Temple name to either side, ghostly faces are carved into the stone, another indication of the original purpose of the building.

Today, passers-by continue to note the impressive architecture, but few are aware of the other-worldly movement that led to its construction in the 1880s.
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