Saturday, October 1


It looks like Rome, but it's Chicago: An wonderfully expansive American take on the Counter-Reformation at St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church

Book Review: Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago. Text by Denis R. McNamara, photographs by James Morris. Introduction and Forward by Thomas Gordon Smith and Duncan G. Stroik.

I will always think of Chicago not as the city of the big shoulders, but the city of steeples. Driving in on the overpass, with old emigrant suburbia spread out below me across the flat Midwestern plain, it was startling to see it bristle with the needles and spires of hundreds of churches, Catholic, Episcopal, exotic Orthodox, even the humble stumpy Romanesque of Baptist and Presbyterian meeting-houses. Chicago's derelict outskirts are still in some respects as European as the Slovaks, Slovenes, Germans, Lithuanians, and Poles that once called them home. As the hulking towers of downtown hover on the horizon, you look down to see miniaturized twins of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, grand Viennese domes bright with green verdigris, and baroque campaniles that would be at home in Krakow or Nuremberg.

The Midwestern melting pot has some very large lumps in it, and therein lies its charm, lovingly recorded in Professor McNamara's text and Mr. Morris's magnificent photographs. Their depiction of this seemingly lost world of Chicago Catholicism is sympathetic and beautiful--but never sentimental or schmaltzy. The price of this magnificent coffee-table book is a bit steep, but the photos are magnificent--Mr. Morris has won numerous awards--and it's all in a good cause. Any architect or church architecture enthusiast worth his salt ought to have a copy, for both the photos and the history which they encapsulate.

While preservationism has become a religion in some boho quarters, the churches of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America have somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. More glamorous--and less existentially troubling--buildings have taken their place in the public eye: beaux-arts train stations, beloved music halls, clapboard colonials, southern plantations, and even the ugly Miesian flats that developers bulldozed the past to build. This blind spot in American architectural history blots out a whole populist golden age of immigrant church-building which blended old-world piety knowhow with a vibrant smorgasbord of European styles infused with an American love of the bigger and the better. The period coursed with an amazing energy that partook in the combined spirits of the big architectural dreams of the Renaissance popes, the folk piety that built Chartres, and the can-do high-tech steam-powered spirit of Victorian America.

It is easy to dismiss the churches of Chicago as cheap preconciliar tat, the work of carpenters and peasants rather than self-conscious art. Some were indeed built on the cheap, but it was a cheap that included granite columns, frescoes, and astonishing marblework. It would be naive to place the cluttered amber aura of St. John Cantius in the same realm as Michelangelo's blazing St. Peter's, but that does not make it any less worthy of our attention. The loving attention to iconography and detail squeezed out on a shoestring budget, and the cozy transcendence which Mr. Morris's photographs capture, is truly more than the sum of a single parish's architectural component parts. And in many cases, when one studies the work, the quality of design and construction is quite surprising and unexpected.

More importantly, unlike the chill academic classicism that thrived alongside this busy and lovable eclectic immigrant baroque, these churches represent a living link with Europe that nonetheless is unabashedly American. One could argue it is they who are more truly American and democratic than the brilliant but cold monoliths of McKim, Mead and White. They are beautiful peasant girls, and their rough, colorful costume may distract us momentarily from the lineaments of classical beauty that still lies in their faces.

Not all of them are resplendent in folk dress--ther is also much cosmopolitan sophistication, sober classical maidens and Gothic princesses in foamy white stone. Morris has brought to light the work of Henry J. Schlacks, a versatile architect whose knowledge of European styles blended the specific charms of the "old country" (whether it be Germany, Poland, or Italy), and the broader universality of the Roman Church. (I have a sentimental attachment to Mr. Schlacks, as he was for a time the first real architectural professor at Notre Dame). St. Paul's, spiky and Gothic, serves its German parish admirably and at the same time has touches that would have made both Gaudi and Pugin smile; while St. Adalbert's mingles a palaeo-Christian basilica with an over-the-top Polish baroque baldachin with surprisingly harmonious results. Then there is Gustave Steinbeck's Gothic Quigley Seminary Chapel, a brilliant, delicate work on par with the moneyed, Catholicizing Protestant churches of Ralph Adams Cram and his brethren.

Sophisticated eclecticism: St. Philip Neri showcases a Gothic altarpiece with a deco feel, Romanesque windows and a remarkable wooden-beamed ceiling.

The size and breadth alone of these building projects merits careful study. Many were begun under the reign of Cardinal Mundelein, the Gothic-loving, building-mad archbishop of Chicago who reigned from 1915 to 1939 and urged his parish-builders to "go first class" in their efforts to incarnate the faith in brick, stone and terra-cotta. Many were built on the cheap, as I have mentioned--but today, the same churches might cost millions. Mundelein's work is no less ambitious in the history of Chicago Catholicism--or American Catholicism--as the great city churches of Counter-Reformation Rome like the Gesu or Sant' Andrea della Valle.

Fine marble and fresco work at St. Jerome.

Mundelein was not locked into an obsessive revivalism and while he favored Gothic, as in Quigley Seminary, he nonetheless also helped create an architectural idiom to reflect Catholic America by commissioning the young architect Joseph W. McCarthy to build the Immaculate Conception Chapel in the Georgian manner of a Puritan meeting house--but a Puritan meeting house filled with statues, marble, a tabernacle and a grand altarpiece that would have made Cotton Mather blanch!

In Chicago, the traditional lingered on far longer than anywhere else, and profitably blended with more modern trends. The Gothic Queen of All Saints Basilica was dedicated as late as 1960, and brings a contemporary clarity of line to its medieval style while retaining the timeless and intricate beauty we hope all churches might someday possess.

Heavenly City has been sponsored in part by the Bricks and Mortar Foundation, led by Mr. John Powers, a preservation group specially concerned with the much-neglected churches of the Midwest, many of which I have come to know and love during my time here at Notre Dame. Let us hope that this book will lead to the formation of even greater awareness for the plight these declining churches face.

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