Monday, December 11


East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh

This unsung Ralph Adams Cram masterpiece is also known, with almost too-obvious irony for a Presbyterian church, as the Cathedral of Hope. This is Cram at his most innovative, free-flowing and even humorous, considering the spiky massive central tower is based on Cram's favorite skyscraper, the Empire State Building. The result is strikingly exotic, more than a little Asiatic, and doubtlessly offers considerable interest to the local skyline. Cram had a (perhaps unduly) pedantic dislike for cloaking skyscrapers in Gothic forms, but had little problem in giving his Gothic forms the drama of the modern skyscraper, as he succeeds most splendidly here. Cram also, much earlier, had experimented with this typology in a more straightforwardly English form in his Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, as well.

The tower, in profile.

The central crossing-tower and apse.

The urban context

The front facade

Some aspects of the front portal appear almost Hispano-Moorish (or Mudejar), adding to the subtle exoticism of the design

The exact significance of crossing-towers in church architecture is varied; there are numerous English and Continental Gothic examples, and their classical equivalent, the dome or lantern, is ubiquitous in Renaissance and Baroque designs. In some late nineteenth and early twentieth century instances, a large central crossing-tower can be connected with a church designed for preaching allowing to pack as many people as possible into hearing-distance of the pulpit; however, given the surprisingly conventional and even quasi-Catholic layout of the interior, I would suppose this was less a political choice than at the original design of St. John the Divine and St. Bart's, Park Avenue. Here, it gives considerable prominence to the church in its urban setting in a way that simple facade-towers would probably not have.

The chancel at Christmas.

A side-aisle.

In this view of the side-aisle, the abstract simplified elements that characterized Cram's later career are mixed with moments of high detail. This contrast is especially evident in the plain, untraceried rose windows overhead, which demonstrate what one critic has referred to as Cram's aesthetic use of "negative space." In the interior, it's quite striking, though the porthole-like appearance on the exterior is slightly odd.

Cram once said, in view of the building's surprisingly traditional liturgical layout and iconographic program, that all that needed to be done to make the sanctuary ready for a Catholic High Mass were six candles, a crucifix and twenty minutes of prep time. I'm told that a Catholic priest once was taking a tour of the premises and was directed to a window depicting the Apocalypse with a prominent image of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. "That," said the tourguide, "is the Queen of Heaven."

"Ah, the Virgin Mary," said the priest.

"No, we're not Catholics, it's the Queen of Heaven."

"Welllll, who's the Queen of Heaven then?"

The tourguide didn't know.

Maybe he should take those twenty minutes.

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