Monday, January 1


St. Agnes Cathedral, Rockville Center

St. Agnes--or Aggie, as I sometimes call her--likes to follow me around. I once lived a few blocks away from the site of her martyrdom in Rome, also the site of one of my favorite churches ever, the Borromini-Rainaldi tag team effort called Sant' Agnese in Agone. I once went to a dreadfully dull architecture student conference in Minneapolis to have a shot at going to mass at the roccoco extravaganza that is St. Agnes in St. Paul, and repeat readers will be familiar with my adventures at St. Agnes on 43rd Street in Manhattan, as well as my passionate desire to replace it with something a bit more Viennese.

Today, while waiting on a Long Island Railroad platform, after spending New Year's with friends, I found another one to add to my collection, St. Agnes Cathedral in the village of Rockville Center. I've been inside before, some years back, but I'd forgotten all about the place. The interior suffered an indifferent renovation in the '80s, more nonsensical than ugly, but the outside still remains a potent symbol of the local church, a great grey jagged mass, looming over the little town clustered all around it. I'd remembered it as positively gigantic, and when I saw it today it seemed smaller than in my mind's eye. Still, it says much about the building's architectural sleight-of-hand that my main memories of it were of its vast size.

This is partially due to its surroundings, low and flat, pleasantly unassuming 19th century storefronts and a mock-colonial village hall, and partially due to its striking silhouette. As I stood there watching the drizzle, I considered whether maybe two towers might have been better than the one massive campanile and the baby brother turret on the other side. However, the asymmetrical upward sweep adds to the illusion, makes it stand tall and slender against the grey sky. It's a good trick, though one wonders if perhaps red brick and grey stone might have worked better against the northern sky than the grey-yellow brick used.

The building was finished in 1935--I don't know who did it--and represents a fairly good-quality local rendition of the neo-Gothic orthodoxy established two decades earlier by Cram and Goodhue. Unlike turn-of-the-century neo-Gothic work, its ornamentation is somewhat simplified and conventionalized, if not stripped outright, and the whole composition generally more conservative in apperance. One rather interesting innovation are the octagonal upper stages of the bell-tower and its pointed leaded-copper cupola. It is also a good example of how to simplify ornament intelligently without simply dumbing it down or completely removing it.

The interior, as I remember it, is less interesting than the exterior, but is not without its finer points. The nave is open, without side-aisles, and strkingly whitewashed. The ceiling is a stark coffered affair in dark wood, and can be considered handsome if one mentally removes the Rubik's Cube color scheme inflicted upon it in 1982. The interior has always been fairly simple, and with the exception of the incompetent reconfiguring of the reredos and the loss of the side-altars, it largely survived the renovation intact. The hanging rood, while too modernist in design for its context, fills a compositional gap in the interior, and prominently shows forth Christ to the congregation.

All-in-all, a fine local masterwork. Even setting aside its interior, the massing of the exterior and its relationship to the town below make it unique. Seldom in America does a cathedral so dominate the skyline of its parent city, though one hopes that, come more civilized times, such a sight may once again become commonplace.

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