American Gothic

The largest memorial to Henry Adams is located, of all places, on the upper West Side of New York, Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, just before the Hispanic barrio is replaced by Columbia University. The Cathedal of St. John the Divine, really two churches in one and eclipsed in size only by St. Peter’s in Rome, was on its present lines designed by Ralph Adams Cram, a fervent admirer of Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. The project for an American Episcopal cathedral had been suggested as early as 1828; the original design, Romanesque-Byzantine, went into the apse, choir, and crossing. Construction was remarkably slow, and in 1911, when the officiating bishop and the architects were dead, Cram, of the firm of Cram and Ferguson in Boston, was allowed to complete the church on Gothic principles.

Cram was passionate about Gothic style, long convinced that Gothic had been the perfect expression of Western Christendom for five centuries, and it had not died a natural death but been cut off by the classicism of the Renaissance and the Protestant revolution. The famous church-building firm of Cram and Goodhue was inspired by a combination of pre-Raphaelitism, William Morris socialism—which foreshadowed the sentimental medievalism of G.K. Chesterton and Eric Gill—Wagner’s Parsifal, and the Arts and Crafts movement, with its opposition to soulless technology. Cram himself was such a loving medievalist in the Idylls of the King style of the Victorians that he collaborated in a magazine called the Knight Errant, composed Excalibur: An Arthurian Drama, and kept an ideal vision of the Middle Ages that is reflected in The Gothic Quest (1907), where he asked whether America wanted churches, or just meetinghouses. His firm designed the Gothic buildings at West Point (1903), which gave impetus to the spread of collegiate Gothic in the United States. It was said of Cram after he was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church that he set his sights on an ideal but imaginary vision of pre-Reformation England as a guide not just to architecture but to the religious life.

Cram wrote the introduction to the 1913 edition of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the first public edition of a book first privately printed for Adams in 1904. Cram had obtained the author’s permission to have the book published under the imprimatur of the American Institute of Architects. Cram praised the book not only for its intrinsic interest but for “the cause it would so admirably serve.” (This would not have excited the almost aggressively disenchanted author.) Cram proclaimed the book a revelation:

All at once all the theology, philosophy, and mysticism, the politics, sociology, and economics, the romance, literature, and art of that greatest epoch of Christian civilization became fused in the alembic of a unique insight and precipitated by the dynamic force of a personal and distinguished style.

With his customary mock modesty and disdain for the public—customary at least in old age—Adams gave “reluctant consent” to the general publication …

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