ShareThis Page
Architecture

Holy spaces: Ralph Adams Cram's legacy seen in 4 majestic local churches

John Conti
| Saturday, March 26, 2016, 5:27 p.m.
Palm Sunday service inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Palm Sunday service inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Archways along the inside of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Archways along the inside of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
A detail of the main entryway at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A detail of the main entryway at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The tower at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The tower at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
A detail of one of the statues above the main entryway at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A detail of one of the statues above the main entryway at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Palm Sunday service inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Palm Sunday service inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The main entryway at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The main entryway at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The pipe organ and stained glass at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The pipe organ and stained glass at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Inside the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Inside the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Carved woodwork adorns the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Carved woodwork adorns the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
A detail of stained glass inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A detail of stained glass inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
One of the ornate ceilings inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
One of the ornate ceilings inside East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The entrance to the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The entrance to the Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
The tower at the former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The tower at the former Holy Rosary Church, now part of St. Charles Iwanga Parish, in Homewood on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
First Presbyterian Church located along Main Street in Greensburg photographed on Sunday, Mar. 20, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
First Presbyterian Church located along Main Street in Greensburg photographed on Sunday, Mar. 20, 2016.
First Presbyterian Church located along Main Street in Greensburg photographed on Sunday, Mar. 20, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
First Presbyterian Church located along Main Street in Greensburg photographed on Sunday, Mar. 20, 2016.
First Presbyterian Church located along Main Street in Greensburg photographed on Sunday, Mar. 20, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
First Presbyterian Church located along Main Street in Greensburg photographed on Sunday, Mar. 20, 2016.
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
East Liberty Presbyterian Church, also known as the Cathedral of Hope, in East Liberty on Sunday, March 20, 2016.

It's probably not too much of a stretch to say, on Easter Sunday morning, that we are blessed in the Pittsburgh area to have four prominent churches designed by the most eminent church architect of the 20th century, Ralph Adams Cram.

Cram was a seriously religious man, and he gave our town three of his finest churches, with spaces that continue to inspire many every Sunday of the year. These are spaces that provide awesome, soaring grandeur in some cases; contemplation-encouraging intimacy in others.

Two of his “Modern Gothic” towers dominate the skyline in the East End. They are the almost skyscraper-like 300-foot-high tower of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and the smaller but beautifully wrought spire of Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.

The two churches are barely 700 yards apart and the towers of both stand out, often visible at the same time from many vantage points on the relatively flat plain that comprises East End neighborhoods like East Liberty, Homewood, Shadyside, Friendship and parts of Highland Park.

You can't drive toward East Liberty on Friendship, Highland or Centre avenues, for example, without being aware from many blocks away of East Liberty Presbyterian. One of the most stunning architectural vistas in Pittsburgh occurs when Calvary Episcopal suddenly appears ahead of you on Walnut Street.

Calvary, built in 1907 on Shady Avenue, came near the beginning of Cram's career, while East Liberty, built almost three decades later on Penn Avenue, was among the last of his big commissions.

Moreover, one of his finest churches — and one that emphasizes a significant stylistic turn in his work — is the richly detailed Holy Rosary Church in Homewood, dating to 1928. This Roman Catholic church is no longer in everyday use, unfortunately, and is currently undergoing repairs.

Cram also designed the First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg — a solidly granite building near the center of that town that manages to be both imposing and inviting at the same time.

As the leading church architect of his day, Cram appears to have been consulted by the building committees or architects of churches in other towns in this area as well. Adding to all this, his sometime partner, Bertram Goodhue, an equally talented architect, designed Pittsburgh's First Baptist Church on Bellefield Avenue in Oakland in 1910.

Cram disparaged the idea of architects directly copying the original Gothic churches. He called that mere “archaeology” and said he was adapting old principles to answer contemporary needs for holy spaces.

At Calvary, a mostly unornamented exterior nevertheless recalls for us the massive power of medieval churches. Its style was derived from Cram's studies of the ruins of 13th-century abbey churches in England, which themselves were comparatively austere. It gains its impact from his mastery of proportion and scale. The massiveness of its tower, set at the crossing of the transepts and the nave, fits well with the impressive height and length of the main part of the church. Its tall and narrow stained-glass windows have little of the “tracery” (those fine filigree stone dividers in the windows) that might otherwise help define a Gothic church.

The relative plainness of Calvary continues inside until you see the rood screen — an intricately carved oak divider that separates the altar area of the church from the nave — and the similarly carved oak backdrop to the altar.

Cram could summon some amazing detailing when he wanted to. Holy Rosary displays rows of ornamented pinnacles along its roof lines and copious ornamentation around its doors. The tracery in its largest windows is among the most fluid examples of tracery you would ever want to see. Holy Rosary was designed after Cram took a long tour, midway through his career, of the architecture of Spain, and he derived Holy Rosary's spirit from some of Spain's best medieval churches.

East Liberty Presbyterian was similarly inspired by Spanish cathedral architecture. The church was funded by the Mellon family, which could trace the origin of its fortunes to this part of Pittsburgh.

There is nothing about this church that isn't large. It consists of a richly appointed complex of Sunday school and study rooms, offices, chapels, meditation rooms and social spaces, including some used for the community. Until recently, a shelter for homeless men was housed in this vast building, which fills a whole city block.

The worship space is magnificent. Stone columns on each side of the church rise 75 feet to the vaulted ceilings. It is flooded with light from huge stained-glass windows high up along the sides. Behind the altar, the entire backdrop is made of carved white marble. The Mellons wanted this church to be like a cathedral, and it is.

Cram is sometimes quoted as calling this church his masterpiece. Among other things, though, it basically kept his office alive during the Great Depression, as there was little other work to be had. Cram died in 1942, seven years after East Liberty Presbyterian was dedicated.

Cram and his partner Goodhue came into national prominence in 1902 when they won a competition to design a new chapel and cadet headquarters at West Point. They had offices in Boston and New York before they split. Cram spent many years as the supervising architect for Princeton University and is known for his academic quadrangles and chapel there. He also developed the final designs for the still-unfinished Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Goodhue's most famous building is the Nebraska State Capitol.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me