A Life in Architecture: Ralph Adams Cram and His Office

by Michael J. Lewis, appearing in Volume 15


The historian and the artist bring different questions to a figure like Ralph Adams Cram. The historian wants to understand what social and cultural forces compelled a modern businessman-architect, practicing in the twentieth century, to make buildings in the style of the fourteenth; the artist merely wants to know if they are any good. Do his buildings live—live in the artistic sense—or are they merely clever writing in a dead language, like someone writing Latin verse today? If the answer is that his buildings do not live, then there is hardly any point in trying to answer the first question.

From the formation of his firm in 1889 to his death in 1942, Cram was America’s most distinguished Gothic revivalist. His works include New York’s still-unfinished Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and a good deal of Princeton University, along with some five hundred other buildings and projects. This massive output seems to have deterred scholars and, with the exception of Cram’s own charming My Life in Architecture (1936), there is no comprehensive account of his career or life. All the more reason, then, to rejoice at the publication of Ethan Anthony’s handsome new monograph. At last we have an accurate catalogue raisonné of all of the works, painstakingly compiled from the records of Cram’s successor firm (which Anthony heads). The book permits us finally to take the measure of the architect in full.

Born in 1863, Cram spent five years learning architecture in Boston in the office of Rotch and Tilden, followed by several study trips to Europe. During a Christmas visit to Rome , the splendor of Mass in Saint Peter’s overwhelmed him and he converted—not to Catholicism, an inconceivable step for a New Hampshire Unitarian in 1886—but to Episcopalianism. Upon his return he established his firm, practicing with a series of partners, the most brilliant of whom was the mercurial Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue.

In the early years of their collaboration, Cram and Goodhue were literary aesthetes, producing whimsical books and superbly rendered architectural fantasies. The dabbling ended in 1902 with the commission for West Point, which raised them to the first rank of American architects and forced a peculiar change in their mode of work. The terms of the project obliged them to open an office in New York, managed by Goodhue, who had to learn to collaborate at long distance with Cram in Boston. Cram would work out the plan and the rough massing, which he passed on to Goodhue, who would then shape and model the visible envelope of the building. The division of responsibility brought out the particular strengths of each: Cram’s inspired planning and Goodhue’s feeling for the poetry of silhouette and surface. In large measure it was the interplay between these two rather different personalities that gave the firm its creative tension and saved it from mere archaeological precocity. Anthony makes clear just how different their personal hands were by comparing several designs where Cram and Goodhue proposed a different epidermis, as it were, for the same architectural body. (Unfortunately, these pairs are repeatedly published on back-to-back pages, making side-by-side comparison impossible.) Although the partners quarreled and parted in 1913, Cram never denied the genius of Goodhue, who “never swerved from his vital originality,” he wrote following Goodhue’s untimely death in 1924, “while I suppose I represented the reactionary tendency.”

The crack about reactionary tendencies was not entirely fair, for as a Gothic fanatic Cram was unusually open-minded. He was the first important American architect to study seriously the architecture of Japan, publishing his Impressions of Japanese Architecture (1905), as well as designing Tsuda University in Hokkaido (1919). Looking at The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram, one is struck by how stylistically variegated the work actually is. Cram lacked the architectural ego of Goodhue, and he was happy to delegate design control to his job captains, such as Alexander Hoyle, who was called forward whenever clients wanted something colonial.

Only in two respects does The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram fall short. The usefulness of the catalogue is sadly compromised by skimpiness: the entries give only the location of the project, a job number, and whether the project is academic or ecclesiastical. For example, the scholar wanting to see what Cram did at Williams College, my home institution, would find only a listing of job numbers for seven “academic” buildings; he would have no way of knowing that these comprised three dormitories, a library, an alumni hall, a theater, and a power plant. Given that the firm is intact and possesses complete records of these projects, it would have been easy to provide more detailed entries. Also distressing is the haphazard bibliography, which omits some of Cram’s most important texts, including Impressions of Japanese Architecture and his coauthored monograph Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1925).

Do Cram’s buildings live? The question goes beyond the scope of this review, but now—with the long overdue publication of this elegant and thoughtful monograph—we are finally able to begin answering it.