“Lively Mental Energy”

Thomas Gordon Smith and the Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary

by Denis McNamara, appearing in Volume 18

Though broadcast live on Catholic television, the March 2010 consecration of the Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul at the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, NE passed rather quietly in the architectural and ecclesiastical news. Liturgically-oriented blogs covered its four-hour consecration ceremony and Church watchers noted the many illustrious prelates in attendance. While a joyous day for the Fraternity, the chapel also serves as an important signpost marking the coming of age of today’s use of the classical tradition. While neither the first nor the largest of the New Classical churches to be completed in recent years, it proves a significant milestone for its architect, Thomas Gordon Smith, an intellectual powerhouse and pioneering force in the return of classicism to the architectural profession. Smith has drawn from the classical tradition as inspiration for his artistic talent, going beyond the laudable goal of mere competence in the classical language, and rising to what author Richard John has described as “the excitement of the classical canon.”1

An accomplished painter, furniture designer, historian, and author, Smith is widely known for refounding the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame in 1989, making the school an incubator for a renewal of classical architecture. Notre Dame has since turned out a new generation of young designers who have realistic hopes of building classical buildings. This happy situation comes in stark contrast to that of many of their teachers, who, like Smith, had to run against the grain of the modernist architectural establishment and learn classical architecture largely on their own. Smith, born in 1948, is simultaneously pioneer, elder statesman, and a leading practitioner in the burgeoning field of New Classicism. The Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary chapel displays the compelling fruit of many hard-won and carefully argued discussions begun decades ago.

Photo by Alan Smith

Rediscovering the Heritage of Classicism

While it may seem to have snuck up on those interested in traditional church design, a burst of traditional churches has been completed or is on the boards from architects like Ethan Anthony, James McCrery, David Meleca, and Duncan Stroik among many others. Almost unthinkable even as little as ten years ago, buildings like Stroik’s Thomas Aquinas College Chapel or Meleca’s Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Kansas (both completed 2009), seem to have glided rather easily into today’s architectural discussion and even some of the mainstream architectural press. But today’s successes in traditional ecclesiastical design did not come without diligent attention and hard-fought battles. Thomas Gordon Smith has not only been treating classicism as a living discourse for over thirty years, but unlike many other classical architects who tend to focus on secular society’s clients and commissions, has brought his knowledge to both academia and to the Church.

Richard John’s 2001 monograph, Thomas Gordon Smith: The Rebirth of Classical Architecture, aptly portrays Smith’s early years as both a postmodernist and later a true pioneer in the move to serious engagement with classical design. It is easy to forget, especially for today’s under-forty (and perhaps even under-fifty) generation of classical architects and clients, that today’s New Classicism emerged not only from the anti-historical trends of modernism, but was further sifted from postmodernism’s tentative and [19] ironic use of classical forms. Smith’s invitation to participate in the now famous 1980 Venice Bienniale, an international architectural exhibition entitled “The Presence of the Past,” not only publicized his abilities, but highlighted his departure from the post-modern tendency to see classical forms as witty oddities inserted into new buildings in uncanonical ways. At the exhibition, “Smith was almost alone in adopting a literate treatment” of classical forms, earning the ire of some, but also the praise of architectural theorist Charles Jencks, who wrote: “Smith is the only architect here to treat the classical tradition as a living discourse.”2 Smith’s proposed design, for instance, required the fabrication of spiraled Solomonic columns which the exhibition contractor lacked the knowledge to construct. Rather than change his design, Smith returned to old sources: books on the subject by Vignola, Guarini, and Andrea Pozzo. “Using the same treatises as architects had three centuries earlier,” gave Smith “insight into how the classical tradition had been continually developed in the light of contemporary circumstances and then handed on from generation to generation.”3 Almost twenty years later, the Fraternity of St. Peter found in Smith a man who, like the Fraternity itself, had made a specialty of “quietly battling trends,” and could build a seminary “with the irony-free rigor of an ancient.”4

The seminary and newly completed Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul. Photo: Tom Stroka

Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary

Although the Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary’s chapel was only completed this year, its roots extend back to the late 1990’s, a time when designing a large, classically-inspired building complex seemed by many to be almost as trend-defying as the promotion of what was then called the Tridentine Mass. Though Smith had been using classical design for homes for nearly two decades, the mainstream ecclesiastical culture of the time was far from accepting traditional architecture. The inherent respect for tradition evident in the mission of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter made classical architecture a natural match for their life and liturgical practice. But the bustle of today’s classical revival was just beginning to simmer at the time. The architectural instructions of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which would be released in 2002, had not yet arrived. Several of today’s middle generation of young classical architectural practitioners, many centered at Notre Dame, were just beginning to coalesce an alliance with a similarly pioneering group of liturgical scholars. Most importantly, the profoundly anti-traditional 1978 document on liturgical architecture published by the American Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), was still dominating the liturgical establishment. Along with some others, Smith wrote and spoke publicly critiquing the document, rightly characterizing it as “outdated in its promotion of bland modernist structures and iconoclastic liturgical settings.”5 [20] Just as he was beginning the design for the seminary in the late 1990’s, Smith published a telling article which summarized his design method. Turning the long-established modernist critique on its head, he wrote:

“We need not passively accept what our recent ancestors have dictated. If we apply what the Roman architect Vitruvius called “lively mental energy,” we can innovatively contradict the prevailing orthodoxy of abstraction and revive over two millennia of tradition. The thesis that has defined the life work of many architects, including mine, is this: to make traditional forms of architecture vitally expressive today. Since I began to study architecture formally in 1972, and in my professional and academic life since, my objective has been to break through the barriers that have been set up by modernists to make our forebears seem inaccessible.”6

With a client ready and willing to “foster buildings that fully honor the vision and legacy of the Church,” planning for the new seminary began.

The seminary entrance. Photo: Tom Stroka

The 1998 ground-breaking initiated the first stage in Smith’s plans for the seminary. The Fraternity asked for a building complex based on Romanesque precedent, which gave Smith a wide array of design options drawing from the late antique to the early Middle Ages. In 1998, as today, a basilican-planned church made a strong statement about commitment to traditional worship practice and loyalty to Rome, both important points for the Fraternity of St. Peter, then only ten years separated from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. Because of its expanses of unadorned walls and restrained use of ornament, Romanesque architecture had been long noted for conveying strength and grandeur with a relatively modest expenditure. Smith noted the advantages of the Romanesque mode, which he said lent “durability and economy” and “straightforward simplicity of form” to new buildings.7 Smith noted that for his clients, “the Romanesque represents solidity, simplicity, and religious vitality” which is “similar to the way in which Counter-Reformation patrons and architects sought to reconnect with early Christian models.” With a limited budget, the Romanesque could give the Fraternity “discrete, well-proportioned buildings without striving for excesses.”8

Smith’s evocative watercolors of the complex received wide publication, his painterly style demonstrating not only his skill as an artist who holds a degree in painting, but whose approach to traditional architecture depends on the excitement of expressive color and line. Smith chose to show one view of the building in a winter scene, where the shades of purple and blue in snowy shadows harmonized with the multiple shades of yellow and orange found in the brick of the building itself. Here again Smith showed the creative reworking of the classical inheritance: the gold and orange tones so typical of sunny Italy nonetheless work simultaneously with Nebraska’s snowy winter landscape and the dry grassy plains of its late summer.

Smith’s attention to locale further shows that a careful practitioner of New Classicism designs a new building for its time and place. The complex was carefully sited in the landscape, “situated on the spur of a hill with wings nestled into adjacent ravines.” Smith’s goals, he wrote, were “to create a building complex that appears to have always existed in this location,” where the prominent site would be visible from a great distance, and to make the chapel readily identifiable.9 Smith’s descriptions of his own work indicate that he values clarity of parts and legibility of use. Calling the seminary complex a “microcosmic city for a religious community,” he designed the architecture to convey symbolically the community’s spiritual objectives.

To that end, even a quick overview of the design makes clear the hierarchical priorities of the community. The cruciform basilican chapel, nearly freestanding except for a small connecting corridor, steps forward as the immediate public face of the complex, indicating the public nature of the chapel and the importance of the worship within. The primary entrance to the seminary proper is located in the western wing, delineated by a gabled portal that Smith calls a “frontispiece.” The medieval-inspired Romanesque entry with receding arches on colonnettes sits below a thermal window drawn from ancient Rome, all within a Renaissance-inspired temple front motif indicated by strip pilasters of contrasting color. Here a somewhat reserved and economically built facade draws from several different centuries for inspiration, yet maintains a tranquil unity of design that gives no hint of [21] self-conscious eclecticism. By contrast, other sections of the western facade are calm and repetitive, indicating the line of administrative offices and classrooms behind.

In a continued revelation of use and purpose, this quiet linearity of the facade is suddenly broken as a tower-like section anchors the northwest corner. Its high roofline and large arched windows indicate a room of significant proportions, notably the Aula Magna, or Great Hall, with the seminary library beneath. Functional wings of the complex put on no airs, being indicated simply by rows of repeating windows in blocks of varying brick and different levels of detail. Together the wings form a cloistered courtyard and provide a place of contemplation. Breaking the cloister’s silhouette, however, is the refectory, a barrel-vaulted room of austere simplicity, enriched and organized by two pairs of Doric columns and a carefully composed southern wall with views to the western landscape. Like the building’s entrance, the refectory’s south wall shows Smith’s synthetic creativity, where extremely simple elements form a heroic motif blending the Serliana motif with an extra set of piers to form a thermal window above.

The refectory. Photo: Tom Stroka

The newly completed Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul predictably receives significant treatment indicating its primary place in the seminary’s hierarchy. One major challenge in building the chapel was an extremely tight budget, so tight in fact that it led to the removal of the proposed campanile. But one of the strengths of classical design in the hands of a master is its ability to be reduced, or “diluted,” without loss of dignity or ontological confusion. Working from the basic Palladian double temple front motif, the facade reveals the chapel’s double height interior and inherent dignity of use. The triple arched entry to a deep porch includes oculus windows that signify the great height of the porch interior, reinforcing the scale and importance of the building. The openings further reveal the thickness of the wall, giving the building a sense of heft which reads as convincingly traditional and adeptly avoids the modernist tendency to make tight-looking walls with the depth of only a single brick.

The use of stone was reduced to an almost absolute minimum on the facade, rightly concentrated instead in the lower entablature. The entablature itself, containing the Latin inscription “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men,” receives a sophisticated treatment which maintains the primacy of the facade while reducing cost. Only a portion of the entablature steps forward, receiving dentils and the articulation of fascia on the architrave, while quieting at the edges. The second story’s three-part blind arcade is further reduced, returning to all brick but maintaining clear articulation of structural units, as in the large arches composed of three rows of bricks which land on implied brick impost blocks. In a subtle move, the bricks take a herringbone pattern within the windows themselves, fictively signifying their nature as implied openings and differentiating them from the wall and arch as primary structural units. Above, a small strip of stone marks the upper architrave, while extremely simplified stone blocks designate the modillions, the figurative ends of horizontal beams extending out beyond the plane of the wall. As economical as it is compellingly sophisticated, the facade proclaims to the world that refined, intellectually rigorous classical design need not be lavish or disproportionately expensive.

The chapel interior. Photo: Tom Stroka

Passing through the mahogany doors, the interior continues the building’s austere masculine sophistication. Most of the chapel is composed of unadorned planar surfaces, and all windows appear above eye level, giving the church plentiful light and while maintaining a sense of [22] enclosure from the fallen world. Arcades of structural, steel-reinforced Doric columns define the interior. Locally made of cast stone for reason of cost, the columns received significant architectural elaboration, including classical motifs of leaves, egg and dart, flowers, and beads. A historian’s knowledge appears in the unusual column bases, a Smith hallmark, drawing from the treasury of variants of classicism found in antiquity. Warmth and richness is found largely in the wood of the choir stalls, carefully designed with high rear panels to enclose the choir. Concentrated color is also found in the stone used in the sanctuary and central aisle, using intersecting patterns of green and red tones associated recalling the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. At the ceiling level another burst of color appears in the form of repeating stencils of vine and flower patterns (painted in part by the seminary’s students) amid richly veined cedar planks.

The distinctive nave columns introduce a refined classicism to balance the austerity of the Romanesque. Photo: Tom Stroka

The marble altar and baldachino, reclaimed from a closed church in Quebec, were previously acquired by the Fraternity, and Smith subsequently designed the east wall’s apse to receive them. While the altar and baldachino use fine materials, significant symbolism, and take clear command of the room, it is hard to steer clear of the conclusion that the chapel would have been better served by an altar designed by Smith himself, avoiding the resulting architectural discontinuity between the somewhat dated altar and the dynamic New Classicism of Smith’s chapel architecture.

Despite the chapel’s initial appearance of austerity, however, Smith’s attention to detail abounds. Simple but graceful brackets ease the transition of beams to walls. A carefully designed wrought iron railing, which includes a Greek key pattern, graces a transept balcony. Worked iron strap hinges signify the importance of the front door. Even empty picture frames were designed and put in place for the future when funds allow large paintings to be added to the chapel.

An altarpiece at the transept depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe by artist James Langley. Photo: Tom Stroka


Nearly fifteen years in the making, the Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary signifies more than a traditional building corresponding to the needs of a traditional community. It marks a climactic moment in the renewal of Catholic liturgical architecture. Smith’s intellectual energy and laborious struggles which began in the 1970’s now offer the riches of the Church’s architectural patrimony to architectural professionals and ecclesiastical decision makers. As Smith has duly noted, the “creation of great buildings requires the cooperative effort of many people, from architects to builders and artisans, but it depends most on the courage, dedication, and protection of patrons.”10 In the Fraternity of St. Peter, Smith found a patron asking for fully-developed classical architecture – not unheard of today in Catholic work – but truly ground-breaking in the late 1990’s. The priests and seminarians of the Seminary of Our Lady of Guadalupe received an architectural complex at once vital, creative, and new, yet as ancient as it is modern. Skillful combinations of brick of differing shapes, sizes, and color create a confidently rendered exterior with structural clarity expressed in subtle and creative ways. Every corner is filled with lessons learned from Smith’s life experience and developed talent. The floors of the seminary’s entry foyer use red and teal terra cotta flooring, while its walls are paneled in travertine marble, combining the high architectural traditions of Rome with the earthy hues of the Patroness of the Americas. Cedar columns in the cloister combine fiscal discipline and classical principles of structural clarity, yet draw from the wooden homes designed by architect Bernard Maybeck that Smith studied as a young man. In its concurrent austerity and richness, the entire project teaches the discipline of both fasting and feasting with the eyes. In sum, it gives the viewer something rare in architecture, something which echoes healthy religious life itself: apostolic simplicity enriched with communal, ecclesial, and celebratory touches in all the right places.