Pugin in America

by Roderick O’Donnell, appearing in Volume 11

A. W. N. Pugin’s name is probably best known in the U.S.A. through popular editions of A. C. Pugin’s Examples of Gothic Architecture re-issued with his Specimens of Gothic by J. H. Hansen (Cleveland, 1914). These books were produced by A. W. N. Pugin’s father, but he had his first architectural training in their preparation. As an edition of the plates, though not of the text, from these vital source books for the Gothic revival, the generation of Cram and Goodhue found just what it wanted. But there was much more to Pugin than the publication of Gothic sources. A. W. N. Pugin (1812–52) established himself from 1838 as the architectural impresario of the Catholic revival in the British Isles, and, even more than his buildings, his journalism and publications spread this message. Pugin began his assault of the neo-classical style and the habits of the Georgian building world with his Contrasts (1836). He then introduced to the English-speaking world principles of French structural logic and rationality drawn from the Gothic tradition with his handbook True Principals of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841). Pugin’s introduction of extraneous moral or religious arguments into the question of architectural style and choice, insisting as he did on a structural, material reality or functionalism in reaction to the formalism of the classical style, is rightly seen by some as a herald of the modern movement in architecture. His Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture (1843) and his Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England (1841–42) published over fifty-eight church, cathedral, and convent schemes with which he had been involved from 1836. It would be interesting to know which mid-nineteenth-century American Catholics had Pugin’s works in their libraries or which seminaries used his books. I would imagine very few.

Image from Contrasts by A.W.N. Pugin

Pugin’s message was enthusiastically parroted by the Anglican (Protestant Episcopal) Church restoration group, the Cambridge Camden Society (1839–68), which summed up his teachings under the slogan “let every material be real.” It was to be through American Episcopalian imitators, such as the architect Richard Upjohn (who owned Pugin’s True Principles [1841]), that the Pugin message was first given physical form in the United States (see P. Stanton, The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840–1856 [Baltimore, 1968]).

Catholics in the U.S.A., however, find their architectural founding myth in Benjamin Latrobe’s Baltimore Cathedral (1805–1821/23). This extraordinarily confident building was the finest neo-classical church to be built anywhere for Anglophone Catholics, well ahead of anything even comparable in Dublin (Pro-Cathedral, 1815–40) or London (St. Mary Moorfields, 1817–1823, demolished 1900). Although Latrobe did design a Gothic church, Archbishop Carroll preferred the classical style. The building (as the current handout has it) claims descent from the crossing of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, the Catholic chapel at Lulworth Castle, “sloane’s” [sic] for Soane’s Bank of England, and (piously) St. Peter’s in Rome. But like the dense stained-glass inappropriately installed in the cathedral since the Second World War and its affect on the clarity of the cathedral’s design, Americans might find that the teachings of the controversialist and architect A. W. N. Pugin obscure this picture. They might be happier with the architecture of the Mediterranean or of the Spanish Southwest or California to that of the Gothic that Pugin championed. Despite our postmodern interest in a classical revival, the romantic nineteenth century largely repudiated classicism so that from 1840 the Catholic revival and the Gothic revival were largely one and the same thing. This was particularly true of the influential German Catholic immigration to the north-east coast, as shown, for example, in the German congregation’s major Baltimore church, the Gothic style St. Alphonsus Ligouri (1842) by the local architect Robert Cary Long, Jr. (who was certainly aware of Pugin). As the Church in Europe rebuilt itself after the disasters of the French Revolution and, in the British Isles, from over two and half centuries of persecution, it was possible for Pugin to equate the classical style with the eclipse of the Church by the Reformation and its exploitation by the corrupt monarchical regimes so recently overthrown in the American and French Revolutions. The high Gothic of the Catholic Middle Ages, the Age of Faith, was to be stylistically prescriptive for the new churches required by Catholics on both sides of the North Atlantic, not the classical style which was associated with the nightmarish end of the Age of Reason.

Pugin was ever in search of an ideal church or style, which would be (in his phrase) “the real thing.” Having toyed with the Romanesque and the perpendicular Gothic styles, he came down in favor of the English fourteenth-century decorated Gothic style, especially as seen in the recreation of the ideal English country parish church of which his masterpiece is St. Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire (1840–46). At its opening this building was known to at least one American, the Rev. Pierce Connolly, a former Episcopalian clergyman from Nantucket, who was at that time the Catholic chaplain to Lord Shrewsbury, the donor of the church. (While Connolly later abandoned Catholicism, his ex-wife founded the Holy Child Order.) Cheadle is an example of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete-work-of-art, and as a model it was widely imitated.


St. Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire, 1840-46. Photo: wikimedia.org/Brian Deegan

Pugin’s favoured rural church model, suitable for the relatively small scale required by Episcopalian congregations, was completely inappropriate for the teaming downtown masses of the immigrant Catholics on the East Coast and in seaport towns. They are characteristically housed in Romanesque and Gothic basilican plan churches, not in the English fourteenth-century decorated styles, and they are much more vigorous and eclectic, close not to English “Puginism” but to High Victorianism. Some buildings such as St. John the Baptist, Providence, RI (1854), by the Irish-born John Keeley, is somewhat Puginesque. His mature work is much closer to the “modern Gothic” in the phrase of E. W. Pugin (1834-1875) who visited the U.S.A. in 1874 and left designs, part-executed by his brother, for a church at Cambridge, MA. But by the end of the century, architects such as Cram and Goodhue certainly knew Pugin through his publications and subscribed to the English “back-to-Pugin” movement begun by the Anglican architect G. F. Bodley in the 1860s. Cram’s Dominican church in San Francisco and Goodhue’s St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City are highly Puginesque in detail but very much filtered through later nineteenth-century Anglican refinement.


St. Vincent Ferrer, New York City, 1914-18. Photo: wikimedia.org/Bestbudbrian

Apart from his dogmatic stylistic message, his exiling of the classical, and his canonizing of a particular Gothic style, what might Pugin say to today’s architect designing a Catholic church? While his integrist approach to the Gothic and insistence on traditional building material would be impossible to imitate, his teaching that a church was a complete-work-of-art (Gesamkunstwerk) and that the architect must understand the liturgy and its furnishing is instructive. Pugin’s church plans and attention to furnishings were highly “liturgical” (before that word was in vogue) and based upon his great erudition in the medieval liturgy and a depth of scholarship shared with very few priests. His “liturgical” altars as illustrated in Present State shun massive fixed tabernacles and six candlestick sets, preferring a pair of candlesticks and crucifix. He designed separate Blessed Sacrament chapels (but highly decorated and easy to locate). He provided lecterns, as well as pulpits, in his larger churches, hoping for the revival of the public recitation from the Divine Office, but the clergy soon displaced them and placed tabernacles on the high altars. He disliked extra liturgical devotions such as Benediction and “modern devotions” such as that to the Sacred Heart (for which he proposed a more tasteful iconography based on the figure of the Risen Christ). He insisted on providing everything for the service of the altar and the church, all through a number of firms he collaborated with or redirected to produce his own designs—stained-glass, base and precious metal-work, woodwork, encaustic tiles and pottery work, book-binding, vestment-making, textiles, wallpaper, etc. In all these fields, Pugin was a brilliant and original designer, especially in the small scale. For Catholic America, much of this material came from Catholic Belgium, France, and Germany, not England.

Like many obsessive-creative geniuses, Pugin was also a great teacher. Of his own role, he said: “I who bear the whole weight Revival on my shoulders.” He thus saw himself in a professorial, ministerial, perhaps priestly role. As a liturgical revolutionary he had few friends amongst the clergy, many of whom were apathetic and some of whom actively opposed his strict neo-medievalism. His book A Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, Their Antiquity, Use, and Symbolic Signification (1851) was his response, but he was to die at the age of forty within eighteenth months of its publication. Because of the different phasing of the Catholic expansion on the American north-east seaboard, Pugin’s death meant that his influence in America was deflected, re-emerging only later in the nineteenth century. The high points of the Puginian Gothic are found instead in England, Ireland, and Australia. But it was to be the post–Second World War American architectural historians, H. R. Hitchcock and Phoebe Stanton, who, seeking to make Pugin the putative father of the modern movement, began the current revival of Pugin studies, which has seen (inter alia) the exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in 1995.