Soaring Steeple and Classical Portico

Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and the American Protestant Church

by Calder Loth, appearing in Volume 26

London’s Saint Martin-in-the-Fields is famed not only as a great work of architecture, but as the prototype for hundreds of churches throughout the world and especially in the United States. Designed by the Anglo-Palladian architect James Gibbs (1682–1754) and completed in 1726, Saint Martin was one of the first parish churches in England specifically planned to accommodate the Protestant worship style of eighteenth-century Anglicans.1 This is ironic since Gibbs himself was raised and remained a Roman Catholic, albeit discreet in the practice of his faith. Gibbs’s original proposal called for a circular church, inspired by Sir Christopher Wren’s first scheme for Saint Paul’s Cathedral, but the constrained site and excess cost caused the Church Commissioners to have the design modified to a temple-form exterior with a hexastyle Corinthian portico.2 Indeed, Saint Martin was the first major Anglican church to be so configured in this blatantly pagan form. The layouts of most of Wren’s comparatively small City of London churches were dictated by very compressed, often irregular sites, preventing the expansive building Gibbs proposed for Saint Martin. We may speculate that the rationalization for a temple form was that ancient temples provided the earliest spaces for organized Christian worship. Gibbs was obviously made aware of this during the years he spent in Rome as the pupil of architect Carlo Fontana.

Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Photo: Calder Loth

To signal Saint Martin as being a church, the composition was dominated by a richly detailed steeple, a feature associated with churches since the Middle Ages and later popularized in classical-style variations by Wren for his city churches. The steeples helped to locate a church in the tightly packed city streets, and their differing designs served to identify one church from another. Although Saint Martin today is a highly conspicuous landmark on London’s Trafalgar Square, it originally fronted a narrow lane, with only its portico and steeple being visible amid the surrounding structures, nearly all of which have since been removed.

Because the eighteenth-century Anglicans were resolutely anti-Catholic, Gibbs’s design for Saint Martin’s exterior was completely devoid of religious symbols.3 Instead of sculptures of saints or members of the Holy Family, the pediment sported the royal coat-of-arms, signifying that this was an edifice of the Church of England, having no obeisance to the papacy and what the English Protestants perceived to be its idolatry. The windows were filled with clear glass—stained glass also being associated with Catholicism. The steeple was topped not by a cross but by a weathervane with a crown for a finial. As with all of Gibbs’s steeple designs, Saint Martin’s steeple was fitted with clock faces—a civic amenity since few people could afford watches. The multi-tiered steeple itself is a masterpiece of English Baroque design, one that has inspired countless imitations and variations, as we shall see.

Saint Martin floor plan and elevation, James Gibbs, A Book of Architecture (1728), plates 2 and 3

The high point of the eighteenth-century Anglican service was the sermon, not the Mass or the Eucharist. Saint Martin’s interior thus took the form known as the “auditory” church: a unified, large space where the seating of the nave and galleries focused on the pulpit, the dominant interior element. As shown in the plan, Saint Martin’s pulpit was situated amid the nave’s front pews where there was no chance of missing it nor the word being preached from it. It was essential for the preacher to be clearly seen and heard.4 Like many eighteenth-century Anglican churches, Saint Martin was originally outfitted with high-back box pews. Such pews were designed so that when seated, the parishioners could focus exclusively on the pulpit and not be distracted by fellow parishioners or even activity around the communion table up front. We should note the use of the terms “communion table” and “Holy Table.” That article of church furniture was rarely referred to as an “altar”—which was seen as a Catholic designation. Moreover, there was no hint of a screen separating the nave from the chancel, a standard fixture of English medieval (Catholic) churches. Indeed, Saint Martin’s chancel was just two steps above the nave and barely ten feet deep, not the long, extended, screened-off space of a Gothic church. The term “chancel” is a misnomer here since the choir originally sat in the rear gallery, near the organ.

Saint Martin-in-the Fields was a marked contrast to England’s many medieval churches in which congregations had to adapt to the new Anglican worship forms, often with difficulty, and sometimes resulting in the loss of important medieval fabric. While Saint Martin indeed set a precedent for new churches in Britain, its broader influence was spurred not just by the building itself, but by the publication of its design in Gibbs’s highly influential A Book of Architecture of 1728.5 In his introduction Gibbs stated that his book “would be of use to such Gentlemen as might be concerned in Building, especially in the remote parts of the Country, where little or no assistance for Designs can be procured.”6 Because the growing cities in the remote American colonies were in need of new churches, Gibbs’s published designs became a popular source for builders of houses of worship—particularly the plans, elevations, and sections for Saint Martin. Hence, nearly every major colonial American city received one or more churches inspired by Gibbs’s plates of Saint Martin.

Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, SC, 10-CHAR, 8-43

Saint Michael’s Church in Charleston, one of America’s premier colonial urban churches, is among our earliest works modeled after Saint Martin. Saint Michael’s was erected in 1752-61 by Samuel Cardy, a local contractor. Its landmark steeple has more girth than Saint Martin’s, and the order of its portico and main body is Doric rather than Corinthian. Its three-tier steeple displays three orders—Ionic, Corinthian, and a crude form of Composite—rather than just the Ionic and Corinthian of Saint Martin. Saint Michael’s interior is a classic example of the auditory form with its galleries and its high pulpit, the latter prominently placed amid the front pews and topped by an elaborate sounding board. Among other noted urban colonial churches inspired by the Saint Martin form are Christ Church, Philadelphia (1754); Saint Paul’s Chapel, New York City (1768; steeple added in 1796); and King’s Chapel, Boston (1754), though King’s Chapel never received the steeple planned for it.

First Baptist Church, Providence, Rhode Island. Photo: Calder Loth

The historic edifices cited here were built to serve the Anglican Church, colonial America’s leading denomination and the officially established religion of several colonies. An exception is First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island, built 1774-75 to serve the colony’s main Baptist community. Founded in 1636 by the Calvinist Roger Williams, Rhode Island became a haven for dissenters and the cradle of American Baptists. The prodigious wooden structure, with a seating capacity for 1,220, was instigated by its pastor, James Manning, first president of Brown University, who wanted a building large enough to hold college ceremonies. In place of a full portico, the church is fronted by a dwarf portico topped by a large lunette, roughly following a composition on Gibbs’s Fellows’ Building at King’s College, Cambridge. Its breathtaking steeple, the first on an American Baptist church, references Gibbs’s published steeple designs. This steeple established the precedent throughout the country for Baptist churches to be adorned with such classical confections.

Center Church, New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: University of Utah Library

Providence’s First Baptist Church also set a precedent for other non-Anglican churches, resulting in scores of such churches in the post-Revolutionary period. A striking adaptation of Saint Martin’s design is Center Church on the New Haven Green. Built 1812-15, the church is the fourth Congregational meeting house on its site. The Congregational faith was the established religion of colonial Connecticut. It is ironic that a church echoing Saint Martin’s Baroque qualities was designed by Asher Benjamin, a Boston architect famous for pattern books that spread the Greek Revival style throughout the country. Moreover, Center Church’s construction was supervised by Ithiel Town, who studied in Benjamin’s drawing class and who also became noted for his Greek Revival and Gothic Revival schemes.7 While the resemblance to Saint Martin is clearly evident, Center Church departs from its model in several ways. Its portico is tetrastyle rather than hexastyle, and the main order is Doric rather than Corinthian. Also, the spire is conical rather than faceted. However, its balustrade pedestals are topped with Baroque urns similar to those intended for Saint Martin but never acquired.

Congregational Meeting House, Guilford, Connecticut. Photo: Calder Loth

As with Center Church, the Saint Martin format proved to be an ideal model for many of the meeting houses gracing the towns and villages scattered through New England, forming picturesque focal points for uniquely American scenes. A New England meeting house would not be a proper example of its type without a soaring, Gibbs-type steeple laden with tiers of classical details. Nevertheless, it’s a fifty-fifty chance as to whether a meeting house façade was adorned with a portico. The 1830 First Congregational Meeting House of Guilford, Connecticut, has the necessary elements to affirm the Saint Martin precedent. It is fronted by a pedimented portico and its steeple has the requisite weathervane and clock faces. Reinforcing the church’s strong New England flavor are its dazzling white clapboards, its two tiers of windows with louvered shutters, and its prominent location in the town center. The Guilford structure belongs to a group of architecturally related Connecticut houses of worship that includes the Congregational meeting houses in Cheshire (1827), Litchfield (1829), Southington (1830), and Old Lyme (1816; burned 1907 and reconstructed).

Independent Presbyterian Church, Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Calder Loth

If Baptists and Congregationalists could build Saint Martin-style churches, so could Presbyterians. A particularly grand edifice of this denomination is Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. Dedicated in 1819 in a ceremony attended by President James Monroe, the church was the third church to serve Savannah’s community of Scots, who originally arrived in Georgia with James Oglethorpe in 1733. The design was supplied by Providence architect John Holden Green, and closely resembled Green’s First Unitarian Church of Providence, completed in 1814. Like Saint Michael’s in Charleston, the church has a display of the orders: Doric for the portico and Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite in the steeple. Keeping with the Saint Martin prototype, the steeple features clock faces and is topped with a weathervane. The church was all but destroyed by fire in 1889 but was replicated in the rebuilding designed by New York architect William Gibbons Preston. Fortuitously, Preston had made measured drawings of the original church prior to the fire. In an effort at fireproofing, the new steeple was fabricated in cast iron rather than wood. Like the New England meeting houses, Independent Presbyterian was (and is) pulpit-centered, symbolizing the Protestant belief that spirituality is instilled principally through the spoken word.

Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia, c. 1900 postcard.

The 1845 Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia illustrates how the Saint Martin prototype could be expressed in the Greek Revival style. The church was designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas S. Stewart and is essentially a copy of Stewart’s Saint Luke’s Church in Philadelphia.8 The main body follows the temple form, and its portico employs the Greek Corinthian order of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. A historic view is illustrated here because Stewart’s 155-foot needle spire was removed in 1906 when the city decreed that steeples were in danger of toppling in hurricanes. The belfry was then capped with a small dome. Conforming to the nineteenth-century low-church tradition of Southern Episcopalians, the interior was originally pulpit-centered. This was changed in 1890 when the pulpit was removed and replaced with a lower one to the side. The chancel was deepened to accommodate the choir, and an altar installed—all in an effort to conform to the medieval liturgical practices revived by English Ecclesiologists in the mid-nineteenth century. During the following three decades, stained-glass memorial windows replaced Saint Paul’s original clear-glass sash.

Arlington Street Church, Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: wikimedia commons

The popularity of the High Victorian Gothic and Italianate styles tended to stifle construction of Saint Martin-type churches in the second half of the nineteenth century. A conspicuous exception is Boston’s Arlington Street Church, designed by Arthur Gilman and Gridley Bryant, and completed in 1861. Its dark brownstone exterior nevertheless lent it a decidedly Victorian cast. Indeed, what we normally describe as gleaming white “wedding-cake” steeples came out here in deep chocolate. It took the Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival movements of the turn of the century to reignite the fashion for houses of worship in the Saint Martin pattern. Of this new wave of early twentieth-century churches, one of the most literate as well as literal interpretations of Saint Martin is All Souls Unitarian Church on Meridian Hill in Washington, D.C. Completed in 1924, the church is nearly identical to Saint Martin except that its main walls are brick rather than Portland stone. The Saint Martin model appealed to the Unitarians since it reflected the meeting houses of New England where Unitarianism was originally formed. Architect Henry Shepley of the Boston firm of Coolidge and Shattuck introduced a subtle variation on Saint Martin by employing eustyle spacing in the portico columns (i.e., making the center bay slightly wider than the flanking bays). Shepley, however, did not fail to provide the steeple with its clock and weathervane.9

All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C. Photo: Calder Loth

Lynchburg, Virginia’s Centenary Methodist Church is typical of the finely articulated versions of the many Saint Martin-type churches erected throughout the country in the first half of the twentieth century. Designed by local architect Stanhope Johnson, its cornerstone was laid in 1924, but the Great Depression delayed completion until 1947. Like All Souls Church, the congregation determined to have the grandeur of the Corinthian order rather than something simpler. The use of red brick and white trim gave the church a decidedly American Georgian Revival flavor. Johnson cleverly provided the steeple with an implied base by extending the portico entablature one bay on the side elevations and supporting it with pilasters. Instead of clock faces, the steeple base has only circular brick panels.

Centenary Methodist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia. Photo: Calder Loth

Illustrating the permeating influence of Saint Martin on the most basic of American ecclesiastical buildings is a mid-twentieth-century Assembly of God church in northern Virginia. Though simple to the point of being poky, it’s safe to say that this church and innumerable others of its ilk would not look the way they do had there been no Saint Martin. With hundreds of derivatives of Gibbs’s London landmark, Americans became imbued with the idea that a proper church should have a portico and steeple, no matter how elementary. Hence, to give a clear signal that this well-intended but architecturally naïve edifice is indeed a house of God, it is fronted by a portico, albeit of skinny columns, and topped by a pre-fab steeple of equally skinny proportions. Though in Virginia, this church could be anywhere in America.

Assembly of God Church, Loudoun County, Virginia. Photo: Calder Loth

James Gibbs thus gave America an easily adaptable template for church design. As with Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, the auditory church could be enriched with classical motifs, or it could be excessively plain, as with the last example shown here. Moreover, the several steeples illustrated in this piece demonstrate how the same architectural feature can be given individuality simply by varying the classical vocabulary, much as we create different meanings by varying the words of our sentences. We see how this works in three steeple designs from Gibbs’s A Book of Architecture. Such is the beauty and flexibility of the classical language.

Steeple designs, James Gibbs,

A Book of Architecture (1728), plate 30

Finally, we need remind ourselves that Saint Martin-in-the-Fields served as the prototype for countless American Protestant churches. Conceived to accommodate Protestant worship practices, Saint Martin was not a model for Roman Catholic churches. A quick scan of several hundred images of Roman Catholic churches revealed only one edifice hinting at a kinship to the Saint Martin model.