Ralph Adams Cram, the Architect

Ralph Adams Cram and the Gothic Quest:
From Phillips Church, Exeter to St. John the Divine, New York, Spring 1983

Article from The Exeter Bulletin, Spring 1983

by Joan C. Pratt

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, as it will look when Cram's design is completed. Begun in 1892 as a Romanesque design by George Heins and Grant LaFarge, Ralph Adams Cram took over in 1911 and refashioned the cathedral in the Gothic style. Construction stopped in 1941, during the war, and in 1978 was begun again under the direction of James R. Bainbridge, a master stonemason from England. Bainbridge has trained a gropu of local artisans in the art of stonecutting and they have just, this fall, begun work on the southwest tower, which, according to Cram's design, will rise 152 feet over the present high point of the building and 291 feet above the cathedral floor. When completed this cathedral will be the largest in the world. The Dean of the Cathedral is The Very Reverend James P. Morton '47.

Amidst the excitement and splendor of innovative construction at Exeter over the past fifteen years, it is easy to ignore the old Academy campus erected earlier in this century. Perhaps it is now time to look back at the rationale for tradition in architecture, an ideal which has continued to shape the forms of academic and religious buildings in the United States, despite the advent of "modernism" at the turn of the century.  

Much attention has justly been paid to the late Louis I. Kahn, architect of the new Academy Library, but how many Exonians have heard of Ralph Adams Cram, founder of the prominent Boston firm of Cram, Wentworth and Ferguson, architects of Exeter's entire brick Georgian campus, and of academic buildings in a variety of styles for West Point, Princeton, Williams, Wheaton College, Notre Dame, Rice Institute, Rollins College, Sweet Briar, and U.C.L.A., to name only a few? Himself a professed Gothicist, Cram has recently been hailed as the "virtually single-handed creator of the last phase of the American Gothic Revival," (1) a career that began in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his design of Phillips Church in the late 1890s and ended with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, interrupted by the war a year before Cram's death in 1941, and just recently (this fall) under construction again. A serious look at the philosophy behind Cram's "Gothic Quest" will reveal the real genius of this architect-philosopher: his discovery that the underlying principles of Gothic architecture could be given a character consonant with contemporary civilization. For us, in the 1980s, his view of the organic, living character of traditional styles in building opens up a new appreciation of the architecture - Gothic, Georgian, or Modern - which surrounds us today at Exeter.

Ralph Adams Cram's ties with Exeter began early. He was born in 1863 in the nearby town of Hampton Falls, the son of a Unitarian minister and a descendant of John Cram, one of the original settlers of Exeter in 1638. After graduating from Exeter High School in 1881, Cram went to Boston to apprentice in the architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden. Two trips to Europe between 1886-1888 exposed Cram to the wonders of Gothic architecture and at the same time resulted in his conversion to the Anglican church. After a brief career as art critic of the Boston Transcript, he returned to architecture, opening his own firm in 1889. Both writing and designing would soon earn Cram the reputation of "America's foremost Gothic Scholar Architect,"2 a reputation he maintained over the next 50 years with a voluminous output of books, articles, essays, and designs for buildings. (2)

Cram's first commissions were for churches and libraries around Boston, Already, in the 1880s, Cram had identified the state of American architecture as overly archeological:  The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, as it will look when Cram's design is completed. Begun in 1892 as a Romanesque design by George Heins and GrantLaFarge, Ralph Adams Cram took over in 1911 and refashioned the cathedral in the Gothic style. Construction stopped in 1941, during the war, and in 1978 was begun again under the direction of James R. Bainbridge, a master stonemason from England, Bainbridge has trained a group of local artisans in the art of stonecutting and they have just, this fall, begun work on the southwest tower, which, according to Cram's design, will rise 152 feet over the present high point of the building and 291 feet above the cathedral floor. When completed this cathedral will be the largest in the world. The Dean of the Cathedral is The Very Reverend James P. Morton

Ralph Adams Cram at his own Gothic chapel on his estate in Sudbury, Mass., about 1925. (Courtesy, Elizabeth Wall)

Above all else, let us remember this: when we build here in America, we are building for NOW ... we are manifesting the living church ... It is art, not archeology, that drives us. (3)

In Gothic architecture, Cram saw this very principle of progress, and he became determined to uphold the continuity of tradition in Christian culture. Specifically, he chose the English Perpendicular Gothic as the point of departure for his Gothic Quest, for the logical development of this style had been cut short in the late 16th century "by the synchronization of the Classical Renaissance and the Protestant Revolution."(4) The Gothic style was also most adaptable to modern needs and technology because, as in the true medieval guild system, all the arts must cooperate - engineer and designer, sculptor and glassmaker.

In April 1896, Cram was chosen as architect for the new building of the Second Congregation in Exeter, a group that had separated from the First Parish in the middle of the 18th century. This was probably one of Cram's first commissions outside the Boston area, and certainly one in which he had a great deal of personal interest. Academy trustees needed the land on which their simple Greek Revival building stood to build a dormitory, Peabody Hall, and offered the congregation a new site on the corner of Front Street and Tan Lane. This second congregation had been increasingly connected with the Academy and, in July 1897, the church was renamed Phillips Church in honor of the Academy's founder, although not actually acquired by the Trustees until 1922.

It is interesting that it took architect Cram and the building Committee about a year to arrive at the final Gothic design for Phillips Church. Watercolor drawings recently found at Hoyle, Doran and Berry, Cram's successor firm in Boston, reveal that Cram offered his Exeter clients a Georgian alternative to his standard English Perpendicular design. This may well have been another first in his career. A passage in Cram's biography is illuminating:  

We held ... that there was something incongruous in using Catholic Gothic to express the ethos of that Protestantism which had revolted against all things Catholic. .. so we did our best to induce our 'Nonconformist' clients to let us do Colonial structures for them. (5)

The Second Parish was certainly by tradition "liberal" and would qualify as one of the "Nonconformist" clients referred to by Cram. But what made them finally choose the Gothic design? Cram's own reputation as a Gothicist may well have been the deciding factor, though the committee may also have seen a Gothic design as a physical expression of their separation from the First Congregation, whose imposing white Colonial church stood only a few hundred feet down Front Street.

The enthusiastic tone of an article in The Exeter Newsletter about the laying of the foundation stones makes it hard to believe that any design other than a Gothic one could have been considered.  

The building is a fine type of the Gothic. The exterior will be of seam-faced granite with trimmings of Nova Scotia sandstone, and its dominant feature will be the finely proportioned tower, which stands at the inner angle and lends to the structure special impressiveness, power, and dignity. The entrances are commanding, the windows highly ornamental, and for the pitched roofs, the best green slate will be effectively used. . . . The building forms two sides of a square. The rear section, which faces Tan Lane, will contain the auditorium . . . a large and noble hall, in dimensions about 45 by 90 feet. It will rise unbroken to the roof, the interior finish of which will be cypress. All other finishing woodwork will be of the best Canadian elm. The truss work will be an ornamental feature and will require very delicate work. (6)

The Fourth Academy Building, 1914-15, by Cram and Fergu­son. (Academy Archives)


The former Davis Library, 1911-12, now the Davis Student Center. (Academy Archives)

Merly House, Dorset, England, which inspired Cram's design for the Academy Library (Academy Archives)

The first Academy gymnasium, 1884-16, was located behind the present Academy Building. Considering his ties with Exeter, it is possible that while an apprentice in the firm of Rotch and Tilden in Boston, Cram had a small partin their design of the Academy's first gymnasium. (Academy Archives)

Phillips Church definitely comes under Cram's heading of the "country chapel," the smallest of the four types described in his important book Church Building, which was first published in 1901 and which has been extremely helpful in documenting the process by which Cram evolved his English Gothic designs. For Cram, as for Louis Sullivan, who was at the same time building the first tall office buildings in Chicago, the problem was to identify the particular function of the church to be built; the appropriate architectural form would naturally follow. The corner site of Phillips Church necessitates the special feature of an imposing tower at the intersection of the two wings of the L-shaped structure to provide equal access to the church from Front Street and Tan Lane. The other dominating architectural feature is the handsome Perpendicular window on the Tan Lane entrance wall. The simple, solid, yet dignified proportions, are particularly appropriate to Phillips Church, in the same way that Cram later chose a more specifically "high church" Perpendicular design for the Episcopal Chapel at St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island, and the chapel at Princeton University or an elegant French Gothic vocabulary for St. Thomas' Church and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, both in New York City.

After two years of construction, marred only by one serious delay, the collapsing of the east wall, resulting in injuries to four workmen (an accident not unlike those in the medieval building campaigns), the church was dedicated on September 30, 1899. Local and Boston newspapers were ecstatic about the "fine proportions" and the "dignity and beauty" not only of the exterior but of each work of art that adorned the interior - "the masterpiece of work in stained glass," "chancel furniture of exquisitely carved oak," "corbels of Indiana limestone, delicately carved in figures of singing angels," and so on, Cram had indeed achieved his ideal of a perfect union of all the arts in this small country chapel. Unfortunately, a trip to Japan to deliver a set of plans for the new Parliament Houses prevented him from attending the dedication ceremonies.

Cram's reputation had grown by leaps and bounds by the turn of the century. Two important commissions for West Point and Princeton were to occupy him in the next two decades. As his firm expanded and split into two large offices, one in Boston and one in New York, Cram himself devoted as much time to travel, teaching, and writing as to designing itself, so that ultimately it is in his early work, of which Phillips Church is a notable example, that one best sees his own ideas emerging and being given plastic expression.

Cram's architectural connection with Exeter, both personal and impersonal, continued throughout the rest of his career. In 1908 his firm designed a new brick Dunbar Hall, to replace a wooden building destroyed by fire the previous year. Webster Hall followed in 1911, and in the same year Cram's firm built the new Tuck building for the Exeter High School, which had been Cram's own alma mater. The first Academy library, now the Davis Student Center, was finished in 1912, and was the design of Cram himself. Photographs in the Academy archives reveal that it was an adaptation of the design of a large country house in Dorset, England. And the present (4th) Academy Building, the work of Cram and Ferguson in 1914-15, established the specific choice of the Colonial Revival or Georgian style for educational institutions. Virtually Exeter's entire Georgian campus, built principally between 1915 and 1950, was the design of Cram's firm. In a letter to Lewis Perry, dated November 1925, regretting that he could not be present for the dedication of the new dormitories (Amen, Cilley, and Wentworth), Cram clarifies his rationale for the use of traditional forms in educational buildings. 

Phillips Church, exterior view, showing Cram's perpendicular Gothic window.

Cram's own sketch of the interior of Phillips Church. (Academy Archives)

I regret this for many reasons, partly because of the fact that my first ancestor in America was one of the founders of Exeter, now almost three hundred years ago, and my family has always been closely associated with the place; even more on account of my profound and increasing admiration for Phillips [Exeter] Academy as one of the greatest centers of real and vital education in America....

While we have generally been very fortunate in our relationship with our clients, I think there is no instance in which we have received more inspiring cooperation than this present one. If the buildings are as good as we think they are, that which shows itself through them is almost primarily the tradition and the character of the school itself. If, in the work we have done, we have contributed anything toward the strengthening of this tradition ... then we are more than prepaid. (7)

Ralph Adams Cram has proven to be a difficult architect to evaluate, partly because he built and wrote so much, and with so much collaboration, and partly because he was so much in the shadow of the modernist movement of the early part of this century - of figures like Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe. At the time of his death in 1942, Cram was being openly sneered at as an eccentric, and as a mere imitator of the past. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that "a towering-figure has been lost to our cultural life," and the New York Times hailed him as "a man of great genius," the architectural journals paid litle attention to his passing. Ironically Cram's "Gothic Quest" was not meant to be a rigid set of technical rules but rather a "mental attitude, the visualizing of a spiritual impulse."(8) He states this most eloquently in his introduction to Henry Adams' book Mont St. Michel and Chartres:

If it (the peculiar spiritual influence which informed the 13th Century) gives new and not always flattering standards for the judgement of contemporary men and things, so also does it establish new ideals, new goals for achievement. (9)

For Cram "The Quest is never at an end for the world is never at pause." (10)  He would be thrilled today to see trained craftsmen from the Harlem community at work completing his towers for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, unquestionably his greatest, though unfinished achievement. The present Dean of the Cathedral, the Reverend James P. Morton, an Exeter alumnus and the 1982 John Phillips Award winner, spoke to Academy students in Assembly last fall about the place of religion and art in our lives today in much the same way that Cram spoke fifty years ago.  

Religion, like education, is unavoidable.... Exeter or a cathedral is an image, making it possible to get out of bed in the morning. They give images which keep life going. (11)


Admittedly, it is a long way from Exeter,New Hampshiere and Phillips Church to St. John the Divine in New York, but, when considering the remarkable career of Ralph Adams Cram, the ties are indeed strong. 

Unquestionably, Cram's own real limitation as an architect was that he coud not realize this essential "spiritual impulse" in any other than traditional forms of architecture, whether Gothic, Georgian, Moorish or Spanish Renaissance.  But as a philosopher, would he not have approved of the the soaring, vertical space in the entrance to Louis Kahn's new library, or the exposed steel trusses which serve as flying buttresses on the new gym, or even the manipulaion of daylight through the elegant skylight system in the new art gallery, all buidings "for NOW" at Exeter which "establish new ideals, new goals for achievement?"  



An interesting discovery in the Academy's Physical Plant Office, among Cram's drawings for Phillips Church, was one for the entrance wall on Tan Lane, projecting a handsome rose window over the main door and marked in Cram's own hand "Revised." One wonders if the Building Committee objected, if the costs were just prohibitive, or if Cram himself abandoned this feature as simply inappropriate for the small country chapel.








ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Joan C. Pratt, B.A. (Smith, M.A.T. (Yale) was formerlyAssistan Director of the Lamont Gallery and Instructor in Humanities.  She is presently continuing her studies in art history.    

1 - Tucci, Douglas Shand. Ralph Adams Cram: American Medievalist, Boston: Boston Public Library, 1975, p. 4

2 - Tucci, D.S. "Ralph Adams Cram: America's Foremost Gothic Schol­ar Architect" in American Art Review, v. III #3, May-June 1976, p. 129

3 - Cram, R.A. Church Building, Boston: Marshall Jones & Co., 1924, p. 13

4 - Cram, R.A. My Life in Architecture, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1936, p. 72

5 - lbid., p. 95-6

6 - The Exeter Newsletter, September 24, 1897

7 - Letter from R.A.C. to Lewis Perry, November 13, 1925. Academy Archives.

8 - Cram, R.A. The Gothic Quest. New York: Baker and Taylor, 1907, p. 156

9 - Adams, Henry, Mont St. Michel and Chartres, New York: Double­day & Co., Anchor ed., 1959 Introduction by R.A.C.

10 - Cram, R.A. The Gothic Quest, op cit.

11 - The Exonian, October 15, 1982