Category: building/architecture

The Age of Aluminum

lower church doors dagit brochureAluminum today is the material of sticky storm windows,  suburban garage doors, baked potato wraps, cheap cookware, and recyclable beverage cans. But in the 1950s, it was a bright lightweight space-age metal used in airplanes for a new age of travel and in satellites for the emerging “space race.”

When our lower church was renovated for Bishop McShea by Henry D. Dagit and Sons during the postwar baby boom in 1953, a prominent feature of the renovation was the new aluminum-and-glass doors that replaced narrow, dark, inconvenient stairwells known for accumulating slush and puddles. The new arrangement provided a celebrated “three sets of double-entrance doors” on two sides of the church with indoor vestibules for the added convenience of the rapidly-expanding parish.

But why choose aluminum for the doors rather than a more traditional material? Thomas Jester, writing on postwar aluminum in architecture, notes that in that period, “metals were selected not only because they met specific performance criteria and characteristics but also because they conveyed newness, celebrated industrialization, and even highlighted their specific qualities for poetic effect.” The “curb appeal” of shiny aluminum-and-glass doors along 47th street was a sign to the world that our parish was active, modern, and up-to-date.

lower church dedication prog border (2)Use of metal also comfortably bridged old and new: The National Organization of Ornamental Metal Manufacturers proclaimed in 1947 that metal construction offered “strength, utility and permanence, dignity and beauty…” These were important qualities for our church, where the ancient chi-rho symbols (XP representing the first two letters of Christ in Greek) incorporated in the sleek aluminum grillwork provided a thematic link between the time-honored upstairs and the new downstairs; and also between the work of architect Henry D. Dagit — who built the original church — and that of his sons, the next generation, who designed the renovation.

Aluminum began to lose its mystique around the time the easy-opening soda can pull-tab was invented in 1959. At the same time, the rush to the suburbs and the upheaval of Vatican II began the gradual shrinking of our parish population. Over time, the aluminum doors were used less often with fewer masses, and in recent years, we’ve favoured the traditional historical upstairs over the brighter, more streamlined downstairs – which became, for forty-two years, the home of our Vietnamese congregation. Today, the distinctive sound of the lower doors creaking open is a call from the past, drawing us in to an awakening appreciation of our whole parish story.

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Lost Sheep

dscn3170-2-e1520018971281.jpgHave you ever wondered why there is a lamb-themed window in the stairwell to the St. Francis de Sales Church choir loft?

Nothing in our church design is there by chance, but sometimes the symbolism is confused by history – as when, in 1965, a doorway between the foyer, or vestibule, and the Baptistery was blocked off to create space for a shrine honouring our patron Saint Francis de Sales.

What does that have to do with the lamb window?

The Baptistery (today’s Adoration Chapel – open 24/7 to anyone with a key from the rectory), in the east tower of the church, was originally designed for administering the sacrament of baptism. It contained the John-the-Baptist-themed baptismal font by sculptor Adolfo de Nesti (located in the rear of the church today) and a stained glass window, probably by Niccola D’Ascenzo.

john 001 (3)The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art describes how John the Baptist “retired to the desert, living on wild honey and locusts and wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather girdle...” In Western art, “he usually holds a reed cross, which sometimes has a scroll attached reading Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God) which is what he said to John and Andrew (John 1:35-36)…” when he baptized Jesus. Such depictions generally also include the symbol of the lamb.

Our Saint John the Baptist window – inspired by works such as Francisco Ribalta’s  17th century Spanish painting — shows him in a heroic pose, wearing a hairy garment over a cloth tunic. Pointing towards the heavens with his right hand, he carries the Ecce Agnus Dei staff-and-scroll in his left, and, just as in that painting,  there is a baptizing pool behind him. The one thing missing from our window is the lamb itself.

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San Juan Bautista by Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628)

Before the 1965 renovation, Saint John, with his “Behold the Lamb of God” banner, would have looked straight out through the Baptistery doorway, across the vestibule, to the Lamb of God window on the other side of the church.

How do we know that the two are intentionally related? The round tops and borders of both windows share the same cross-and-scallop-shell design. The scallop shell is generally recognized as  a symbol of pilgrimage, but it is also used as a symbol of baptism, since shells were sometimes used to pour the water and baptism marks the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage.

That which was lost has been found – and today, our Adoration Chapel and heavenly choir music both provide avenues to connect with faith and experience spiritual “rebirth.”

True Colors

dome paintingThe distinctive domes of St. Francis de Sales Church are a local landmark – and a work-in-progress.

The four small domes and one large one were constructed by the renowned Guastavino firm around 1910 – the only remaining Guastavino domes without exterior roofs in the U.S.

Their first renovation was in the 1950s. When Reverend (later Bishop) McShea became pastor in 1952, we are told that the domes were “in poor condition, and leaking into the church.” McShea, who “was proud…that the domes could be seen as part of the skyline from a distance  in the city…” specified that any fixes must “maintain the character”  of the domes. The chosen solution was to coat them with a layer of concrete to reinforce the structure, then cover them with new heavyweight glazed ceramic tiles in “artistic patterns similar to those in the existing dome.”

Fifty years later, the joint between the big dome and the lantern at the top let in water and the modern tiles were peeling off, so new repairs were needed. Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner and her team from Historic Building Architects studied the original Guastavino structure and the engineering complications created by the 1950s work, and determined that the best available option was to seal the concrete and paint it to match the original dome colors.

What were the original colors? Interesting question. The dome was resurfaced before the advent of color photography, so we don’t have that visual record. Guastavino archives yielded watercolour paintings from 1909 showing proposed decorations in green and gold. Then, core samples of original tiles, taken from under the concrete, provided solid evidence.

In 2011, Annabelle’s crew exactingly recreated the original colors and patterns of the domes using specially-formulated paint. It took about four weeks to prepare the surface and two weeks to paint,  and looked great when it was finished (with colors that differed somewhat from the more familiar 1950s tiles). But, over the next few years, the paint unexpectedly deteriorated, with greens turning yellow and flaking away like autumn leaves.

The paint, still under warranty, was re-evaluated exhaustively. A new test patch about four feet square was applied a year ago, and for now, we are “watching paint dry” – usually the definition of “unexciting,” but in this case, providing important data points, since we don’t know why the paint failed and it’s important to get it right. So in a hurried,  impatient age, our semi-painted dome, quietly waiting, is a reassuring reminder that there’s “a time for every purpose under heaven”!

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Stuccoed Stars

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St. Francis de Sales 1954

The side walls of Saint Francis de Sales church might seem restfully plain when the rest of the church is ornate, but it’s deceptive! Parish history is thickly layered beneath the surface.

When our church was built, the side walls showed the same bricks that you see today on the walls of the Sanctuary. Early pictures reveal mosaic medallions — a star in an eternal circle, and a Trinity triangle  — decorating each of the six arches. Eight-pointed Nativity stars adorned the middle arches; and the side arches appear to have featured six-pointed stars representing the six days of creation and the House of David — earthly lineage of Jesus.

In the 1920s, each triangle had a large round lightbulb at its centre, and a row of  lightbulbs lined each arch. That changed in 1940, when Bishop Lamb replaced the exuberant celebration of electricity with more elegant and “practical” metal sconces, fastened to cross-shaped brackets in the mosaic triangles, their shaded lamps dangling from metal chains.

The church decor was slightly altered in the 1950s by Bishop McShea, then heavily renovated for the Parish 1965 Diamond Anniversary under Monsignor Sefton. A story says that Monsignor Sefton came home from a trip to Europe, inspired by the cool blue lighting of Mediterranean churches, and wished to replicate the effect with blue walls. His chosen shade of tile was very fashionable in the 1960s and prevailing tastes were for streamlined modern decor. Diocesan-approved changes at that time included new pews; new flooring; and an electrical update to remove wall lamps (leaving wall holes?) and replace ceiling lamps with chandeliers. Unapproved tile walls quietly slid in, with two casual notations: “The price listed for the terrazzo floor also includes setting tile in six arches of the church” and “Belfi Brothers. This amount also includes setting tile in 6 arches of church.”

Skip forward to the 1990s, when the “blue bathroom tiles” began to fall off the walls, revealing the patchy tile-prepped surface underneath. Father Janton remarked that the bald patch looked like the African  continent drawn on an ancient map. When  it expanded to resemble Pangaea, it was time to do something. The mustard-coloured resurfacing was a simple, attractive solution (look above the sacristy doorway for the remaining blue tiles)

The walls of our church are layered with stories. Symbols changed their meaning over time. Technologies advanced. A richly ceremonial era gave way to the sleek modernism of the 1960s and early Vatican II. Hard times improved. And today we should find meaning in graceful continuity.

 

“That’s My Spot…” Pew Rents

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Cherish your right to choose a favorite seat!

When our church was first constructed, wealthy parishioners reserved their particular spots, renting them by the half year, with the pew rental fees contributing to the maintenance of the building. Non-renters had to squeeze into the remaining back rows or stand.

Some familiar names on the original Pew Rental List included important donors such as Mrs. William Lippe (who donated St. Anthony and the tower bells) in a prime spot on the odd side of the middle aisle in row 1, Jean Baptiste Revelli (Maitre’d at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel) in 15, church architect Henry D. Dagit and family in 19, General St. Clair Mulholland (Philadelphia Police Chief) and wife in 25; and on the even side, the Schwoerers (who donated the pulpit) in row 14 and  John Cooney (who donated the main altar) in row 16.

Pew rental was a controversial home-grown fundraising method in early American Protestant and Catholic churches. Why was it an issue? An 1840s tract criticizing the practice for Catholics suggested that emphasizing social stratification was “anticatholic,” and renting out the best seats to the wealthy was “calculated to pamper pride and a feeling of self- importance.”  Typically only about a quarter of Catholic parishioners paid rents and those who could not afford seats might feel less compelled to attend Mass. It could also enable discrimination.

In our church, pew rents seem to have gradually stopped after the church construction  debt was paid and the Parish basement was turned into an overflow chapel. Probably, as the parish grew and more services were added to the Sunday schedule, it became impractical to limit access to pews through all services. The Pew Rent Book was not regularly maintained after 1921. In 1924, The new Parish Monthly Bulletin began listing monthly contributions of all registered parishioners.

A few decades later, in 1964, as Vatican II came into effect, our church interior was “updated” for its 75th anniversary, and the original quarter-sawn oak pews, with their extendable brass “reserved pew” bars, were replaced with plain sleek modern pews crafted by New Holland Church Furniture in Lancaster County. All seats had equal status around the altar table, and parishioners at each Mass were free to choose their own number one spots — with their preferred perspective, with their desired cross breeze, and surrounded by a diversity of neighbours and friends in their own chosen places!

 

 

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A Tale of Two Parishes

It’s tempting to think that while our “Romanesque Church with Byzantine Details” was under construction between 1907 and 1911, architect Henry Dagit and contractors spent all their time busy on our site, planning and supervising, and obsessing over every magnificent detail.

Not true! And it turns out that de Sales and Most Blessed Sacrament have been connected longer than anyone may have realized.  While the designs for our church were still on his table, Architect Henry Dagit was also drawing plans for the combination school and chapel that would become Most Blessed Sacrament’s first permanent stone building (today Independence Charter School West at 5600 Chester), with Melody and Keating as the main contractor for both projects.

mbs mary knowlesGroundbreaking for our church was June 16, 1907, with Bishop Prendergast officiating. The smaller MBS chapel/school broke ground two weeks later on June 30  in a simpler ceremony, with the first sods cut by MBS Pastor Reverend McGinnis; two other priests; and a baby parishioner named Mary Katherine Knowles.

Construction preparations continued afterwards  at both sites. Bishop Prendergast blessed the cornerstone of the MBS chapel/school building on September 15, 1907, in a ceremony described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Interesting;” he then  laid the cornerstone for St. Francis de Sales Church  a few weeks later on October 6,  in an “Impressive” ceremony with multiple bishops and dignitaries.

A relatively small project, the finished MBS school/chapel building was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan in September, 1908, in time for the start of the school year. Parish records say that the Protectory Band, the Paschalville Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Elmwood Band all played at the celebration.

SFDS church was finished and dedicated in elaborate ceremonies on November 11 and 12, 1911. Archbishop Prendergast presided at the Solemn High Mass on November 12 (having succeeded Archbishop Ryan in May of that year), with a number of priests assisting. Reverend Higgins, Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament, acted as Deacon.

Meanwhile, the Guastavino firm, which designed and built our dome,  moved on to another local (secular) project, crafting the Harrison Rotunda at the Penn Museum, completed in 1915.

Most Blessed Sacrament School would grow to become  “the largest parochial school in the world” by the 1950s but closed in 2002 when attendance tapered. MBS Church, by architect Charles Willis Gilmore, was  built in 1922 and closed in 2007. Its standalone altar was moved to SFDS when the two parishes became one.

MBS aerial view
MBS historic aerial view

 

 

Neon Halo

In 1969, an astronaut stepped onto the moon; the New Mass of Vatican II came into full effect; and Robert Venturi renovated the sanctuary of our church. Nothing has been quite the same since.

De Sales had already weathered a number of alterations: Monsignor Sefton, who was pastor from 1961 to 1967, and assistant for 12 years before that, had provided continuity through the remodeling of the Lower Church, the re-tiling of the domes, and the blue-tile-wall modernization of 1965 (the blue tiles were removed from the nave in the 1990s, but remnants can still be seen above the sacristy doorway). But then he moved on, and the radical New Liturgy of Vatican II was ushered in by new faces in the rectory, just as the parish population was shrinking and its demographics changed.

As with every Catholic church across the country, the sanctuary of de Sales had to be opened up and reconfigured to include a permanent free-standing altar for the New Mass. Father McNamee recommended a friend-of-a- friend, world-renowned architect Robert Venturi to do the work at our church, and months of  planning and discussion followed with pastor Monsignor Mitchell and priests and architects — but, as was typical in those days, without input from the congregation.

Parishioners attending the inaugural folk guitar Mass were startled to find their familiar, ornate, back-facing marble altar thrust into the shadows, “cancelled out” by a ghostly neon halo hovering in front of Jesus’ feet. The white cathode tubing highlighted an elevated platform. Upon this bright vinyl island stood a plain modern altar table made of milk-white plexiglas, as smoothly curved as “bent butter;” a sleek plexiglas lectern; and a presider’s chair upholstered in shiny white patent leather. The center section of altar rail was gone, opening up the space to symbolically welcome priest and people together around the table.

The boldly original design and concept were intended to highlight the spare, simple, modern ideas in the New Liturgy, while paying homage to the past.

The New Mass and the new design were equally controversial.

The Venturi renovation proved, in fact, to be the most divisive episode in the history of our parish! College students, some of whom studied under Venturi, were electrified by the bright new look and the energy it represented. Architectural publications praised the design. Longtime parishioners did not. This was one renovation too many. The neon lights were blamed for migraines and removed as soon as the school year ended. The other furnishings disappeared from the  sanctuary piece by piece over time.

Ironically, in retrospect, Venturi saved our church. Vatican directives said that two altars must not compete for attention. In the 1960s, ” old-fashioned” ornate back altars were often altered,  removed, or covered. Venturi believed our history was important, though, so he left the old fittings in place and used the band of neon light as a form of “electric demolition” or “an editor’s pencil” to cancel them out visually. The old altar remained intact in the shadows, giving substance to the new.

It’s still there today, long after his renovations were removed. And now that the New Mass is old news, and the current forward-facing altar from MBS church symbolizes a new reality for our parish, we’ve restored this interesting chapter to our history.

In 2015, the Parish invited the Society of Architectural Historians to bring Father McNamee (pastor emeritus at St. Malachy) and Venturi’s partner Denise Scott Brown to come back and talk about the long-ago renovations. Feelings still ran strong: longtime parishioners were passionate about the attempt to change the character of their church; while Denise Scott Brown, recalled every carefully considered detail of the design and the pain of losing it: “it was like watching your child die and not being able to do anything about it.”  But after almost half a century, those involved found common ground in the perspective of time and age, and a whole new group of parishioners, neighbors, and friends heard the story for the first time.

Byzantine Revival

Is our church modeled after Hagia Sophia, an ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey?

The claim has been repeated a number of times in recent years, but a look at the two buildings, side by side, does not show an extraordinary resemblance.

When Architect Henry Dagit wrote about our church under construction in 1908, he described his building as “Romanesque with Byzantine details.” That was also its representation in newspaper reports about the new church; in the 1911 Dedication booklet; and in the 1911 Short History of St. Francis de Sales Church. Reverend (later Bishop) Crane, who commissioned our church, envisioned a building “in which the soul would be lifted up to exaltation; an edifice in which the liturgy would be carried out in all its mystical beauty; a church rich with storied windows...” with no mention of Istanbul or Constantinople.

Art historian Richard Stemp provides a clue to the mystery, when he discusses the fifth century innovation of Hagia Sophia: “so great was the impact of a central dome that almost all Eastern churches were modeled on it thereafter.” Hagia Sophia provided an early and famous example of a Byzantine dome — although Stemp reports that “the surviving works at Ravenna (5th and 6th century Italy) have become, by default, the best representations of the splendour of the Byzantine court.”

Byzantine influence spread from Constantinople across the Mediterranean. Architectural historian Roger Moss, writing about Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia,  suggests that our church actually  traces “its architectural genealogy to medieval Byzantine-Romanesque churches of Southern France.” He notes that French architects in the late 1800s looked back at those earlier churches and “embraced the Byzantine-Romanesque style as an alternative to the Gothic style” which was considered too “Protestant.” Romanesque design featured a rectangular building with rounded arches and vaults, rather than Gothic pointed arches and steeples. The Byzantine-style dome completed the thought.

Our 1911 church, honoring a French saint,  was probably inspired by that late 19th century European architectural movement, but Moss notes that our building is “more than a rare example of the Byzantine Revival style in Philadelphia. It is also one of our three landmark examples of Guastavino tile construction” with distinctive domes and vaults built using interlocking layers of terracotta tiles (The Penn Museum and Girard Bank — Ritz Carlton Hotel are the other two local examples). Rafael Guastavino’s works are prized: Structural Engineer and Guastavino authority John Ochsendorf at MIT opines that the tile domes form “some of the most exceptional masonry structures in history.”

 

 

Baked Earth

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Some of the most decorative elements in our church are made of the humblest material. Look up at the sculpted details outlining the arches and walls, and around the windows. All of the colorful green and yellow decoration in our church is made of “terracotta,” which means “baked earth” clay.

In the early 1900s, terracotta was the fashionable material for the exterior decoration of metal skyscrapers. It was easy to mould; it was relatively lightweight; weatherproof; and, most importantly, having survived the heat of a kiln in its manufacture, it was considered fireproof.

The Atlantic Terracotta Company was formed in Perth Amboy New Jersey in the mid 1800s, and, for a time, was the biggest manufacturer of terracotta tile in the world. Headquartered later in Atlanta, it kept offices and manufacturing facilities in New Jersey, where the local clay, dug out of the ground,  was perfect for the tilework that would cover the steel skeletons of many of the important skyscrapers in New York City, as well as buildings in Philadelphia and elsewhere — even Japan. Some notable structures that used Atlantic Terracotta included the Flat Iron Building and the Woolworth Building in New York; the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC; and, locally, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Terracotta was popular, in part, because it could take any pattern or shape. Craftsmen made clay sculptures, from which were created plaster moulds. Clay slabs, pressed into the moulds, could then be removed, dried, decorated with glaze, and fired in a kiln. Finishes could look like clay or imitate marble, limestone, or granite. The green and yellow glazes were particularly popular.

Most terracotta was used on building exteriors, but an article in The Brickbuilder, in 1911, reported that:

“An interesting example of interior decoration is the St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, Henry D. Dagit, architect. The style is an adapted combination of the Byzantine and Romanesque. The colors are very brilliant but in the mellow light of the stained glass windows the tone is softened and the result restful.”

So, should you feel “restful” during the sermon, you may now blame the terracotta.

 

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Baldachin and Blend

In 2007, Most Blessed Sacrament and Saint Francis de Sales parishes officially merged as one parish, known as “Saint Francis de Sales Parish United by the Most Blessed Sacrament.” The somewhat cumbersome name turns out to be peculiarly appropriate, due to an original design element in our church.

Specially-chosen Ushers, long ago, carried a richly-brocaded portable cloth canopy, called a baldachin, raised above  the Most Blessed Sacrament in processions. The canopy, decorated with symbols of the Passion and Resurrection, sheltered and drew attention to the monstrance — the magnificent golden sun-shaped vessel with the round window displaying the Holy Eucharist. At Benediction, the Priest then used a special folding footstool to lift the monstrance and place it, for solemn contemplation, in the little alcove atop the tabernacle in our church.

The word “baldachin”  is said to be derived from “Baghdad,” the ancient city in Iraq where the ornate canopy fabric, opulently embroidered with silk and gold thread, was first produced. The term is also used in architecture to describe a stone arch or canopy supported on a framework of columns, that protects and highlights an important place in a church. The most famous of all architectural baldachins is a sculptural masterpiece by Bernini, which stands above the High Altar and the Tomb of Saint Peter, at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

In our church, marble columns and an arch form an architectural baldachin above our 1911 High Altar. The white marble arch is inlaid with golden tiles to resemble brocaded fabric, decorated with a crown, symbolizing Christ the King, and the flowing  “fountain of the living water.” The baldachin shelters and highlights our beautiful Byzantine-style glass mosaic Crucifixion mural. Look carefully at the mural and its golden tiles form the abstract shape of a monstrance, with the head of Christ framed in the  large round double halo “window”. On Holy Days, the actual monstrance, in the small arch at its base, would mirror the scene above, emphasizing the connection.

An alternate name for an architectural baldachin is a “ciborium” – the same term used to describe a lidded container for the Eucharist – yet another association. Thus, the Most Blessed Sacrament has always been  the central design focus of our church! And so we discover that from its very beginning, a hundred years before anyone could have anticipated, our church building was made a fitting future home for our blended parish.