Tag: Guastavino

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

 

 

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.”

 

 

Guastavino Dome

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What do the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and SFDS all have in common?

Each one has a Guastavino tile Dome or vault as part of its architecture.

When you look up at the herringbone pattern in our dome, consider that Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, the founder of the R. Guastavino Company, started out working as a tailor, in the family business in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps the work of fastening fabric and linings smoothly together gave him a special affinity for knitting together the tile constructions that would one day become his life’s work!

At age 19, when he was already married. with two children, Guastavino went to Barcelona to study architecture. Seeking a better life for his family, he then moved to America in 1881, settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, and opened a construction business. There, he improved and patented a traditional Catalan technique for using interlocking tiles and thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without requiring expensive temporary interior framework and bracing. This construction method was not well known in America, and his business prospered.

Today, Guastavino’s tiles can be found on more than 600 buildings in 36 states. Our 90-foot high, 62-foot diameter dome is unique among them because it has no copper or other roofing above it. The distinctive appearance of the coloured dome has made it an  icon in our neighbourhood – with some of the same issues as other architectural icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s too-aptly named Fallingwater. It turns out that a construction method designed for use in sunny Spain is vulnerable when exposed to our region’s freeze and thaw winters.

The Guastavino firm was consulted about leaks in the 1920s and again in 1938. In the 1950s, the dome was topped with a layer of concrete and shiny ceramic “subway tiles” which held up for fifty years; today, the heavy, deteriorated tiles are gone, and the concrete shell is sealed and painted (and scheduled soon to be re-painted under warranty!) to match the original tile pattern – without the water-seeping gaps – for the next century.

Sacred Landscape

DCIM101GOPRO
DCIM101GOPRO

Driving from the airport, down 47th Street, you know you’re home when you can see the dome of St. Francis de Sales — but how often do you really think about what it means?

Our church’s colorful tile dome has been a notable architectural feature in our neighborhood since the early nineteen hundreds. One of a group of structures by Rafael Guastavino, renowned for his unique patented building technique, it adds a note of distinction to the skyline, linking us with iconic buildings such as the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Supreme Court building, and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, among others. Our cross-topped dome is unique among them because it  is not hidden under an exterior roof: look up Rafael Guastavino on Wikipedia, and you’ll see a picture of our church.

Why is our church important? Architectural historian Jon Cannon notes that “in most cultures throughout history the greatest buildings have been religious ones,” and “the modern world owes much more than it realizes to the ancient architectures of faith.”  Churches are more than architectural achievements, though. Each building represents a unique cultural chronicle. It also contains the local story of  all the generations that have lived in the surrounding neighborhood.

Religious architecture has a  deeper significance, too. Canon notes that religious monuments around the world “help to further a relationship between man and the divine…” Art Historian Richard Stemp observes that “highly visible towers, steeples and domes”  serve to “remind the faithful not only where they should go to worship, but also that they should go to worship.” At our 1911 dedication ceremony, the homilist  described  our church as a “beacon to all who pass by in this troubled world.” These are many different ways of saying that sacred  buildings in the landscape inspire, connect, and center us.

What happens when the links are broken? When people in Christchurch, New Zealand, struggled to decide whether to rebuild the iconic Anglican cathedral in the middle of town after the 2011 earthquakes, their former Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Anderton remarked “I have seen what happens when you don’t look after heritage. You lose more than just buildings, you lose a city’s soul.” Imagine our skyline with a drugstore or shopping plaza or tall apartment block built on once sacred ground. Let’s not take it for granted!