Almost every morning, I emerge from the depths of the T and face Old South Church. If I’m being honest with you, it still takes me a little longer than I would like to make it up the flight of stairs into the light, but as I emerge I always take a moment to appreciate the façade in front of me. It just stops you in your tracks. It’s a delightful mix of incredible planning with a touch of whimsy.
Built in 1875, this is the third location of one of the oldest congregations in Boston. Formed in 1669, the New England Congregational Church played a key role in early America. Its members started rallies for the Boston Tea Party and warned people that the British were coming (just in the opposite direction of Paul Revere). Among it’s flock are several notable personages, including Benjamin Franklin; America’s first African American poetess, Phillis Wheatly; and Mary Chilton, the first woman to disembark in Plymouth in 1620.
But, by 1872 they needed to expand. The Boston firm Cummings and Sears set about building them an extravagant and beautiful church. It turns out that Charles Cummings was feeling a new style making its rounds in the 1870s. He would later design the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a similar fashion.
That polychromy that I love (and you do too) harkens back to the streets of Venice. That lovely copper covered cupola is pretty much a direct reference to St. Marks. But why? How do the buildings of Venice inspire the buildings of Boston? Good old John Ruskin.
In Venice of the 14th and 15th century, this gothic style was adopted to show wealth. The use of tracery (normally seen only in stained glass windows) is part of the actual structure this time. It embues a sense of grace and lightness. The rich colors and carvings suggest decadence.
Enter John Ruskin of the 19th century. Ruskin was a jack of all trades, but committed to all things art. As a prominent social thinker and a writer, he published essays, treatises, travel guides, manuscripts, and even a fairy tale. He believed that nature, society and art were linked. Having traveled extensively to Italy in his childhood for his own poor constitution, he developed a great passion for architecture.
Most architects know him for writing the Seven Lamps of Architecture, but in this case it is the Stones of Venice that inspired Old South Church. In the Stones, Ruskin narrates the technical history of Venetian architecture, celebrates it in drawing plates, and somehow equates the loss of the Venetian gothic to the destruction of society’s moral and spiritual health, both in Italy but also England. He rages against the standardization of his day and wants to embrace the more freeform of stone cut by hand. He claims that later architectural styles pay no attention to God, and seek only to honor themselves. You can be sure he was hating that Crystal Palace of his day.
Reprinted often, this book had a profound effect in England and America. So much so, that Old South Church in Boston decided to embrace the Italianate Gothic style or Ruskinian Gothic. It symbolized strength, solidity and aspiration (with a touch of optimistic opulence too). It’s very system related to natural forms and it inspired an awe-filled sublime. In 19th century Boston and England, Italianate Gothic stood for a return to morals, religion and godliness.
And when you look at it that way, it seems completely fitting for a church.
The features here would not be a stranger on the streets in Venice. Venice was unique in combining the Byzantine, Oriental, and Gothic. It borrowed shimmery textures and two-dimensional decoration. Polychromy was celebrated. It would become an important aspect of Ruskin’s new style. Polychromy is the use of different types of stone and their strategic placement to create color patterns and textures over facades and interiors. Although it was affordable because of the standardization Ruskin deplored, he loved it. The structural lightness is in play here too. Those ogival arches and lacy quatrefoils (or four leaflets) were seen in some of the most prominent Venetian buildings.
Old South Church features a large campanile, a copper clad cupola built to provide ventilation before air conditioning was a thing, lovely Italian cherry work, and great polychromy (or colors).
Although the interiors have been restored to the originals in the 1980s when Old South Church was made a national landmark, they have morphed and changed over the years. For a brief bit, Tiffany (of the famous company we all know) redid the interior of this church by covering the stained glass windows with purple glass and painting seaweed like patterns on the walls. The limited color palette heightened the visual experience. Afterwards, minimalism would get its hey-day. Everything was covered in a gray paint and they even boarded shut the light from the cupola for a brief stretch. Luckily for us Shepley Bulfinch Richardson would re-Ruskinize the space.
The Italian gothic’s combination of styles is why Old South Church exudes whimsy from it’s pores. It is why you look at it and give it another passing glance. It is why the copper calls to you, and the stones seems to dance in your vision. The campanile rises 246’ feet and from down on the street, it invites you to look a little longer and let the architecture stretch your imagination.