The New Catholic Cathedral in New York

IT is now twenty years since the corner-stone of a new cathedral of the Roman Catholic church was laid by the late Archbishop Hughes, in the city of New York. The ceremony took place upon the 25th of August, 1858, and the day was almost a general holiday. The fact that it was so observed might be maliciously accounted for, if one were so disposed, by remembering that, of the one hundred thousand people said to have been present, by far the greater part was made up of the house-servants and laboring men of the city; and work being thus practically stopped for the day, there was nothing for the employers but to follow the employed, and amuse themselves with looking on at the festival. It is better, however, to consider the unanimity with which all classes in the community took part in the affair as a sign of the tolerance that in these days does really exist in this country, and which would be much broader and stronger than it is if it were not for bigots and sectaries in all denominations of so-called Christians.

So far as New York is concerned, it was a sign of much more than mere tolerance. The promise of a cathedral church, built by a body that can truly say, with ancient Pistol, “ The world ’s mine oyster,” since, one way or another, every man’s purse is theirs, the wide world over, was really received with a great deal of pleasure, because it was reasonably believed that, with money and zeal in equal quantities, the result could not fail to be a splendid addition to the architecture of a city that sorely stands in need of handsome building.

The building of a new cathedral to replace the old St. Patrick’s in Mulberry Street was proposed by the late Archbishop Hughes, and his native energy and practical skill in affairs so successfully pushed forward the enterprise that although, when he first described his plans in a letter to a friend written May 18, 1858, he said he had not received a dollar towards the undertaking, yet in August of that same year, as we have seen, he laid the corner-stone of the building. Of course, it was a subject of no little wonder where the money was to come from, not only to build the church itself, but to buy the land, which under ordinary circumstances would have cost no small part of the whole sum. How this latter feat was accomplished we all know now, and New Yorkers are disposed to say as little about it as possible. The city was jockeyed out of the finest site on the island by a crafty and unscrupulous priest playing upon the political hopes and fears of as base a lot of men as ever got the government of a great city into their power. For the consideration of one dollar the Archbishop of New York became possessor of the deed for the whole square bounded west and east by Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, and south and north by Fiftieth Street and Fifty-First Street,—a plot of ground four hundred and twenty feet on the cross streets, and two hundred feet on the avenues, situated in the heart of the most fashionable part of the city, and on one of the highest points of the whole island. It may be remarked, in passing, that everywhere, in all our large cities, and wherever anything is to be gained by the ostentation, the American Catholics are following out to the letter the suggestion that a city set on a hill cannot be hid, and are securing all the highest points of land on which to build their churches.

We were once told by a friend of the late Archbishop Hughes, himself a distinguished man, but by no means a Catholic, that upon one occasion he bluntly asked the prelate with whose money he expected to build the cathedral. The response came quick: “ With yours.” And, certainly, if the money of Protestants and non - Catholics had not been forthcoming, the cathedral would not today be a foot above its foundations. The Irish house - servants and the laboring men and women of the diocese of New York have built the church with their money, and have bled at the same time to support a hundred other enterprises, set on foot by their zealous and unwearied rulers. The same is true of Catholic dioceses all over the country, but in New York the wages of servants, which rose at one bound, at the time of the civil war, to more than double what they had been, have never gone down as they have in other places, being the only form of labor whose price has not been affected by the hard times of recent years. The reason is that the receivers of these wages are obliged to pay the greater part of what they get to the support of their church, and are regularly taxed beside for the building of their cathedral, which is of course the church of the cardinal archbishop, and therefore not the church of any one parish. There is nothing to complain of in this on the part of Catholics themselves, nor, we venture to say, would there be any great amount of complaining on the part of Protestants and non - Catholics, if the result of this taxing had been something to give us all the pleasure that comes from seeing a beautiful building. For that we were willing even to wink at the scurvy trick by which the land belonging to all the citizens was given in fee to a minority for their own private use. " Let them have it,” we said. “ There is no other body of our citizens who can command money enough to build such a splendid structure as the Catholics can, especially with such a general to lead them as Archbishop Hughes.”

But, in the very beginning, the archbishop went wrong in his choice of an architect. He went wrong just where he might have been expected to do so. For he was not a man of educated taste, nor — without offense be it said — was he a man of education at all. Perhaps he was something better, but he was not that. First of all, he was a politician, and one of the shrewdest and ablest of his class. And then he was a priest, and in this capacity one of the few men in the Catholic Church in this country who have been able to win, by their own character and energy, a national reputation ; so that, in his heyday, his name was as well and as widely known as that of Seward, or O’Connor, or Butler. We are not saying it was an agreeable reputation. The archbishop belonged to the church militant, and he was a courageous, adroit general, always in the saddle, never weary, and what was more never desponding. He did not need, for the work he had to do, to be a finely educated man, a man of elegant tastes, and, if we may use the hateful word so much abused in these shoddy days, a man of culture. We say he was none of these, but we say it without the least wish to disparage him. He was a manly man, a gentleman in all his intercourse with gentlemen, and among his people so persuasive, or at least so convincing, that, when he called for money, if a widow had but one penny, yet should he have a farthing ere he went.

We have not the slightest intention of saying a word against the architect chosen by the archbishop for the cathedral, in his professional capacity. No doubt he is perfectly competent for all ordinary undertakings, — no doubt he could bund a cathedral if he would. But Archbishop Hughes wanted a man who would accept the situation as he found it, and would build a cathedral with a constant eye to saving and sparing, so as to produce the maximum of stage effect at the minimum of cost. Stage effect was the one thing absolutely needed: both populations, the Catholic and the non-Catliolic, were to be impressed with size and splendor, and an architect with too large a baggage of professional ambitions and scruples would not answer at all. If the architect he finally chose had been specially created for him, he could not have been better suited.

This gentleman is not, as might be inferred, one of the humbugs of the profession. It is true that he is the author of several public buildings which cause his professional brethren to hang their heads, and which educated laymen are very unwilling to have seen by foreigners who visit us. But then he is far from being the only architect of whom this can be said. He did, indeed, build the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, with its picture-gallery lighted by large Gothic windows on both sides, and with no wall space on which to hang pictures, and with its cabinet for minerals ten feet square. He built also the Free Academy Building in New York, which resembles its models, the Belgian town halls of Bruges and Ghent, for example, as huckleberry-cake resembles plumcake: both dainties are indigestible, and the Free Academy has all the faults that a strict taste finds in the Belgian town hall, without one of its merits. Finally, this architect built Grace Church in New York, a structure mean alike in proportions, in design, and in material, and pretending above all others in that unfortunate metropolis. The material, a coarse limestone from Westchester County, pretends to be marble; every part of the Gothic construction is unmitigated sham, and the spire is of wood, painted to look like the limestone it tops. When the architect is reproached with this dereliction, he naively responds that he advised the trustees to build the spire of wood instead of stone, because in less than fifty years they would find themselves unable to keep the land upon which the church is built, as it would be required for business purposes; and that when they had to move up town they would find it to their advantage to have saved the cost of a stone spire.

If the late Archbishop of New York ever heard this anecdote, he must have felt that a special providence had provided the man for the hour. An architect who would thus deliberately, and out of pure humanity, cut down his own commission, was a delectable monster, a kind of lusus artis; and he would be no true man, much less a true archbishop, to let him slip. It may reasonably be asked why an architect should not have given the advice that was given to the trustees of Grace Church. We hold that an architect is not merely a builder; he is, or ought to be, an artist, and he ought to consider whether the client for whom he is working is able to carry out his design by legitimate means to a fitting termination. If he be, the architect should then, for the sake of art, his client, himself, and the public good, encourage him in every way to have the work done well, and should leave to others the small business of devising arguments by which to get the show of a fine building without the substance. If the client be not able to afford it, then let the architect make a design that he can afford to carry out legitimately. The greater part of our architectural failures come from the desire of the parties who are responsible for them to get something precious in architecture without paying for it. It is this which has ruined the New York cathedral, and given us a sham building instead of the real one we had looked for, and which we had every right to count upon.

The cathedral is now completed in its masonry, with the exception of the spires. The internal fittings of wood-work, with the flooring, wait for the funds which are expected as the result of the fair now being held in the building itself. The glass is all in its place in the windows, and the altar is ready to be set up so soon as the floor of the choir is laid; it is evident that, so far as essentials are concerned, all the means are here for forming a judgment of the merits of the building.

The material of which the cathedral is constructed is the same dirty-white limestone of which Grace Church, the work of the same architect, is built. It was a real misfortune for architecture in New York that this stone was ever discovered, yet so little is it liked by architects or by their clients that probably no one but the builder of this cathedral would, in the light of our experience, have proposed its use for such an important edifice. It refuses to lend itself to delicate carving, which is perhaps of no importance here, since the carving is of the clumsiest; but a more serious defect is that it shows all the shortcomings of the detail of the design with unpitying frankness, while in the mass the building modestly declines to look even as large as it really is, and the eye takes it in all at once, with no discoveries left to make. The principal door at the western end is perhaps in design the most discreditable part of the building. All the rest is clumsy repetition and copying of forms and arrangements found here, there, and everywhere in the crowd of Gothic monuments in Europe. But the great door-way came from nowhere, unless from some confectioner’s shop. In place of the cavern-like entrances of some of the French cathedrals (Rheims is a notable example), richly molded, and with their thronging saints and angels, each on its pedestal and with its own deep, shadowing canopy, with its sculptured tympanum and its sweet-faced Virgin and child upon the central pillar, we have here a shallow embrasure, conveying no idea of thickness in the wall out of which it is hewn, with coarse and clumsy moldings and engaged pillars, and with a sort of trumpery frill of openwork stone, the beau-ideal of a cap-maker’s apprentice, framing in the whole. And not a sacred emblem, not an inch of sacred imagery, to be found; nothing but the ostentatious display of a cardinal’s hat, and the equally ostentatious and equally out-of-place display of the American shield. How many little parish churches there are in England, built at a period when Catholic archbishops knew something about architecture, that have door-ways more noble, for all their smallness, than this cathedral can boast!

If the exterior of the building be so unimpressive that it allows itself to be dwarfed by the hotel on the other side of the street and by the dwelling-houses in front, the interior is still more disappointing. For sham and veneer are everywhere, and in their most offensive forms. The way in which make-shifts are thrust upon us, whichever way we turn, has something impudent in it. The main columns are of the same coarse limestone as the outside, cut with the same gross moldings. But all the rest of the structure that looks like stone, even to the arches of the nave, is makebelieve, the material employed being the Béton artificial stone; all the ornamentation is applied, or cut in the same cheap material; and so demoralizing has all this paltering with sincerity and reality been to the workmen, that the fitting and finishing throughout are of the same unworkmanlike character. Words cannot express the paltry character of the internal finish of this vaunted structure. It was some time bcfore we could make up our mind to believe our eyes when they told us that the tracery about the transept and main door-ways, in the interior, is a part of the construction, and is meant to last. At the first glance, we seriously thought it was put up to make a shift while the recent fair was going on. But no, it is there forever.

The interior of the cathedral is entirely wanting in impressiveness, not from any absolute defect in the proportions, which are neither good nor bad, — mere commonplace, — but because of the color. This color does not suggest any particular material, but is copied as closely as may be from the whitewashed interiors of some of the English parish churches and cathedrals, if there be any remaining that still retain this Puritan disfigurement. It is the meanest of all possible tints that can be found, and the sickly color of the glass makes it meaner still. It certainly was a very praiseworthy thing to fill all the windows with stained-glass at once (the choir windows are not yet up; we believe they are getting ready), but it is most unfortunate that the glass was made in nineteenthcentury France. It will be remembered that several of the windows were exhibited at Philadelphia in 1876, and it is known with what discouragement our artists and all architects worth naming viewed the prospect of a cathedral lined with such crudity. Even if the interior of the luckless structure should be sobered down, by washing it with some other tint, the windows would not be helped; no richness could ever be got out of them, though by some device of dabbing them over with color on the outside, such as made the windows of the choir of St. Thomas’s Church in New York endurable, they might be made less offensive to the trained and healthy eye.

Little remains to be added to our indictment, except to speak of the bins which are ranged along the side of the aisles, opening by low, flat arches under the aisle-windows, and which are to be utilized as chapels. Externally they project from the sides of the building, filling up the bays between the buttresses, and give no sign from without of their existence, the roofs being hid by the solid, unpierced parapet of the wall, and no windows being necessary, as each bin is lighted by a small sky-light filled with stained-glass. The effect of this long blank wall is very bad; apart from its clumsiness, it deprives the design of the effective light and shade that should have been got from the buttresses.

If we have spoken with what may seem undue severity of a building which is the source of so much pride and pleasure to the uneducated portion of the Catholic congregation in New York, it has been not only with no wish to hurt any one’s feelings, but with real regret. The truth is that we ourselves are much disappointed in the result, and it is with the sincere wish that the Catholic society of New York would look seriously to the harm they are doing to an art in whose development their church claims so large a share, and to the fact that every such failure as this puts a weapon into the hands of their enemies, ever ready to assert that the church never did care a farthing for art as art, but only for the profit to be made from it, that we have spoken so roundly.

Clarence Cook.