Ralph Adams Cram

Architect, United States
Ralph Adams Cram was without question the foremost practitioner of the Gothic style
of architecture of his day in the United States, but he was a writer and advocate of no less
energy and stature. The author of 24 books and scores of magazine and journal articles,
Cram was a member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from
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1914 to 1922, and he toiled ceaselessly to advance his reasons for the continuation of an
architectural tradition stretching back to medieval times.
Born in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, Cram lacked the money to attend college and
instead became an apprentice in the Boston architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden.
Through his expanding circle of acquaintances in the Boston artistic world, Cram fell
under the influence of the work of the English designer-writers John Ruskin and William
Morris and came to admire the work of Henry Vaughan, an English Gothicist (and
follower of George F.Bodley) who would go on to design the National Cathedral in
Washington, D.C.
Cram was a devotee of high-church Anglicanism, a belief that made his enthusiasm
for the Gothic more than merely stylistic. Indeed, art and religion to Cram were virtually
inseparable. In his view the Gothic was not a style of the past but rather one that was
capable of continuing evolution and that embodied the highest spiritual aspirations. “My
idea,” he wrote in his 1936 autobiography, “was that we should set ourselves to pick up
the threads of the broken tradition and stand strongly for Gothic as a style for church
building that was not dead but only moribund and perfectly susceptible of an awakening
to life again.”
So vigorously did Cram pursue the Gothic that he has come to be thought of almost
exclusively as a Gothic architect, but he was also highly skilled in the classical,
Byzantine, Georgian, and Lombard styles.
Over his long career, Cram worked with numerous collaborators, but his most fruitful
association was with Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who joined him in 1891 and soon
became a partner in the firm. Cram’s greatest strength was in the development of the plan
and the overall composition of a building, whereas Goodhue proved a master at detail.
Among the many brilliant ecclesiastical buildings that they designed together, the finest
example of their combined talents is St. Thomas Episcopal Church on New York City’s
Fifth Avenue, completed in 1914. A serenely confident sense of mass and space is
enlivened with striking ornamentation, especially in the enormous reredos, or sculptural
screen, behind the altar. Designed by Goodhue and executed by the sculptor Lee Lawrie,
it creates an almost theatrical focus for the earnest overall composition.
Despite the unabashed historicism of St. Thomas, Montgomery Schuyler, the
distinguished architecture critic, saw the beginnings of a new architectural direction
lurking beneath its details. “In the block,” Schuyler wrote, “without a single tool mark of
ornament, the new St. Thomas’s would already be a noble building. The highest praise
the decoration of such a building can deserve is that it heightens and develops the
inherent expression of the structure.”
Cram’s far grander but less elegant design for the completion of the Cathedral of St.
John the Divine (begun by the firm of Heins and La Farge), also in New York, marks the
high point of the Gothic revival in the United States.
Much of Cram’s finest work was done at private boarding schools, such as Phillips
Exeter Academy, and on college and university campuses. He was a consulting architect
to Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley and did work at Rice, Sweetbriar, and
Williams, but he is best known in this area as the supervising architect of the Princeton
University campus, where his most powerful buildings include the chapel and the
graduate school (1911–29). In explaining his dedication to the Gothic as the most
appropriate style for educational institutions, Cram wrote that the late Gothic of the
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colleges at Oxford and Cambridge was “the only style that absolutely expresses [the]
ideals of an education that makes for culture and…character.”
With his partners Bertram Goodhue and Frank Ferguson (who was
responsible primarily for engineering), Cram also oversaw the design of
several major buildings at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, most
notably the Cadet Chapel (1903–14). The architects exploited the dramatic site above the Hudson River to the full. The
concept of a Gothic fortress rising from the heights commanding a great river seemed
both programmatically and symbolically correct. No better icon of Cram’s integration of
his spiritual and architectural muscularity exists than that above the main door, which is
embellished with a cross in the form of a sword hilt.
The image of the sword was one that Cram used later in life, as the influence of Le
Corbusier and the other leading European modernists began to be felt in the United
States, much to Cram’s dismay. “These things,” he wrote, referring to the stripped
elements of the new aesthetic, “seem to me to be a betrayal of trust, a vicious though
unintentional assault on the basic principles of a sane and wholesome society.” The
modernist idea, he went on, “has its own place and it may and should go to it. Its
boundaries are definite and fixed, and beyond them it cannot go, for the Angel of
Decency, Propriety, and Reason stands there with a flaming sword.”
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