A failure of Grace
The Providence Journal reports today in “Age and Grace” that Grace Episcopal Church, in downtown Providence, plans as part of its restoration to add a new glass addition. This festered within me all day, and so I went downtown to take some pictures to help me assess where it would be added to the church, designed in the Gothic style by the ecclesiastical architect Richard Upjohn, of New York, and opened in 1848. The Journal story, by Patrick Anderson, reads:
Repair work on the building exterior is already under way, and church leaders are finishing plans to extend a new parish hall off the west side of the building. The new hall would replace the church’s current basement gathering space with a glass-enclosed, wheelchair-accessible, single-story structure fronted by a new sanctuary garden.
It seems as if the glass addition would take up at least part of the church’s current parking lot, seen from Westminster Street through a wrought-iron fence. The firm hired for the job is Centerbrook Architects, of Centerbrook, Conn., which designed the elegant restoration and addition to Ocean House in Watch Hill. But a visit to its website reveals that beauty is not the firm’s only product.
A glass addition would almost certainly represent a fall from grace for Grace Church. Even if it were as modest as the glass addition behind Round Top, the Congregational church nearby on Weybosset, it would be as much a spiritual as an aesthetic betrayal of its people, its neighborhood and its mission. Churches are not normally expected to stick their thumb in the eye of their community.
While my family and I were living downtown just a couple blocks from this church, I used to take my little boy Billy, then age 1 or 2, to services there, not to inculcate him early with lofty thoughts but to try to imbue him with a taste for beauty. (You can’t start too early!) I cannot forget its lovely services. The congregation was so nice to Billy and me.
We moved out of downtown with the arrival at Grace of the Rev. Jonathan Huyck. Hard to believe now, but to take the job in Providence he left a congregation in Paris. I have a call in to him, and maybe he will assure me that my skepticism has jumped the gun. A glass parish hall needn’t be an abomination. It could pick up rather than rejecting, as usual, the church’s architecture. But these days that is rare. I will report what he says.
Grace in glass additions
In researching glass additions worthy of downtown Providence’s Grace Episcopal Church, I came across the image above of the Royal Opera House (formerly Covent Garden), designed by Edward Middleton Barry and completed in 1858, with its elegant glass addition followed by a bungled modernist addition with a glass “hinge.”
Another idea comes to us from the Tietz Department Store, in Berlin. Completed in 1900, it no longer survives. But this photo does, and while it has little to say about the fate of Grace Church under the shadow of glass, it does suggest an infinitude of possibility that need not bring an air of sterility, or worse, into the makeup of Richard Upjohn’s local masterpiece.
The department store suggests that even the plainest glass, fitted into a well-articulated frame, can prove enchanting. Even a one-story parish hall of glass is not going to be made entirely of glass. So what framing is contemplated? Something as flat and featureless as glass (bless its heart in all other regards) requires, to set off its asceticism, a degree of ornament in the vertical and horizontal framing members that enclose each pane of plate. It needn’t be elaborate but it mustn’t be as plain as the glass itself.
Traditional Building magazine is a treasure trove of companies that provide a more elegant sort of glasswork. Centerbrook Architects, hired by Grace Church, is certainly aware of that. Let us hope the board of directors at the church is aware of it, too. All of the examples cited here are of greater scale than is contemplated for the single-story addition at Grace Church. This means that a new glass parish house in sync with the church’s original design should be affordable.
Below, coming in just before I sent this post, is an amazing building called the Palmenhaus Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria. It is an actual greenhouse, built as part of the Schönbrunn Palace. It was bombed in World War II, rebuilt, and reopened in 1953. Hats off to Seth Holman for sending it to TradArch in the nick of time.
Reverend, grace and Grace
Had a very nice talk by phone with the Rev. Jonathan Huyck, of Grace Episcopal Church, and he assured me not just that nothing was set in cement regarding the design of a proposed new parish hall (possibly of glass), but that he understands that there are alternatives to the sort of glass carbuncle the idea of which, for now, is a shadow passing slowly over the future of one of the city’s most beautiful buildings.
He said he would give a traditional design solution for the parish hall equal billing with the modernist “solutions” that he and his board are sure to hear about from those who, as far as beauty is concerned, have already fallen from grace.