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The Design Competition

Conditions for Competing Architects [Excerpt]

Figure 3. Conditions for competing architects from "The Cathedral of St. John the Divine," The Churchman, April 4, 1891, 537.

Perspective from the Southeast

Figure 4. "Perspective from the Southeast" from Heins and La Farge, "Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York. Competitive Design," The Churchman, May 30, 1891, 873.

Mr. George L. Heins. Mr. C. Grant La Farge.

The use of competitions as a means of selecting architects for buildings of public significance has had a long history and is, of course, still with us today. Such competitions were distinctively widespread in the years when the design competition for this cathedral was held. In her study of the history of architectural competitions in America, Sarah Bradford Landau writes: “Competitions proliferated in the early 1890s. The nation was prospering and its population was swelling; hence the desire for public buildings. . . . And most important, at last the country had a substantial number of well-trained architects. . . . “[1]

The design competition for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine was initiated in 1888 and concluded in 1891. The judges were the cathedral’s Board of Trustees. The complex and controversial nature of this design competition has been well described and analyzed by other scholars.[2] A bare outline of the competition’s stages will provide adequate context for our purposes here. There was a first competition (in which designs from invited architects were considered along with designs received through an open call for submissions), followed by a “second competition,” focused on the four finalists who had emerged successfully from the first.[3]

In the large-format pages of The Churchman, in April and May of 1891, a series of four articles were published, each devoted to one of the four finalist designs. The first of these articles is preceded by a restatement of the rules of the original competition, followed by the new rules for the second competition, along with subsequent emendations of the latter (fig. 3). Each of the four articles is illustrated with some of the key drawings required by the rules (for example, fig. 4). In these articles (each of which includes the phrase “Competitive Design” as a title element) the architects take into consideration a wide range of factors, including historical precedents, structural considerations, and symbolic aspects.[4] All of these articles provide helpful insight into how ecclesiastical architecture was conceptualized at the time. The public was provided with an opportunity to view the finalist designs firsthand at an exhibition held on April 6, 1891.[5]

Generally speaking, responses in the press to the design of Heins and La Farge were mixed. The strongest praise was reserved for their cathedral's unusual Romanesque/Byzantine interior—its originality, impressive proportions, unimpeded sight lines, and the promise of rich schemes of decoration for its central dome and its great wall expanses. Their design overall, however, tended not to inspire the same level of enthusisasm. It was criticized for incongruities between that same Romanesque/Byzantine interior and the predominantly Gothic exterior.[6]  Heins and La Farge had provided, in their “Competitive Design” article, thoughtful symbolic and historical justifications for their mixture of styles. Critics of their eclectic design, however, seem not to have found such justifications worthy of mention. One critic, for example, simply expresses the wish that the principles of the Romanesque interior had been followed throughout the cathedral and derides the Gothic exterior as a “sop to prejudice.”[7]

The “prejudice” in question would be the longstanding loyalty of the Church of England, and its American affiliate, the Episcopal Church, to the Gothic style. Janet Adams Strong has compellingly analyzed that loyalty along with a major factor that mitigated it at the time of this design competition. She demonstrates that the Romanesque style was undergoing a strong resurgence in popularity in American architecture in the late nineteenth century.[8] In her analysis, there was only a relatively brief historical window in which a design such as Heins and La Farge’s (which she describes as a “Byzantine-Romanesque-Gothic hybrid”) could possibly have overcome the established Episcopal loyalty to traditional Gothic design.[9]

If I leave the final word here to The Churchman, it is because its assessment reflects a dynamic that is notable throughout much of the contemporary writing on this competition. Most of the interested parties wanted the design to be original, but not too original; and traditional, but not too traditional.

“From the first it was the opinion of THE CHURCHMAN, though held in reserve, that the plans of Messrs. Heins & La Farge would probably meet with the suffrages of the electing committee; and we are not surprised at the final approval given to plans which promise in New York’s great cathedral a building which, while it avoids the extremes of servile imitation of existing structures on the one hand, and of chimerical and impracticable pursuit of the abnormal on the other, will be at once original and conventional.”[10]

Eclecticism was one obvious way to avoid “servile imitation of existing structures.” True commitment to an eclectic plan over the course of a massive long-term building project, however, would have required a deep and abiding trust in the creative vision of the architects. It was their vision, after all, that would need to be relied upon to maintain vital relationships between potentially discordant elements. Trust of this nature, however, seems to have been in limited supply from the outset.







[1] Sarah Bradford Landau, “Coming to Terms: Architecture Competitions in America and the Emerging Profession 1789 to 1922,” in The Experimental Tradition: Essays on Competitions in Architecture, ed. Hélène Lipstadt (New York: Architectural League of New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989), 65.

[2] Strong, 1:5-58; Dolkart, 41-48; and Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman, New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age (New York : Monacelli Press, 1999), 334-366.

[3] The phrase "second competition" is used in "The Cathedral of St. John the Divine," The Churchman, April 4, 1891, 537. On the first and second competitions, see Dolkart, 42-43.

[5] Strong, 1:30.

[6] For examples of this combination of praise with reservations, see: “The Fine Arts: The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Designs,” The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts, April 18, 1891, 212; and “The Cathedral Competition,” The Art Amateur: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Art in the Household, May 1891, 141.

[7] “Cathedral Competition," 141.

[8] Strong, 1:110-133.

[9] For “hybrid,” see Strong 1:41. For the brief window, see Strong 1:133.

[10] "Messrs. Heins & La Farge, the Architects of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine" The Churchman, September 26, 1891, 392. The phrase "chimerical and impracticable pursuit of the abnormal," is most likely a reference to William Halsey Wood's "Jerusalem the Golden" design, which was remarkable for its visionary, symbolic, and impractical aspects.