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Higher Calling

HDB/Cram and Ferguson, the successor firm to Ralph Adams Cram's famous practice, stakes out new ground while paying homage to its pedigree.
By Kim A. O'Connell

Winding south on the Blue Ridge Parkway not far from Roanoke, VA, the trees and rocks on either side give way to a field dotted with hay bales and framed by a split-rail fence. Its bucolic appearance is charming enough, but then you glimpse something else – the striking tower of some grand building, quite unexpected up on the spine of the Appalachians. A second later, the trees obscure the building again and it seems like a mirage. After leaving the parkway, however, and driving down a narrow path past a pond and through a thicket, the building is revealed in all its glory. This is Syon Abbey, a new monastery set against the backdrop of mountains and sky.

Here, a community of Benedictine monks lives and worships, but these men also work, to an extent that might be surprising. Self-sufficiency and honest toil are hallmarks of the monastic life, and so the monks of Syon Abbey are building their home and church alongside outside contractors. "[T]he need is born in us to make things: to arrange a plan, to work out details, to solve problems, and adapt the plan, and so to produce a finished and worthy thing," writes Father John Sebastian on the monastery's website. "Yet so much of what is made today does not give evidence of having been well planned or carefully constructed, and does not seem intended to long survive."

Even if they have left the material world behind, the monks have a strong awareness of their surroundings and their own place in history. When they moved their organization from Kentucky to Virginia several years ago, they wanted to build a new monastery that captured the spirit of historic monasteries in England. Searching for the ecclesiastical equivalent in the United States, they turned to the work of Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), the renowned Gothic Revival architect. To their delight, the successor firm to the Cram practice – HDB/Cram and Ferguson – was alive and well in Boston and building a strong portfolio of contemporary religious buildings.

"Getting the opportunity to do a monastery was a dream come true," says Ethan Anthony, AIA, president of the firm. "I encouraged them to site the monastery at the end of the field so you could see it from the Blue Ridge Parkway. You see it across the field, then you have to go on a little spiritual journey that prepares you as you come through the opening in the trees, to emphasize the power of the church coming out of the rock, coming out of the mountain itself."

Living History
In the early 1990s, not long after Anthony joined HDB/Cram and Ferguson, he discovered the enormous wealth of historical documents still owned by the firm. "I was in shock," he says. "There were 10,000 photographs, from projects at the most prestigious colleges and universities – 55 schools and colleges in all – and the drawings were exquisite." Many of the drawings had been deposited in the Boston Public Library under the stipulation that the firm would retain the commercial rights to them in perpetuity.

When Anthony joined the firm, however, reusing the Cram designs was not a likely prospect, as the firm had moved almost entirely into commercial architecture for insurance and telecommunications companies. The work was solid and paid the bills, but it was a far cry from the Gothic buildings for which Cram was known. Founding the firm in 1889 with Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, Cram designed buildings for the campuses of Cornell University, the University of Richmond, the U.S. Military Academy, Rice University and many others, but he is primarily known for his work at Princeton, where he was a consulting architect from 1907 to 1929. The list of Cram's notable churches includes the Princeton University Chapel, the Church of the Advent in Boston, and the All Saints Church in Ashmont, MA.

By the late-20th century, HDB/Cram and Ferguson (the name is an amalgam of previous principals' surnames or initials) had relegated most of that work to history. "It was a derelict office, not really celebrating their own history and not really moving forward," says Anthony. "When I came here, I knew that the work that this firm used to do was the work that I wanted to do."

Anthony studied architecture at the Boston Architectural College, eventually obtaining his degree from the University of Oregon in 1980, which had the traditional design school environment he craved. After returning to Boston, he worked with a firm that specialized in hospitals and other medical buildings before heading up his own practice, Anthony Associates, for seven years. In 1990, he joined HDB. Back then, the firm was still doing all hand-drawing, and Anthony's first order of business was to computerize the company. Anthony laughingly recounts how one of those computers was placed before a secretary who had worked there for decades. At this, she stood up and declared herself retired.

The secretary has not been the only one to question the firm's new direction. Anthony has been criticized by at least one architectural historian who believes that he has diluted the firm's legacy with his sturdy, simplified designs, while benefiting greatly from Cram's traceried coattails. "First of all, I don't think it's true," says David Hulihan, a semi-retired architect who joined HDB in 1971 and still occasionally works with Anthony on detailing and specifications. "The buildings we do these days are less detailed than some of the buildings that Cram designed, but that's a function of the budgets. And that was even true for many of the projects that Cram did and that were well thought of. Some of his work was a very simplified Gothicized collegiate."

In addition to being influenced by Cram himself, Anthony also has studied the same traditional precedents that influenced his predecessor. He has traveled throughout Europe, photographing old churches and monasteries and getting a feel for how they relate to the surrounding landscape and society. This past spring, Anthony published a book, The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office (W.W. Norton & Company). "What I like about him is there's just this kind of New England, rural, common-sense quality about his thinking, little things like wanting to use materials manufactured close to the building," says Anthony. "Everything was so relevant to today, but for different reasons – it was not because he wanted to avoid the ecological damage of transporting materials over long distances, but because he thought it gave a project authenticity. I realized that Cram was not only a Gothicist or medievalist, but he came to his work with an appreciation for the English Arts and Crafts architects as well."

Constant Evolution
Today, HDB/Cram and Ferguson maintains a small practice of about five architects – one of whom, Kevin Hogan, has worked with Anthony for more than a decade. Generally, the firm's portfolio is divided between new ecclesiastical construction and restoration of historic churches and buildings, with some residential and corporate design as well.

Although Anthony finds that budgets for religious buildings remain tight, the growth in traditional construction has generally made his job easier. "I haven't yet had a budget that would allow me to do a fully flamboyant Gothic with lots of carving, and that has affected the buildings because I've had to use other methods of bringing interest to the buildings [such as using machine-carved versus hand-carved elements]," he says. "My work is constantly evolving as we develop new methods and sources. The number and quality and variety of craftsmen have grown exponentially. The traditional building movement, and it is a movement, has made it much more practical to do this kind of work."

One of the first major projects helmed by Anthony was Our Lady of Walsingham, (see Traditional Building, December 2005, page 24) a new Gothic church in Houston, TX. Accommodating 300 worshippers, the church intentionally mimics the Walsingham Holy House in England, which was destroyed by Henry VIII during the Reformation. A massive square, castellated tower dominates the church's facade, complete with gargoyles keeping watch at each corner, while three glorious arched stained-glass windows provide a dramatic backdrop to the altar inside.

For the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Farragut, TN, HDB/Cram and Ferguson submitted a design inspired by the Burgundy region of France, where some of the continent's finest Romanesque architecture was first conceived. Laid out according to a traditional cruciform plan, the church is clad in stone and dominated by a tower and a broad dome. When completed in early 2008, the church, which includes a day chapel and an "adoration" chapel, will hold more than 900 congregants.

At the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic church in Hampshire, IL, HDB is building a new worship space with such classic elements as a tall spire, a cross-shaped plan in which the altar is located on the eastern end and a vaulted ceiling. There, parishioners wanted a house of worship that wasn't banal and featureless like the warehouse-like modern churches they saw along the highway. What they wanted, as they put it to Anthony, was a space that "feels like a church."

An Abbey for the Ages
Back in Virginia, a hot September morning found Father Sebastian up on a scaffolding rig at Syon Abbey, applying stucco to the walls of a courtyard that separates the living quarters from the church, which he hopes will be completed in time for Christmas. Acting as the monastery's construction manager, Sebastian is as articulate about its architectural details as he is about the project's historical precedents – expounding on the benefits, for example, of using autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC), a low-density product that is lighter and easier to cut and sand than traditional concrete. "We'd always admired the work of Cram," he says. "But we didn't want a copy. We needed an original thinker."

They found it in Ethan Anthony, who was fresh from designing Our Lady of Walsingham when the monastery first approached him years ago. "I had had a very successful experience using a lot of Gothic language on that building," says Anthony, "but also doing a modern building that was technologically up to date and functional." In addition to wanting a skilled ecclesiastical designer, the monastery needed a firm that could be patient while they accrued the necessary funds and materials to go forward with construction. The monks depend greatly on financial gifts from the laity and material donations from contractors, but this often means that the design and construction phases can be mercurial and difficult to plan for. "We can't throw up something that isn't our best effort," says Sebastian. "But there can be a great gulf between what you would like to do and what you can do."

Anticipating these challenges, the monks engaged the firm's services even before they had secured a location for the monastery. Although Anthony does not make a practice of designing buildings without knowing their context, in this case they knew that the church altar would face east, in keeping with cardinal practices. "And, if you study the monasteries that were built during the medieval period, typically the cloister is on the south side of the church to capture the warmth of the sun," says Anthony. "We followed the same rules."

The building is simple and suitably monastic, its one colorful flourish being the stained-glass rose window at the church entrance (the monastery plans to commission more stained glass as funds become available). The church, bell tower and cloister arches are crafted of AAC block faced in Spanish limestone, while the cloister itself is covered in creamy stucco that is a special cement-based formulation designed to expand and contract with the AAC block and thereby reduce the risk of cracking.

By far, the most dramatic element of the church is its 80-ft. tall square tower, which has a bell chamber lined with eight arched windows and a rooftop deck with a fantastic view of the valley. More subtly, the building also features environmental elements such as a roof made of recycled rubber and a radiant floor heating system. Fittingly, stone for the church floor will come from the Holy Land – a quarry near Bethlehem.

"It's just an enchanted, magical place," Anthony says of Syon Abbey, and it is. The church has a transcendent quality, even though it will never be lauded the way, say, Cram's Princeton Chapel is. But one wonders whether Cram could have done any better here within the same constraints – a tight budget, an atypical client and a remote site. As the bells of Syon Abbey peal across the Appalachian countryside, it hardly seems possible. TB

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