by Samuel D. Gruber
This evening the City of Syracuse Planning Commission will hear an appeal by St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse to allow the removal of 22 century old stained glass windows from Holy Trinity Church, which was closed by the Diocese and merged with St. John in 2010. The intent is to sell the windows to a parish in Louisiana where they will be installed in a new church and that in some unspecified way that parish will then assist in the preservation of the Syracuse church building. These mostly address some errors in the Diocese application about the history and significance of the windows, and then mostly about the windows themselves. This is just a little bit about their significance; a book could be written about them. I only touch on the question of what actions have or have not been taken to save the church and the windows. Though I do have much to say on this topic, others at the hearing will no doubt address these issues.
I urge my readers to attend the hearing at city hall tonight (weather permitting) at 6:00 p.m., and or to write their thoughts to the Commission ASAP at email@example.com. Put "Holy Trinity Church: CA 12-01 A (appeal)" in the subject line. The windows are number 5 on a very full agenda.
October 29, 2012
City Planning Commission Members:
Thank you for considering the following remarks.
I want to make it clear that I am sympathetic to the concerns and needs of the Catholic Diocese to protect and preserve Holy Trinity Church and its splendid windows – especially now in 2012 – during the building’s centennial year. The Diocese application is wrong in its dating of the building to 1891. Any cursory examination of historic literature makes clear that it was built between 1905 and 1912 and that the architect was Charles W. Eldridge (1882-1947). I have previously presented fuller material on the history of the church to the Landmarks Preservation Board and I will not repeat that here, since the Commission already recognizes its historic value. However, I will note that the dedicatory sermon was given at the church on February 19, 1912, though in such circumstances it was usual for some construction work to continue – in this case into the warmer months.
It pains me, therefore, that at a time when other communities and congregations would use a building’s centennial as cause of celebration, planning and fund-raising, the Diocese is instead intent on its dismantling. Believe me – as I have 20 years of international experience working with congregations, and locally I was co-chair of the Building Centennial Committee at Temple Concord, dedicated in 1911. I am also on the Committee to save the former AME Zion church at 711 East Fayette Street, also built during these same exact years.
I also want to make it absolutely clear that these windows, despite what is implied by the Diocese in its appeal, were indeed undoubtedly executed specifically for this church by the noted Buffalo-based Otto Andrle and his studio, and are among the finest in situ artworks in the City of Syracuse and among the finest stained glass window series in Central New York. Andrle clearly signed the windows in several places, including the on the first window to the left of the church entrance. Despite what the Diocese claims in its appeal, these windows are American-designed and American-made. They are certainly German in style, but are NOT imported from Germany.
The building itself was certainly intended to receive stained glass windows of these shapes, size and style, and most likely the artist and architect would have conferred on the general design. It was also the custom of the time, and specifically of Andrle, to consult with the windows donors prior to making designs. While this is not documented (yet) at Holy Trinity the process is well-known from other Andrle work, especially the great Saint Louis Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo, begun in 1886, but not fully complete until 1914, where Leo Frohe and Otto Andrle designed the aisle windows. In this important Commission, as documented by Dr. C. Eugene Miller, in his book Gothic Grandeur: A Rare Tradition in American Catholicism, “Andrle proposed the idea of complimentary symmetry in the choice of design so as to blend in with the gothic nature of the church. The donors suggested the topics for each window so as to fulfill their reasons for a choice and to satisfy Andrle's artistic imagination corresponding to his basic plan.”
Even a casual examination of the great Parable windows in the nave at Holy Trinity Church suggests that the same process was employed in Syracuse. The desire to create large nave windows as separate but united and inter-related compositions was a relatively new and artistically mature development in American stained glass design, where previously and still for-the-most-part windows were purchased singly. Andrle’s narrative, iconographic and formal innovation was probably inspired but the increasing understanding through the late 19th century and early 20th century study of art history, of the working collective designs of great Italian wall decorations. For while the style of the windows is inspired by 19th-century German art, that art itself was influenced by the study – of figures and movement – of 15th and 16th century Italian art. These are not just church windows; these are important examples of innovative – but popular American art of the early 20th century.
The choice of the nave window theme is significant, too. The representation of the Parables of Christ as the main decoration in a nave is unusual. In this case I think we can see it as a direct reflection on the needs, desires and behaviors of the Syracuse German Catholic community. The representation of the Parables teaches and inspires ethical, socially responsible and community building behaviors through the church; all values important to immigrant ethnic populations and especially promoted by religious and political reformers at the turn of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the donors of most of these windows were German Catholic altruistic fraternal and other societies and orders. The more overt and traditional devotional imagery is placed closer to the sanctified altar and apse. In a broad sense then the windows reflect the division between observant laity and clergy. No window makes this clearer than the very original representation of the Tabernacle and the Temple linked here to the church.
In some sense the quality of these windows provides a corrective to the somewhat skewed art historical emphasis on French-inspired American art of the time, and the search for incidents of incipient modernism. After all, the famous Armory Show that really introduced European abstract and other forms of modern art to America took place in 1913, probably just about the time these windows were being installed, marking them for the next generation of taste-makers, like so many of the great works of what we now call the American Renaissance period, as already old-fashioned not only in their religious subject, but also in artistic style. But today we can appreciate their beauty, and their virtuosity.
Sending these windows out of state, would certainly preserve them in part, but would be a great cultural lose and opportunity to Syracuse – at a time when we as a community are trying hard to expand our cultural footprint. Removing the windows would almost certainly jeopardize the building aesthetically. Holy Trinity is designed as a German hall-style church. That means that all the aisles are the same height, so the aisle windows are actually the nave windows. Because the windows are huge, the use of stained glass lessens and softens bright light. And architecturally, these windows do more than that. The artist and architect chose Gothic detailing to frame the Renaissance-style narrative scenes – and thus expand the architectural space. The painted glass framing in the windows is meant to be seen as part of the architecture.
Removal of the windows may also threaten the physical survival of the church. Their removal may make it difficult for a future owner to successfully obtain historic preservation tax credits, or obtain private foundation or other grants.
Others will, I am sure, address the question of whether the diocese has done all that it can to manage the preservation of this historic building and its fine windows. I suspect not – since to my knowledge leading experts and organizations with experience in transitioning religious buildings were not, to my knowledge, consulted. While the building may have been listed for sale, it is well-established that selling an historic and artistic church is not the same as selling a house or commercial space. Listing is not enough. In a sense, one has to be creative, even to the point on inventing a purpose, rather than expecting a pre-existing purpose or user to find the building. These strategies exist, but they are admittedly hard work, time consuming and often slow. I urge the Planning Commission to deny the appeal of the Diocese to allow removal of the church windows. But I also urge the Commission take the word “planning” in its title seriously, and with city agencies – including those that tax – to take a more proactive and creative approach to the survival of this important religious, cultural, artistic and community resource.