Saturday, February 23, 2013

D.C.'s 'dome-icile'

William Thornton, first architect of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., envisioned it as "a structure of noble proportions" that "the representatives of a very numerous people would one day require," according to Smithsonian magazine.

Yet, as I watched the TV broadcast of Barack Obama's second inauguration cut away to level shots of this imperial icon, I couldn't help noticing that its domineering dome seemed oddly out of proportion with its broad body — like an elephantine expression of the President's elevated ego.

The reason is obvious: this is not the original dome — as unoriginal in design concept as it is to the building itself (see below) — but a tack-on by Thomas Ustick Walter in 1855-1863, concurrent with his expansion of the facility as a whole to accommodate a Congress that had grown with the Union. His heightening of the headhouse with a new dome to offset his spreading of the wings attempted to bring more balance to the building, lest Bulfinch's inaugural dome (see below) resemble a shrunken head in proportion to the puffed-out body. But Walter's replacement ends up looking more like a swelled head from this linear roofline perspective, as an expression of the presidential imperialism the office has become, rather than the congressional collectivism the Capitol had been built to embody.

Paul's palace
Photo by Mark Fosh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And no wonder — Walter looked to imperial models for the Capitol's crown. It faithfully mimics the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London (1708), Sir Christopher Wren's pompous palace of prayer and parade hosting reams of royalty: Queen Victoria jubilees, Prince Charles' and Lady Diana's wedding, Queen Elizabeth II's 80th birthday...

When in Rome...

Photo by Wolfgang Stuck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Wren, in turn, was inspired by the coronary creation of Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta atop St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (1626), the final manifestation of Emperor Constantine's cathedral vision to immortalize the martyrdom of St. Peter under the reign of Emperor Nero, as well as an ecclesiastical exultation of the Roman Empire. 

This struck Walter's fancy, too, as did...

Photo by Velual, courtesy of Wikimedia
Photo by Evgeny Gerashchenko, courtesy Wiki
...le Panthéon à Paris (1790), decreed by Louis XV in honor of Ste. Geneviève; and Tsar Alexander I's St. Isaac Cathedral (1858) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Front and center

A far cry, indeed, from Thornton's original 1793 vision for the Capitol: a saucer dome in a unified composition with a pedimented portico like the original Roman Pantheon, backed by a hemisphere dome on a tall ring of columns, winged by manor-like House/Senate chambers.

U.S. Capitol, 1800, by William Russell Birch
President George Washington wholeheartedly endorsed Thornton's scheme for its "grandeur, simplicity, and beauty." However, Thornton's domeless North Wing was all that had blossomed on Capitol Hill by 1800, due to inept project management, strained labor relations, acrimonious loggerheads over the future of the nation's capital, budget and funding issues (naturally), and the slipshod construction that caused the semi-Capitol's foundations to give way at one point.

The lost saucer

Benjamin Latrobe's schematic design for the U.S. Capitol, 1825, by Thomas Sutherland
Likewise, Thornton's contract as Architect of the Capitol gave way to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who had made his mark on America with the Bank of Pennsylvania and the White House's east-west colonnades. Latrobe saw the Capitol to near-completion with his custom columnar composition and the realization of Thornton's remaining wing, but couldn't make his dream dome come true either...

U.S. Capitol, 1814, by George Munger
...especially after the British had decapitated the Capitol in the War of 1812. This entailed not merely the construction of a new headhouse, but, first and foremost, a postwar reaffirmation of national pride and endurance in the form of a dome more grand and graceful than either of the saucer schemes.

From saucer to teacup

Photo by FCB981, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Enter Charles Bulfinch, who had rebuilt Boston with the Federal finesse of a civilized society. Its pinnacle was his 1795-98 State House, where Governor's Council and Senate Chamber wings, center-entrance portico, colonnade balcony (screening the House 
of Representatives' chamber), pediment and dome formed a seamless symbol of social unity and civility under governmental authority.

U.S. Capitol, 1846, photo by John Plumbe
Which made Beacon Hill a model for Capitol Hill. Here Bulfinch unified Thornton's wings and Latrobe's pedimented colonnade portico with a dome that resembled an inverted teacup. Perhaps a tip of the hat to British teatime tradition as a post-War of 1812 peacetime gesture of reconciliation? More likely, Bulfinch designed the Capitol's first dome as a graceful head-to-body transition: the cup's "rim" curves outward and directs our eyes toward the wings, making the dome a part of a whole composition, not a self-centered solo turn. Furthermore, Bulfinch graced each of their wings with its own saucer dome, both as a coronary tribute to Thornton's and Latrobe's initiatives and as an authoritarian symbol of the Legislative branches' powers to impose checks and balances upon the Executive branch — which the domes do, in a well-balanced tripartite composition that keeps the central dome from appearing too haughty.

U.S. Capitol, 1852 lithograph
Now every component of the Capitol had its own crown, which unified the Capitol's composition as an architectural symbol of E Pluribus Unum ("Out of many, one") and the United States... until the building's outward expansion (above), concurrent with the nation's westward expansion, cried out, "Onward and upward!"

From teacup to coffeepot

The cast-iron age that had made fireproofing and higher building possible enabled Walter to carry out his vision of, as Historian of the Capitol William Allen put it, "a tall, ellipsodial dome standing on a two-story drum with a ring of forty columns [reduced to 36] forming a peristyle surrounding the lower half of the drum. The upper part of the drum was enriched with decorated pilasters upholding a bracketed attic. Crowning the composition was a statue standing on a slender, columned tholus..."

This cast-iron dome-within-a-dome — fire insurance against future wars, no doubt — was reinforced by an internal cast-iron skeleton that allowed the interior dome, painted with Constantino Brumidi's fresco Apotheosis of Washington (1866), to rise 180 feet and the exterior dome, crowned by Thomas Crawford's Statue of Freedom (1863), to reach 288 feet.

A less perfect Union

“ of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.”
— Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Photo by D.B. King, Wikipedia
Photo by Matthew Brady, 1862
The unfinished dome 
under which Lincoln had to take the oath of office fittingly symbolized the unfinished business that confronted him on the 
eve of his first term as President of the United States: a fractured nation, thanks to the inauguration of Jefferson Davis two weeks prior as President 
of the Confederate States 
of America that had seceded from the Union over slavery, regionalism and other nationally divisive issues. 

U.S. Capitol, circa 1863
However, the topping off of the dome with the Statue of Freedom (above, left) in 1863 was to become symbolic of Lincoln's success at spearheading the Union's reunification and the congressional passage of Amendment 13 abolishing slavery in America two years later. Yet the dome was not completely finished until 1866, signifying the further business Lincoln left undone at the stroke of the assassin's bullet on April 14, 1865.

Crown imperial

Which meant the dome wasn't yet in full ego-form. Its incomplete state represented an ambitious but scarred, humbled public servant of a President, in contrast to the commander-in-chief egocentricity of subsequent presidents the finished, oversized dome has symbolized in recent years — most notably the Cold War and War on Terror imperialism of virtually every modern president (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter). 

Here, at Ronald Reagan's first inauguration on January 20, 1981, the dome became the keystone of the patriotic regalia bedecking Bulfinch's West Front, aptly conveying the iron-fisted, mind-over-matter militancy Reagan was to show throughout his eight-year presidency, which contrasted Lincoln's blemished, brooding pensiveness with head-above-the-water confidence.

Photo by Zach Rudisin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The capstone of the Capitol has become the building, as the carrier of its iconic postcard familiarity, a shrine of dominion over the land rather than democracy throughout the land. Thus it makes Bulfinch's wing domes appear belittled, suggesting congressional cowardice about holding the President's iron-handed rule in check.

Yet, arguably, the big dome's circular colonnades represent the Representatives and Senators therein, elected to uphold the freedom the Statue stands for.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Church of Crafts

With Easter on the horizon (March 31 — so early!), I'll be in my third year of Easter choral singing at the North Prospect Union United Church of Christ in Medford, Massachusetts. So I thought I'd explore how the simple charm of this World War I-era Craftsman gem achieves its religious aims without the ornamental opulence of a typical church.

Bereft of the gilded crosses, diapered walls, carved woodwork, alabaster altar, marble floor, floral capitals, vaulted ceiling, painterly frescoes, iron scrolls, plaster angels and stone statues of saints historically deemed sine qua nons for Sundays with the Savior, this "Church of Crafts" is blest with bare-bones beams and rafters, wood casings and floors, plain white walls and simple sash windows, as an architectural expression of the organic quality of their natural resources, the modest humility that characterized Jesus not to mention the carpentry he practiced back in Nazareth, and the message to "do away with pomp and gold, and all thy vain display," as went a Dietrich Buxtehude hymn I sang as a choirboy in St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston.

That's how North Prospect Union proves that a house of worship needn't be a bedecked basilica, a colossal cathedral, or a holy-Toledo temple to foster a congregation's communion with Christ and union with one another, as that kind of flamboyance can be as much of a visual distraction from those goals as an architectural image of the City of God. Even the stump of a steeple (left) extols the church's humbly-before-the-Lord diminution, unlike the archetypal bell tower that takes front-and-center stage, reaches for the heavens and becomes the church to signify its sacred function and sound off its summons to Sunday service throughout the neighborhood. Instead, this one lowers its pride and takes a back seat, visually deferring to the main church and its prominent portico as the chief caller to worship.

I was glad when they said unto me, We will go into the house of the Lord.
— Psalm 122:1

The gable does give house form to the church, as a human-scale symbol of the common folk coming from their homes to worship there (and feel at home in God's house) rather than the supreme symbol of God Almighty a church seeks to be by rising above its neighborhood. The portico's gable parallels the main one, casting the portico as an aedicula of the house of worship to come, an intimate shelter that brings the congregation closer together under one roof than a cathedral vault can do. The portico's small paned windows and open screen of posts lend clues to the simplicity of the structural and fenestral features we'll experience inside...


"...there is the open charm felt of the structural features which are not hidden under plaster and ornament, but are clearly revealed, a 
charm felt in Japanese architecture."
— Gustav Stickley

This Craftsman guru was a stickler, indeed, for sticks-and-stones simplicity and sincerity in building structure.

The posts, beams, rafters and purlins here are symbolic as well as structural, as an honest expression of not only the roof's means of support and the tree limbs from which they came, but also the cross on which Christ was crucified, and the weight of it he had to bear while carrying it. The heavenward soar of the main beams with the ascent of the roof represents the Resurrection (timely for Easter), contrasting the heft of Christ's cross and the loft elevation of his ascent to Heaven. The simple windows and walls give the church more of a "house" feeling and add to its lofty lightness in a Japanese vein, contrasting white walls with dark support members.

Sticks and stones
I couldn't resist comparing North Prospect Union with
the Chapel of the Transfiguration in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, where I sang Sunday services with St. Paul's Cathedral Choir (alias the Bretton Woods Boy Singers in the summer) in-between our pops concerts at local resort hotels in the summer of '73.

The truthful revelation of the load-bearing wood members is in full glory here, too, as are the houselike gable, the grand arch setting off the raised chancel as the sacred section, and the triple windows alluding to the Holy Trinity. The interior exposure of the random ashlar stone that built the building (right) complements the knotty, gnarly beams for an organic effect that is more weighty and cavernous (like Christ's cross and tomb) than North Prospect Union's airy lightness. But here the proliferation of stained glass compromises this effect with showy art as opposed to simple craft, for a more churchy, less homey atmosphere. (Also less homey were the hard-as-a-rock kneelers we choirboys had to endure between our hymns and anthems.)

Windows on The Word

North Prospect Union limits its stained glass to the chancel and choirloft to assign sanctity to these spaces, keeping the glasswork simple, too. The chancel window depicts Jesus as a shepherd, enticing worshippers not to stray from him like sheep.

The choirloft window contains basic symbols of the Holy Trinity: the Bible (the Word of God), the Cross (the Son of God), the Crown of King Jesus. Tiffany-style flourishes offset the austerity with colorful movement — or represent earthly distraction from heavenly aspiration.

'Tis the gift to be simple

North Prospect Union's structural simplicity also recalls that of Shaker architecture, as expressed in the famous Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts":

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning, we come 'round right.

The church's relative barrenness does encourage the congregation to turn toward each other rather than be led astray by this statue, that painting, this capital, that pattern, and to "bow" before the minister at the lectern (the slanting and meeting of the beams do have that effect of bowing, bending, and turning toward your neighbor), because, without visual diversions to cause roving eyeballs, he is now the front and center of your attention, as well as the people sitting next to you.

Green pastures

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
— Psalm 23:1

The chancel window's shepherd theme continues in the back yard, which suggests a shepherd's field, setting off the church as a distinctive identity and remote refuge from civilization. The green wood-shingle exterior, evocative of both the leaves and the limbs of the trees producing the shingles, unites the church with its greenspace to form the "Union" of its name. The building benefits from its street's slope, which elevates its entrance to give arrivals a sense of aspiration to a higher state of being, and grants it a ground-level yard for the convenience of outdoor coffee hours, cookouts and kids' play, as a heaven-and-earth dichotomy.

Which could be another reason for the steeple's relegation to the rear: to blend it with the yard as a unified symbol of Jesus' death (the ground of his burial) and resurrection (the steeple pointing to heaven). Or perhaps to obscure the steeple from street views to convey that no one bore witness to the Resurrection, until four women went down into the tomb and saw his body was missing.

North Prospect Union United Church of Christ's Craftsman architecture enables it to live up to its name — as a union of equally simple parts, a uniter of its parishioners, and a symbol of the spirit of its namesake that doesn't rely on so many "graven images" of him to allow its congregants to feel his presence. Thus it honors Jesus Christ's humble origins as well as his heavenly end.

Happy Easter!

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!
there is the open charm felt of the structural features which are not hidden under plaster and ornament, but are clearly revealed, a charm felt in Japanese architecture. - Gustav Stickley

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