England’s Green and Pleasant Land on the Banks of the Schuylkill: The Story of St. James-the-Less, Part Two

By advocating English Gothic as the only acceptable style for Anglican churches, the Philadelphia followers of the Cambridge Camden Society wanted to take a stand against trends they felt were very unattractive in the boisterous new nation: a dangerous secularism built upon the unfettered worship of commerce, technology and the power of reason. Even so, the young nation as described by observers like Alexis de Tocqueville was largely indifferent or even hostile to such diversions as liturgical ceremony, spiritual mysticism, and antiquarianism. Tocqueville noted the result of the lack of government-sanctioned aristocratic and clerical prerogatives on the American psyche: “When ranks are confused and privileges are destroyed, when patrimonies are divided and enlightenment and freedom are spread, the longing to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor man, and the fear of losing it, to the mind of the rich. A multitude of mediocre fortunes is established … They therefore apply themselves constantly to pursuing or keeping these enjoyments that are so precious, so incomplete, and so fleeting.”1 Of course, Robert Ralston and his fellow Philadelphia sponsors of St. James-the-Less had fortunes largely based in banking and manufacturing, not in inherited rank and feudal landownership.

In keeping with the Cambridge Camden Society’s mission for authenticity, no architect per se was hired to design St. James-the-Less. John E. Carver, the general contractor, worked from measured drawings of St. Michael’s, Long Station in Cambridgeshire, which had been built c. 1230.2 The project’s sponsors saw this model as the purest example of a modestly-sized but exquisitely crafted British parish church, one that was designed and built by local craftsmen out of local materials. Rather than being delicate, lofty, and grandiose, St. James-the-Less is compact, rugged, and muscular. The nave windows are small, creating a very dark, mysterious nave compared to the open, light-filled ones of neoclassical Philadelphia churches.

The chancel, where the priest performs the sacrifice of the mass, is recessed and partially screened from the congregation, a liturgical statement meant to convey the mystery of the sacrament. The masonry walls are rough-hewn and composed of stones of irregular shapes. The gable peaks are capped by stone crosses, while the doors are painted a bright red and are ornamented with wrought iron hinges and handles. Unlike large Gothic cathedrals, which used flying buttresses to augment the load bearing capacity of their walls, St. James-the-Less relies only on its thick masonry piers and walls to support its roof.

The choice of setting for St. James-the-Less was as important to its architecture. Ralston and his colleagues wanted a site that would be appropriate to a country parish church. According to a 1983 history of the church, “The Ridge Road had long been a main avenue of travel, but many of the tracts that are now built up in rows of houses were then woodlands, or were occupied by country places of considerable size.”3 Since factories and dense residential development were slowly creeping northward, the vestry of St. James-the-Less hoped that their new church would be used not just by the wealthy, but also by the working class employed in the mills and factories. The church and its grounds would be a spiritual and physical oasis for families who lived in dense row house districts with little green space and few aesthetic charms. To borrow two images from William Blake’s famous poem “Jerusalem,” St. James-the-Less was to be nestled in a land of “pleasant pastures green,” a world away from the “dark, satanic mills” of the smoke-belching metropolis.

Construction on the church began in 1846, with an initial budget of $6,000. The Bishop Alonzo Potter dedicated the structure in 1850, but the total cost for the church had risen to over $30,000–approximately $700,000 in today’s money–largely because of the expensive decorations that the patrons insisted on adding to the interior.4

The impact of tiny St. James-the-Less on American architecture was immense. Parishioners were stunned at the proportions and craftsmanship of the building while visitors left the church determined to build their own country Gothic churches to the same exacting standards. Within the next few decades, English Gothic churches sprung up throughout the Philadelphia region and beyond. According to architectural historian Phoebe Stanton: “Many of the Protestant Episcopal churches that followed in the United States were informed with its [St. James-the-Less] feeling for materials and for simple but delicate articulation of ornament and scale … Whether or not one approves the appropriation of a medieval plan for nineteenth century use and the introduction of a deep chancel as a part of church plans and liturgical practice, one must be grateful for the accident which brought to America a building that demonstrated the aesthetic truths medieval buildings had to offer the nineteenth century architect and patron.”5 The most notable architectural descendents of St. James-the-Less include architect John Notman’s St. Mark’s Church at 16th and Locust and the Hewitt brothers’ St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Chestnut Hill, both of which use the English country church plan.

Aside from some minor interior cosmetic changes, St. James-the-Less remained largely unchanged during the 19th century, even as the mills, foundries, and crowded row house blocks crept up the Schuylkill banks and encroached on its formerly sylvan setting. The church served as a place of worship both for the working class of East Falls and the wealthy Center City Philadelphians, many of whom are buried in the cemetery, which by the early 20th century had completely filled the grounds.

Although the church itself remained unaltered, the physical plant of St. James-the-Less expanded to serve the needs of an increasingly urban and working class neighborhood. In 1916, a new rectory and a large parish house/school building were constructed across Clearfield Street from the church. Perhaps the most striking new addition to the St. James-the-Less compound was the Wannamaker Memorial Tower, built to serve both as the church’s carillon and the Wannamaker family tomb. Eschewing the rustic language of the original church, these buildings take their cues from the liturgical architecture of architects such as Ralph Adams Cram, with their use of intricate stone tracery, gargoyles and other decoration.

Today, St. James-the-Less – a seminal piece of American architectural heritage, a pastoral respite from the blighted neighborhoods of Hunting Park Avenue, and a National Historic Landmark – sits shuttered and dark. Still wholly intact inside and out, St. James the Less sits perched on its hill above the Schuylkill River waiting for a new life.

References:

1 Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Edited and translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

2 Phoebe B. Stanton. The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 94.

3 Paul W. Kayser. A Brief History and Guide to the Church of St. James the Less. Philadelphia: St. James the Less, 1983. 2.

4 Paul W. Kayser. A Brief History and Guide to the Church of St. James the Less. Philadelphia: St. James the Less, 1983. 4.

5 Phoebe B. Stanton. The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. 113.

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