Richard Upjohn - Table of Contents

Richard Upjohn and the Gothic Revival in Buffalo
By Dr. Frank Kowsky

Originally published in the Preservation Coalition of Erie County's newsletter, Preservation Report, March/April 1986, Vol. 8 No. 2

Even before its consecration in 1846, Richard Upjohn's Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City had established the reign of Gothic in American religious architecture. It had also provided Upjohn with a formidable reputation.

Two years after Trinity opened, the vestrymen of St. Paul's in Buffalo formed a building committee to erect a new stone church. They immediately instructed its members to engage Upjohn as architect. The major Episcopal church in the largest commercial industrial center in upstate New York, St. Paul's could not escape comparison with Trinity. Upjohn was the logical, and safest, choice.

At his initial meeting with the building committee in March, 1848, Upjohn presented a plan for a church that would hold one thousand worshippers. The committee, however, found the scheme too expensive. Nonetheless, they liked the ground plan and pressed Upjohn for less elaborate elevations. One year later, the more economical version, embodying a nave 105 feet long with aisles on either side, won their approval. In 1851. in order to raise money for chimes. the parish sold lithographs of the architect's perspective views of the new church.

Construction began in the Spring of 1850. That is, immediately after another denomination bought and moved the old Carpenter Gothic church that since 1821 had stood on the site of the present edifice at Church and Pearl Streets. Economy, a persistent consideration with the congregation, dictated the use of red Medina sandstone from nearby Orleans County, instead of the gray limestone Upjohn had first proposed. The choice was a happy one, and may have inspired H. H. Richardson two decades later to use the same material for his first large 'Richardsonian'' building, the Buffalo State Hospital.

Complete in its essentials, St. Paul's was consecrated in October 1851. The tower, which resembles that of St. Paul's, Brookline, Massachusetts, on which Upjohn worked at the same time as the Buffalo church, took until 1870 to finish. At the service of consecration, the rector, Dr. William Shelton, praised Upjohn profusely. But he also reflected a penchant for overspending. "A refined, cultivated, and religious taste has heen here," said Shelton,

giving to, every object and to every part, to every line the impress of cultivated architectural skill. The cost has far exceeded, nearly doubled, his design and our intent. It has been his infirmity, and we may pardon that infirmity, in consideration of the surpassing beauty he has achieved.

The rector's indulgence notwithstanding, the building committee a few days later exacted a promise from Upjohn that the total bill for the church would be under $85,000. He further agreed to take his five percent commission on only the original estimate of $52,000.

Features of the Church

Although his earliest proposal had included a tower reminiscent of Trinity's, from the very beginning Upjohn designed St. Paul's differently from its famous forebearer. Encouraged by the triangular shape of the sloping site, he rejected the symmetry of the Manhattan church. St Paul's tower stands at the southwest corner and a two-story chapel, three bays long, adjoins the north aisle. In addition to greater picturesqueness, the Buffalo church displays more strictly than Trinity the principles of ecclesiology, the science of church building that dictated the architectural requirements for Anglo-Catholic ritual. The altar, for example, is at the eastern end of the building. Moreover, St. Paul's, built with hammer dressed random ashlar, is Early English, the style of the thirteenth century which had come to be esteemed as a purer form of Gothic than the late Medieval Perpendicular style in which Trinity is cast.

But the major ecclesiologial advance over Trinity is the design of the chancel, the most important liturgical area of the church. As correct ecclesiology demanded, it is distinguished externally by a lower roofline than that of the nave, which it terminates. Upjohn further called attention to the sanctuary by placing a bell turret near it at the northeast angle of the building. To churchmen of the 1850s, the back of St. Paul's gave notice of an up to date parish.

The skill with which all of these elements -- asymmetry, irregular stonework, Early English style, and low chancel -- are united proclaims St. Paul's the fully evolved example of a mode of a church design Upjohn had embarked upon in such post-Trinity works as the Church of the Holy Communion (1846), New York City, St. Mary's (1846), Burlington, New Jersey, and Grace Church ( 1847), Brooklyn. Trinity Church had made America aware of the movement to reinspirit Gothic architecture that had advanced to maturity in England under the banner of Pugin; St. Paul's confirmed that, since Trinity, America's most well-known religious architect had moved beyond the Gothic Revival based on Pugin to embrace the Parish Church Revival fostered by the Ecclesiological Society, the American branch of which thought highly of Upjohn. Upjohn's recognition of his achievement may have prompted the statement attributed to him that he regarded St. Paul's as his best ecclesiastical work.

Inside, St. Paul's possessed the openness of a hall church, for there was no clerestory and the aisles reached almost to the height of the nave. The feeling of spaciousness, which was characteristic of Upjohn's metropolitan churches, gained impressively from the two-story chapel extending off of the north aisle. A hammerbeam roof, the boarding of which was painted dark blue and decorated with gold stars, covered the nave. Although the imitation plaster vaulting of Trinity Church was avoided, sham was nonetheless present: the piers and archcs of the nave arcades were wood painted the color of the exterior stone. The stained glass was described as being of a ''rich salmon color.''

The Church as Architectural Landmark

Predictably, local citizens touted St. Paul's as the finest house of worship in the state outside of New York City. Butfalo, the "Queen City ofthe Lakes," had its first architectural landmark. Situated a short distance from the terminous of the Erie Canal and within a few blocks of Lake Erie, St. Paul's symbolized the progressive spirit of the young city which enjoyed growing prosperity from its pivitol location between the farmlands and resources of the west and the markets and industry of the east. In 1866 Upjohn's beautiful church was the natural choice to become the Episcopal Cathedral tor the new Diocese of Western New York, a function it continues to perform.

Other WNY Upjohn Churches

St. Paul's was Upjohn's most important ecclesiastical commission in Western New York, but not his only one. In addition to churches in Rochester, Niagara Falls, Mayville, and Jamestown, he is also identified with two rural churches of considerable charm. These are board and batten structures of the kind he and John Weller Priest (d. 1859) designed in the late 1840s and early 1850s with the blessing of the New York Ecclesiological Society, which looked upon them as acceptable substitutes where masonry construction proved too expensive. St. John Episcopal Church on Main Street in the Niagara River town of Youngstown is believed by local tradition to be by Upjohn. However, the date of consecration, in 1878—by which time Upjohn had been retired from active practice for many years—suggests that Richard Michell Upjohn (1827-1903), the architect's son and successor, may have been responsible. Correspondence dated December 30, 1853, confirms the senior Upjohn's involvement with Trinity Episcopal Church (consecrated in 1854) in Warsaw. The chapel closely resembles the "cheap but still substantial'' wooden church for which Upjohn supplied specifications and working drawings in his book Upjohn's Rural Architecture, which appeared in 1852. Trinity seems to have been typical of many churches built by distant parishes following Upjohn's published advice along with written suggestions he sent by mail. Asking little or no compensation, he acted from a sincere desire to improve the conditions of rural churchgoing.

St. Paul's Burns

Richard Upjohn died in 1878 knowing that St. Paul's epitomized the Gothic Revival on the Niagara Frontier. Unfortunately, a decade after his death, fire, the scourge of Gothic and Gothic Revival builders alike, nearly destroyed his masterpiece; the interior, with its wooden arcading, was gutted.

Late in the summer of 1888 Robert W. Gibson (1854-1927) took charge of repairing the damaged building. Gibson, like Upjohn an Englishman, had immigrated to this county in 1881. He had made his name two years later, when, in competition with H.H. Richardson, he had won the commission for All Saints Cathedral in Albany. For all of 1889 he supervised the work at St. Paul's. On January 3, 1890, the church reopened with the service of Reconciling and Hallowing.

Retaining the original walls, which had remained sound, Gibson introduced only minor changes to the exterior. The freestanding tower escaped the blaze and stands today unaltered from Upjohn's time. It still lifts its majestic spire 270 feet into the air, well above its newer and more famous ''skyscraper" neighbor across the street,Louis Sullivan's Prudential (Guaranty) Building (1894).

Gibson concentrated his efforts on rebuilding the interior which he succeeded in making more substantial, spacious, and ornamental than it had been before the fire. The rebuilt structure so impressed George Shinn, the nineteenthcentury chronicler of Episcopal architecture, that in King's Handbook of Notable Episcopal Churches he attributed it entirely to Gibson; Upjohn received only passing reference.

Nonetheless, Gibson's work was more of a sympathetic revision than a drastic alteration of the previous design. Using stone instead of wood for the structural parts, he preserved the basic outlines of the original ground plan (nave, aisles, and north chapel) but made the chancel longer and wider and added a clerestory. The most notable deviation from Upjohn occurs in the final bay of the nave arcade where two oversized arches, described as transept arches, rise to the roof, interrupting the clerestory. Together with the chancel arch of the same height, they define before the sanctuary a lofty area that majestically dominated the interior. The church does not actually have fully developed transepts, for the gabled "arms'' do not project beyond the aisles, and the hammerbeam roof, the new feature that comes closest to reproducing Upjohn's original design, extends to the chancel without a crossing. The pseudo-transepts, as they might be called, were contrived not to provide more room at ground level, but to impart to the ceremonial end of the church an air of expansiveness.

Gibson also took the opportunity afforded by the fire to endow St. Paul's with that special charm possessed by Medieval buildings that have various parts in different styles. More disposed toward archaelogical picturesqueness than the cautious ecclesiologists of Upjohn's day, Gibson introduced conspicuous details from the Decorated style of English Gothic. Most obviously are the foliated capitals in the nave arcade (and elsewhere) that replaced the simply molded ones of Upjohn's design and the striking traceried window that now fills the end wall of the chancel where earlier existed triple lancets. Gibson carefully intergrated his Decorated portions with what survived from the first church. In so doing he insured that St. Paul's, erected in the style of the thirteenth century and rebuilt in the style of the fourteenth century, remained the Niagara Frontier's finest church of the nineteenth century.

- Dr. Francis R. Kowsky

Upjohn's Domestic Architecture

Together with clerical patronage, Upjohn also commanded a lucrative practice in domestic architecture. Two houses in Buffalo are known to have come from his office. Plans for a home for Estes Cowling were drawn in 1852. The house must have stood on Park Place, a small residential square, where, according to the city directory, Cowling moved in 1853. Unfortunately, the building is gone and the only visual record to survive are the plans preserved in the Avery Library at Columbia University.

The house Upjohn designed in 1851 (completed in 1854) for George Webster, a member of the building committee at St. Paul's and the man who may have recommended local sandstone for the fabric of the church, stood on Delaware Avenue [southwest corner Delawarfe and Utica], a thoroughfare which after the Civil War became one of America's fashionable addresses. Although torn down in the early twentieth century, the house appeared in Frank Severance's Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo (1912). The photograph shows an ample, if typical, brick Gothic cottage, its gables embellished with sturdy barge boards.

In addition to his domestic and ecclesiastical commissions, Upjohn carried out one other work for Buffalo patrons. Long forgotten and thought destroyed, the Thomas and Amanda Crane monument (c. 1853) marks the grave of a father and daughter of whom nothing is known beyond the fact that Amanda was a young lady of high intellectual character and literary attainments.

Located today in Forest Lawn Cemetery, the city's historic burial ground, it probably came to its present site from elsewhere. The monument, a solid monolith of red sandstone, imitates an Italian baldacchino and reminds us that even leading Victorian architects looked upon such seemingly unimportant work as worthy of their art.

- Dr. Francis R. Kowsky


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