Gothic Style Church

“Gothic Greatness in Stone and Glass Saint James Church, Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania”

Condensed from an article by Albert M. Tannler
Historical Collections Director, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
Pittsburgh Tribune Review (August 27, 2000)

The European architecture from the 12th to the 15th centuries known today as Gothic has, like all great architecture, served as an inspiration and creative stimulus for later generations. The last revival of Gothic architecture in the United States took place during the final years of the 19th century through the years prior to World War II.

During this period, a distinguished group of local Roman Catholic architects were specializing in the design of churches, schools, and convents. Of these architects, the least well-known is William P. Hutchins (1883-1941), although many people pass his no-nonsense urban mission church, St. Mary of Mercy at Stanwix Street and Third Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.

Hutchins began to specialize in church architecture. His regional ecclesiastical designs include St. Veronica’s Parish School, Ambridge, 1923; St. Brendan’s School and Convent, Braddock, 1924; Holy Innocents’, Sheridan, 1924; St. Joseph’s, Coraopolis, 1925; Sacred Heart School, Emsworth, 1925; St. Bede’s School, Pittsburgh, 1925; Holy Innocents’, Sheridan, 1925; Mother of God Council School, Pittsburgh, 1927; St. Francis Xavier, Pittsburgh, 1927; St. Ursula, Allison Park, 1928; St. Candice rectory, Pittsburgh, 1929; St. James, Wilkinsburg, 1930; St. John the Baptist, Monaca, 1930; St. Agatha’s, Bridgeville, 1931; St. Mary of Mercy, Pittsburgh, 1936; St. John’s School, Uniontown, 1939; Church of the Resurrection, Brookline, 1939; All Saint’s, New Kingsington, 1941; and his last work, Father Sigmund Memorial Hall, Toner Institute, completed in 1942 after his death.

Fellow architect and historian Leo A. McMullin published a brief biographical sketch of Hutchins in 1943. Although wrong about his subject’s birthplace and death date, McMullin is certainly correct in stating that Hutchins’ “best work is St. James Church, Wilkinsburg, a serious study in the Gothic style.” St. James Roman Catholic Church, 718 Franklin Avenue, Wilkinsburg, was designed in 1928 and completed in 1930. A contemporary account tells us: “the problem confronting the architect, William P. Hutchins, and the contractors, was to erect a Gothic church, seating 1,200, on a small lot. It was decided that . . . early 12th Century Gothic would be used in the exterior treatment of the edifice, and that the tower would be similar to the towers on the Soissons Cathedral (in France).”

The tower to St. James – also reminiscent of York Cathedral in England – is decorated at the top by angels and swans, and holds 24 bronze bells cast in Baltimore; at the time the carillon was considered among the largest in the country. The cruciform interior of the Indiana limestone building is uncluttered and open. Floors are laid with marble from Greece, Italy, Ireland, Minnesota, and Vermont. Eighty feet above, the shallow paneled ceiling is solid chestnut. Oak was used elsewhere, most notably in the 35-foot-high altar screen and canopy, carved by the Sportelli family of Paterson, New Jersey. The altar is set with a 12-foot-high Venetian marble mosaic depicting the eclipse of the sun during the Crucifixion, framed by green marble columns from Genoa; two days were needed to install the 2,700 lb. Mosaic.

The principal glory of the building is the stained glass. A reporter noted: “The stained glass panel, which line the walls of the nave, transept and altar, were designed and executed by Wright Goodhue of Boston. They are glowing shades of red, blue, and green, predominately blue, casting a cool subdued light in the interior.” Designing, fabricating, and installing stained glass windows is a highly skilled, labor-intensive, costly process. Not all churches are able to install permanent windows by the time the building is ready for use. It seems clear from the eye-witness accounts that the windows in St. James were all in place by late July of 1930.

The original windows included about a dozen in the entrance vestibule and at the opposite end of the church designed by D’Ascenzo Studios of Philadelphia. Astonishingly, all the other windows – approximately 80! – are the work of one artist, Harry Wright Goodhue. It was Goodhue’s father, Henry Eldridge Goodhue, who pioneered neo-gothic glass design in America and whose 1908 window, “Great Commission,” may be seen in Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside. Twenty years later, Wright Goodhue’s windows depict Biblical subjects in a manner unique in Western Pennsylvania, indeed, unique to finite numbers of places in this country.

These windows are the work of a distinctive creative artist, influenced not only by the late medieval glass esteemed by the leading glass artists of the time, but by the earliest surviving stained glass hundreds of years older, fused with the art of the 1920’s. Our eyewitness reported in 1930 that the human figures depicted in the windows are “symbolic rather than the usual pictorial designs which attempt to reproduce living things.” Although Goodhue’s figures are flat rather than three-dimensional, they convey vulnerability and vitality. Their faces recall Byzantine saints, and their elongated bodies, with extended hands and feet, evoke the Expressionist movement in modern art. Their faces, as they look at us and at one another, are breathtaking in their intensity, whether serene, sorrowful, or triumphant. Added to this is the extraordinary unity of brilliant color that remains consistent despite changes in the light outside. Our eyewitness once again states: “This glass is so designed that when you enter the church there is an apparent haze that makes it appear that the church was built centuries past rather than today, yet you can read your prayer book without the aid of artificial light.”

Wright Goodhue was 24-years-old when he created these windows. We don’t know how he received the commission to design the windows at St. James. It may be connected with his commission to design a single large window for Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, designed by (Ralph) Cram (one of the leading proponents of the Gothic Revival among American architects) and also constructed from 1928 to 1930. On August 10, 1930, St. James, Wilkinsburg, was dedicated with a morning service, an afternoon carillon concert, and an “open house” that lasted until 10 p.m. We are told that the pastor, Msgr. Walsh “extended an invitation to all, Protestant and Catholic alike, to inspect the new edifice.” The following month, Wright Goodhue’s great rose window at Holy Rosary was lifted into place; the installation of the 1,000 lb., 26-foot diameter window reportedly took two-weeks.

Tragically, Wright Goodhue died less than a year later at the age of 26. During his brief life he designed stained glass in some 30 churches. His legacy, if measured in terms of quality rather than longevity, was substantial, indeed, brilliant. Ralph Adams Cram called him a “unique genius” and wrote: “Wright Goodhue gave quality of unique value to blend in the great composition of many men of different and varied calibre, and without him the task of restoring his chosen art to the high position it deserves is made all the harder.” Inspired by Gothic architecture and glass, the masterpieces of a Pittsburgh architect and a Boston stained glass artist in turn inspire and enrich our senses and our spirits. Some Churches with Stained Glass by Harry Wright Goodhue:

Church of the Sacred Heart, Jersey City, NJ
Trinity English Evangelical Church, Ft. Wayne, IN
Christ Church, Cranbrook, MI
St. Mary of Redford, Detroit, MI
Church of our Savior, Cleveland, OH
Christ the King, Rutland, VT
Pine Street Presbyterian Church, Harrisburg, PA

Mercersburg Academy Chapel, Mercersburg, PA
Riverside Church, New York, NY
St. Paul’s Church, Winston-Salem, NC
St. James R. C. Church, Wilkinsburg, PA
Holy Rosary R. C. Church, Pittsburgh, PA
Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ