St. Augustine’s Church
On the downstroke of the Ben Franklin Bridge heading into Philadelphia, the impressive spire of St. Augustine’s Church looms close over the bridge. So close, in fact, that in December 1992, a howling storm brought that steeple down, closing the Ben Franklin Bridge – and that entrance into Philadelphia – for 3 days.
That was not the first time St. Augustine’s endured major damage.
The church has a long and storied history. The cornerstone was laid for St. Augustine’s in 1796, “…just three years after the great Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793, St. Augustine’s was a symbol of renewed faith in Philadelphia’s future.” 2 President George Washington was among the financial supporters of the project.2
Nicholas FitzMaurice Fagan was the architect of the original structure. The cupola and tower, designed by William Strickland, were added in 1829. Strickland was a noted architect of the time and also designed the steeple of Independence Hall and the Second Bank of the United States. 1
The church became an educational and cultural center for the growing Irish population of the city, and contained at one time approximately 3,000 volumes. Originally called The St. Augustine Academy for Boys in 1811, the school eventually morphed into what is now Villanova University. 1
In my first blog entry, on the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul (link), I mentioned the violent anti-Catholic Nativist movement and its impact on the design of that cathedral. That violence centered around the Kensington section (Kensington was a separate township at the time) and St. Augustine’s Church. The clash had grown out of the dispute between using Catholic or King James versions of the Bible in local schools.2
On May 8, 1844, after several days of unrest and multiple fatalities, homes and Catholic churches were set ablaze.
The original St. Augustine’s was burned to the ground. All that remained was the back wall of the altar, which carried the inscription, “The Lord Seeth.”
As devastating as the fire was, the congregation was determined to rebuild. In 1847, Napoleon LeBrun –the architect credited with the design of the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul and the Philadelphia Academy of Music – designed the St. Augustine’s Church seen today. 3
The church was built in the Palladian style, much simpler than the Cathedral, but is noteworthy for the impressive murals on the ceiling and on either side of the altar by Philip Costaggini, which were painted in 1884, as well as the beautifully detailed marble work and columns of the altar itself.
Another notable feature of the architecture is the wrap-around, three-sided gallery, which essentially divides the space in half vertically. The result is the ability to place two-tiers of stained glass windows, bringing soft light and captivating color to the interior.
The image below is taken from beneath the gallery and shows how the upper level in incorporated into the main interior space, with a slightly arched gallery ceiling and columns. The arch elements are echoed in the stained glass windows of both the upper and lower levels, while the columns reflect and extend from the columns anchoring the altar.
St. Augustine’s in Philadelphia continues the traditional bond between the Augustinians and the Filipino community. (The first Catholic church in the Philippines was established in 1565 and was Augustinian. 1 )
Since the Santo Niño shrine, a replica of one in the Philippines, was opened at St. Augustine’s in 1992, Filipinos from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware have come to this small, beautiful church in the city.
My wife and I, along with some close friends, visited St. Augustine’s one evening for an open house. We were greeted warmly, shown around with enthusiasm and invited to join them for dinner. If you have the opportunity to visit, do so – not only to see the exceptional beauty of both the architecture and the murals, but to enjoy the people there.
As always, this blog is not intended to be the definitive history or discussion of St. Augustine’s church in Philadelphia. For more detailed information, please take a look at the sources I used.
The Barnes. Those two words conjure up a host of responses about art, architecture, politics, trust, money, education, etc. To say they inspire controversy is an understatement.
The Barnes’ collection was moved to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, amid considerable protest, from its original location in the suburbs of Merion. While I have no intention of dissecting the controversy surrounding its move – that is not my purpose here – I also cannot ignore it.
Briefly (and I hope this is a reasonable summary), those in favor of the move argue that its relocation will allow many more people to experience the truly astounding collection. Those against the move argue that it is in violation of the both the spirit and the letter of Dr. Barnes’ intent and that of the Barnes Foundation.
Where I come down on the controversy is irrelevant for this discussion. The stated purpose of this blog is for me to photograph and discuss important Philadelphia architecture. The new Barnes qualifies as important architecture by virtue of the controversy, as the newest member of the Parkway Museums district, and because of its remarkable collection – some say it’s the finest and most extensive collection of late 19th and early 20th century art in the world.
The primary feature of the building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is the monumental “light box” sitting atop the structure. It is designed to bring in diffuse, natural light into what is known as the “light court,” the primary, first level public space that provides casual seating and group orientations.1
Seen first from the outside, my initial reaction was that the building was rather stark, despite the warm Israeli limestone of the exterior and the dramatic light box.1 Having seen the collection several times in Merion, it seemed the exterior of the new Barnes was in direct opposition to the overall character of work it housed.
Nonetheless, the “light box” is a dramatic feature, especially at night.
For personal projects, such as this, gaining access to building interiors to shoot is difficult. While I was limited to what I will call “public spaces,” as opposed to the galleries, I am sincerely appreciative to the people at the Barnes for their cooperation and help.
I was anxious to see the interior since, having only viewed it from the outside, I imagined that the light box would provide soft, even lighting throughout. However, I was a bit disappointed upon entering the primary public area. The light coming from above angles in, bouncing and diffusing off several surfaces before it reaches the seating area. And though the space is a dramatic, with its soaring ceiling of unusual angles, the inverse-square law is evident here, and the light box isn’t quite up to the task of illuminating the large space. Also, despite the details of the Brazilian walnut flooring and the inclusion of Belgian linen on the walls,1 this main public space has something of an institutional feel – very different from the Italianate architecture of the original Barnes in Merion.
Offsetting that, however, is the glass wall at the western end, which leads to a courtyard of seating and minimalist planting. It is an inviting area and the extension of the interior ceiling overhead provides a more intimate connection between the viewer, the architecture and the natural world outside.
I very much liked how the architects incorporated exterior spaces with the interiors throughout the building. This occurs in both Annenberg Court as well as the lower level lobby, which are part of the education spaces (below).
Photographically, the interior shots are high-dynamic range (HDR) images. Because of the contrast between the low light of the interior and the brightness from the adjacent exterior spaces, the HDR technique was required. Again, not having supplemental lighting, with the added component of having people in the space, created a real challenge.
However you feel about the new Barnes and the move of the collection to Philadelphia, and regardless of your impression of the architecture or the reproduction of the gallery spaces, Dr. Barnes’ extraordinary collection is really not to be missed. In fact, I would highly recommend, if possible, visiting the museum regularly. No matter how often you tour the galleries, you will see something new, or see something in a new light.
For those interested in a more detailed (and formal) discussion of the architecture of the new Barnes, as well as a more in-depth review of the story behind the move of the collection from Merion to Philadephia, this list of references should be helpful, particularly the Arch Daily article (#1) and the New Republic article by Jed Perl (#2).
1. “The Barnes Foundation / Tod Williams + Billie Tsien” 28 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 12 Jun 2013. http://www.archdaily.com/238238
Wandering through Philadelphia one day looking for interesting images, I found myself beside a church I had often heard about but had never entered. On a whim, I went in. (more…)