Churches worth seeing, XIX
Church of the Redeemer : Chestnut Hill, Mass.
(Diocese of Massachusetts)
DESIGNED BY HENRY VAUGHAN, the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill (1913-1915) is a skillful combination of a large city church and a small country parish, retaining the attributes of both (the church has a seating capacity of 350 within a nave that measures 123 by 50 feet). The warm local brownstone, the late Decorated body of the church, and the Perpendicular tower make the Redeemer an almost textbook example of the change from the colorful complexity of the Victorian Gothic to the disciplined and restrained correctness of the Modern Gothic style. This is especially evident when the present structure is compared to its 1891 predecessor, with its open, meeting-house plan covered in shingles and capped by a spire.
Vaughan’s large double-aisled Church of the Redeemer has a variety of features, like pinnacles buttresses, a circular stair tower, and the elaborate reticulated west window, all of which a re skillfully integrated to give an impression of harmony. The architect’s control is evident in the west window, where the complex tracery is framed by the large area of blank wall.
The most successful portion of the Redeemer is the tower. The tower originally proposed for the church… is almost identical to the one Vaughan designed for the Church of the Mediator in New York two years before. This designed also recalls Bodley’s St. John’s, Epping, of 1889, a fact that emphasizes the continuing close relationship Vaughan maintained with his mentor.
When the estimated cost of the Redeemer, exclusive of tower, organ, glass, and furnishings, was found to be $80,000, it was decided to postpone the construction of the tower. Though and additional $20,000 was offered by two parishioners, “after consultation with the architect,” it was decided that a tower could not be built for such a sum. In May of 1916, exactly one year after the church’s consecration, the Building Committee was instructed to obtain an estimate for the tower from Vaughan, though it was not until June of 1918 that all drawings pertaining to the church were “procured from the estate of Henry Vaughan Architect.”
These papers include blueprints of the original design for the tower, as well as ink drawings of the tower as it was actually built. Dedicated by Bishop Lawrence on October 31, 1920, the “Victory Tower” retains the basic three-stage Perpendicular configuration of the original design, but with significant modifications. The simple battlements are replaced with stepped ones, the buttresses are extended up to the pinnacles, and the double belfry openings are replaced with a singly one. Beneath the parapet, forming the corbel of a secondary pinnacle, is the shield-carrying angel found at St. Swithun’s at Magdalen College, Oxford, of 1880 that Vaughan used almost as his signature. The result is a more refined, less chunky, and far richer Perpendicular tower than the earlier design. The use of the Perpendicular tower grafted onto the slightly earlier Decorated nave is a stroke of genius, for Vaughan’s composition captures the transitory moment when a declining style foretells the ascendancy of a newer style.
The interior of the Redeemer is one of Vaughan’s most majestic spatial compositions. Vaughan’s use of side aisles (which are merely passageways and are as tall as the nave), internal buttresses, and continuous nave-chancel ceiling, makes reference to some of his later city and collegiate churches (for example, Good Shepherd in New York and Western Reserve Chapel in Cleveland), and the “hall church” effect is not unlike Bodley’s Epping Church of his masterpiece, St. Augustine’s, Pendlebury. The four-bay nave and the two-bay chancel lie beneath an unbroken roof line, but Vaughan avoided a tunnel-like impression by setting off the side aisles with tall stone arches which reach nearly to the roof plate (there is no clerestory). A small morning chapel is nestled to the side of the chancel at the east end of the south aisle. Characteristically, the power of the Redeemer’s interior relies on stately proportions and the contrast of the plain walls of the nave with the rich, decorative treatment of the chancel.
The Church of the Redeemer, like almost all of the architect’s parish churches (for example, St. Mary’s Dorchester), shows that Vaughan succeeded in providing a suitable framework for Christian worship–monuments dedicated to the glory of God–both suited to contemporary needs and strongly rooted in tradition. Once again, the words of Bishop Lawrence eloquently speak of Vaughan’s aims and convictions:
While religious faith is revealed in life and creed, it also is expressed through our churches. Hence the construction of a church of beauty and dignity in this diocese is welcomed as a symbol of the living faith of the people and their appreciation of the dignity and beauty of worship.
Source: William Morgan, The Almighty Wall: The Architecture of Henry Vaughan (New York: The Architectural History Foudation, 1983), 46-53.