Rejecting Modernism

By Annabel Hsin
Published in Traditional Building Magazine DECEMBER 2008


Project
St. John Neumann Catholic Church, Farragut, TN
Architect
HDB/Cram and Ferguson Architects

After selling their 1968 Modernist-style church in the winter of 2006, Father Dowling and the congregation of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Farragut, TN, had a new goal in mind. They envisioned building a new and larger French Romanesque-style church, reminiscent of the Cathedral Basilica in Saint Louis, MO. Towards the end of 2006, Father Dowling and the building committee for the new church approached Ethan Anthony, AIA, president of Boston, MA-based HDB/Cram and Ferguson Architects, with their plans. “They wanted a celebrated location for God in the tradition of facing the liturgical east, which is based on the idea that the rising sun represents the resurrection,” says Anthony. “The other thing they were clear about is that they wanted a very traditional form of architecture. They wanted the ability to have a strong procession, a long rectilinear aisle leading up to the altar and a powerful sanctuary area.”

The church has a school nearby, from which students attend morning mass three days a week. Therefore, the building committee also wanted the new church to serve as a teaching tool. Anthony suggested using a cruciform floor plan that would not only allow for a long rectilinear nave leading to a wide and open altar, but would also demonstrate the symbolism behind the historic development of church structures. “In the Middle Ages people started to look at floor plans as a representation of the body of Christ on the ground with arms and a head; that’s where the cruciform plan came about,” says Anthony. “The building committee really liked the idea of using a cruciform plan.”

With the wishes of Father Dowling and the building committee in mind, Anthony drew a rough sketch of the exterior during their first meeting. “Romanesque is a transitional style to Gothic,” says Anthony. “It is based on round arches and has relatively less ornament on the exterior design. The style tends to have thicker walls with fewer and smaller openings, as the stone work, at the time, had not been perfected to allow for larger openings.”

Indeed, the openings on the exterior of the new St. John Neumann Catholic Church, which was scheduled for completion in November 2008, are small in proportion to the building’s mass. There are three round arched portals for the main entrances on the front façade – the east side of the church. Rounded arched elements are also found in the design of the cornice along the gabled roof and in the openings of a square bell tower. To achieve the appearance of thick heavy walls, Anthony opted to use 4-in. rock-faced Texas limestone veneers, trimmed with cast stone. A visible terra-cotta roof using tiles by Ludowici Roof Tile, based in New Lexington, OH, was incorporated in the design, as were a basilica interior with a clerestory and other design elements based on the St. Louis Cathedral.

To help finalize the interior details, Anthony decided to take a trip to the Burgundy region of France, where he familiarized himself with the French Romanesque style. Prior to the project, it had been 70 years since the firm worked on a Romanesque-style design, and Anthony had never worked in the style before. He visited many buildings and drew inspiration mainly from the churches at Amiens, Vezelay Abbey and the Abbey of Fontenay.

Compared to those in other regions, Anthony found the French Romanesque style’s high-pitched roofs and slopes quite distinct. He added these characteristics in his design for the bell tower and also incorporated a 55-ft.-high ceiling over the nave and an 85-ft.-high dome over the altar. The high dome, although not found in the Burgundy region, was a common design element of Roman architecture. Father Dowling had specified that he wanted a dome because the mosaic domes of St. Louis Cathedral inspired him. Unfortunately, a mosaic interior was too costly, so he settled on a painted interior instead (the commission was given to Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, WI). To add a sense of uplift, Anthony included a cupola that allows natural light in to illuminate a painted dove – a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit – against a gold background at the center of the dome.

Since the cruciform plan included a 100- ft.-long nave, Anthony was able to install, at Father Dowling’s request, 20 stained-glass clerestory windows. There are five bays with six supporting piers in the arcade on either side of the nave; the rectangular-shaped piers have half columns of marble added to the side that faces it. The column capital designs were based on figures Anthony saw in Amiens Cathedral during his trip and, like all of the sculpture, they were created by Boston, MA-based, Danielle Krcmar.

During his trip, Anthony was inspired by several groin-vault ceilings – another Romanesque-style detail distinct to the Burgundy region. He found a Toronto-based company, Formglas, which used a molding process to create the ceiling design for the church. Formglas used a laser to create a 560-sq.ft. mold, based on three-dimensional CAD drawings provided by Anthony. A gypsum composition, similar to wallboard but mixed with different binders, was placed over the mold to form panels. The panels were then cut into approximately 4x8-ft. sheets and were hung, taped and finished like a wallboard ceiling. “It’s a really fascinating process and Formglas is the only company in the world that does it,” says Anthony.

One of the main challenges was meeting the budget. “The budget was a bit low for what Father Dowling and the building committee wanted to do,” says Anthony. “We did have a value-engineering component where we significantly reduced the price from the bids.” Lower grade materials, such as Texas limestone for the exterior, were chosen. “Our experience has been that Texas limestone is quite a bit less expensive; it does not have the freeze resistance of, for example, Indiana limestone but in Tennessee that wasn’t really a concern for us,” he says.

To further reduce costs, the church purchased materials directly from the manufacturers. “The church has the ability to avoid taxation through being a tax-exempt organization,” says Anthony. “We pre-bid anything that was a single source and arranged for them to purchase the materials in large amounts directly – the church personnel had to physically pay with a check. It saved them approximately $100,000.” In the end, the project was 10-20 percent over the allotted budget, but Father Dowling and the members of the building committee were satisfied with the outcome.

Farragut is a town dominated by updated traditional Southern Colonial Style architecture and the Romanesque style church is a subtle addition to the neighborhood’s architectural landscape. Against a backdrop of simple brick buildings with gable roofs and round arches dotted here and there, the heavy stone church structure fits right in with its surroundings. “It’s not exactly the same as the others,” says Anthony, “but the introduction of a traditional form feels quite comfortable.” TB

Rejecting Modernism (PDF 2.25 Mb)



Tell us about your next Project