Sunday, February 21, 2010

Syracuse: Last Mass for Great Gothic Holy Trinity Church

Syracuse: Last Mass for Great Gothic Holy Trinity Church - What Now?

Its not been an easy month for Gothic architecture in Syracuse. In addition to the request by the City Department of Code Enforcement to demolish the Gothic Cottage on South Salina Street, the city witnessed the closing of Holy Trinity (Roman Catholic) Church at 501 Park Street on the North Side. Holy Trinity, built from 1905 to 1912, is one of Syracuse’s most impressive Gothic Revival buildings. The closing of the church was announced in December, together with the pending closing of Saint John the Evangelist Church, another great Gothic building that once served as the city’s Catholic Cathedral. Last Sunday the final mass was celebrated at Holy Trinity. You can read about it here.

Holy Trinity Church interior views. All photos by Samuel D. Gruber 2010

At the turn of the 20th century the Northside as home to many German Catholic and Lutheran churches and many of these were Gothic, a favorite style among German-American immigrants beginning in the 1840s. Most are now demolished or transformed to different use. For at least the last half century the identity of Holy Trinity has been Italian, those more recently new parishioners include Vietnamese Catholics. Whatever their national origins the great German-Gothic hall style church has been a landmark of architecture, community and faith in the neighborhood. Its tall two towered fa├žade, augmented by its siting on a local highpoint, soars above other buildings in the area. It is the most impressive building of any sort in that part of the city.

Its future is unknown. The track record for reuse of Catholic churches is not good. Until recent years the Catholic Church has been loath to close churches, and for many generations replacement populations of new Catholic immigrant groups have made reuse unnecessary. So far, Catholic churches have not been offered for use to other Christian denominations or religions. [n.b This has changed with the sale and reuse of St. Peter's church on James Street -- SDG 10/29/12].

This building, though, is still in very good condition. When I visited a few days before the final mass, the only areas in need of repair that I could see were small patches of deteriorated plaster from water damage in the west tower stairwell, and those seemed to be dry, indicating that the source of the damage (which was probably bad drainage off the roof) has been repaired (n.b my visit was limited to the sanctuary and choir loft). Thus, this closure is not comparable to that South Presbyterian Church where significant repairs were needed, but had been put off for a long time by the small struggling congregation.

Holy Trinity Church exterior views from Park Street. All photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2009Nonetheless, Holy Trinity (or whatever name it will assume) will require considerable maintenance no matter what its future. But no one should be allowed to make the argument that bad condition requires demolition. But as we know from so many similar situations in Syracuse – leaving a building like this empty for even one or two winters can cause great harm – from ice or thieves!

It is not clear that care of the building was really putting a strain on the Diocese now, but looking ahead it was decided that resources would be put to other use. There does not seem to have been any large appeal for help or public fund raising effort. The church has not received – nor to my knowledge ever been nominated – for any public or private grants. According to parishioners, the church was built with contributions without a mortgage, and the title holder was actually a local religious society, not the Diocese, but that does not seem to make a difference in the present situation. Still, a group of parishioners is appealing to the Vatican for reconsideration of the closure and the merging of Holy Trinity with Saint John the Baptist Church located further west on Court Street (that building is an impressive Romanesque Revival structure, built by famed Syracuse architect Horatio Nelson White in 1867, and oldest (?) church in the city in continuous use).

The interior of the structure is quite striking. The big open space is impressive. In the German tradition there are no low side aisles. The considerable height is maintained across all three aisles for the entire width of the church. That means there are no side galleries, just a choir loft open the entrance narthex (vestibule). The great open space accentuates the light, color and line of the excellent set of narrative stained glass windows. These are of German origins – I’m not sure of the studio – but they certainly rank among the very best (that I know) in Central New York. [n.b. These are in German style, but in fact are signed works of Buffalo stained glass virtuoso Otto Andrle and his studio - SDG 10/29/12].  I was particularly taken by a Garden of Eden scene, and there are many other scenes that strike me as unusual. The windows are inscribed with passages and mottos in German. I don’t know if these windows were documented by the Census of American Stained Glass. I suggested to parishioners that no matter the outcome of their appeal, it is essential to document (and protect) these windows. I will try to get some of my art historian and religious studies friends at Syracuse University to participate.

I have not seen early documents and as of this writing I do not know who the architect was – though he was clearly very competent, and he was aided by some first rate plasterers who carried out all the interior decorative work, especially the capitals. The building is probably brick throughout - with the interior covered with plaster roughed and painted and scored to look like ashlar stone blocks. I assume the vaults are a plaster, but it would be good to get up in the attic to take a look at the vaulted ceiling from above.

The original altar - set in a tall and intricate work of Gothic style cabinetry with panel paintings and set against the south wall (end of the main apse) is also tremendously impressive. Given my other (Jewish) studies I was interested in the painting of the so-called Sacrifice of Isaac on the altar, included as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion.

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