Post written by Luis Rodriguez, Library Collections Technician
The architect William Halsey Wood died in 1897 at the age of 41, less than a decade after losing out on the opportunity to build his masterpiece. He did manage to build a number of other noteworthy churches and homes, but when looking at his relatively brief career, the looming question is more about what might have been rather than what actually was. The 1888 competition to design an Episcopal cathedral in New York resulted in some wildly ambitious designs, and among them was the work of the young William Halsey Wood of Newark, NJ. Of the four finalists in the competition to build the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Wood’s design, named “Jerusalem the Golden”, was probably the most striking. The seemingly endless series of turrets, spires, and arches surrounding an enormous domed tower drew both high praise for originality and criticism for impracticality. The commission ultimately went to George Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge, and then in 1911 it was taken over by Ralph Adams Cram.
Cram, like Wood, was a student and practitioner of Gothic Revivalism as well as a devout Anglo-Catholic. Reflecting on Wood’s cathedral plans in 1937, he wrote that “had ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ actually arisen on Morningside Heights, it might very possibly have considerably modified the course of development in American architecture. In a sense he anticipated Sullivan, Wright, Goodhue and the other path-breakers towards modernism.” Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in particular are given credit for introducing an indigenous style to American architecture rooted in clean lines and the cultivation of a building’s unique sense of place. A connection between their work and the almost otherworldly grandeur of “Jerusalem the Golden” seems improbable, but there may still be something to Cram’s statement.
In the descriptive text that Wood attached to his cathedral design, he espouses a number of principles that share some similarity with what Wright later termed “organic architecture”. To begin with, there is the way that Wood approached the specific physical location of the cathedral. As he writes in his description, “the site is the curved summit of a rock-ledge looking abruptly down into the lap of Harlem plain, while sloping gracefully in other directions. The compelling corollary follows that the Cathedral must be firmly and securely anchored on this rock; and that its solidity and integrity of construction should be, even as an outgrowth of its granite foundation of mother rock; and that its prevailing contour and outlines should involve the idea of pyramidical solidity and permanency.” In allowing the site to suggest the cathedral’s shape and its granite construction, Wood emphasizes the monumentality of both the physical landscape and the building itself. The building should, “continue uninterrupted as a mountain eminence,” he says, continuing the idea that the cathedral would be a natural and graceful extension of the rock beneath it.
This mindfulness with regard to place, however, is just one element in an overall approach that emphasizes unity and integrity even as it breaks with convention. He further describes the design as an “ensemble”, which is, “not a plagiarism or a transplanted exotic, nor is it the echo or reflection of any foreign creation…It is nothing more or less than a spontaneous and general outgrowth of the writer’s structural conceptions as nurtured at the altar within recognized lines of artistic and aesthetic propriety.” The remarks about not transplanting a foreign design are significant because while Wood was invested in Gothic Revivalism, he was also attempting to make something that would be a unique product of its own time and place.
He described “Jerusalem the Golden” as “American Gothic”, or more specifically, “a demonstration of this practicability and plasticity of Gothic ideals under the demands of American life and thought”. Some of the “demands” he refers to were technological, as advances in building and engineering were making it possible to complete structures that could not have existed in previous eras. Other demands were social, as New York at that time was characterized by a rapidly expanding and increasingly diverse population. Wood notes that the design “should incorporate the ethnic types of civilization,” but more than that, he was interested in bringing the masses together into a unified theological framework that could be expressed in architecture. Quoting from the Psalms, he writes, “‘Jerusalem is built as a city at unity with itself’ and so the shallow, wide transepts and nave of the same proportions, gather up all the faithful with one great mass of worshipers”. Using the Book of Revelation to create a system of numeric symbolism expressed in various architectural features, Wood attempted to generate a sense of continuity and integration between scripture and the forward-looking New York of the late 19th century.
The William Halsey Wood Papers at the N-YHS Library contain, in addition to personal letters, drawings, and clippings related to his work, an interesting and seemingly unpublished quotation that may or may not be attributable to Frank Lloyd Wright. William Halsey Wood Jr., the son of the late architect, added some additional material to the papers in which he describes a conversation he had with the architectural historian C.L.V. Meeks. In it, the latter recalls an interview with Frank Lloyd Wright, who, when asked how he felt about starting modern architecture in the United States responded, “I did my part, but my late partner Louis Sullivan did much more than I did. Furthermore, the man who really started it all was William Halsey Wood.” Whether or not Wright actually said this or saw Wood as the man who started it all, the fact remains that Wood did suggest a different and ultimately more modern architectural style. While this style is most fully in evidence in his drawings for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, bits of it can be seen in the many buildings that he did complete as well.