The following article was written by JOHN WALKER, former Director, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, and originally published in the 50th anniversary yearbook for Portsmouth Abbey School.
Since the earliest days of Christianity, art and architecture have been witnesses to the validity of the Church. The Portsmouth Abbey School in our time is adding further evidence. Under four Priors and now an Abbot, the monks have created an architectural complex of remarkable beauty, expressive of our century and yet not unworthy of the Benedictine abbeys of Europe. This they owe to the impressive generosity of the alumni and the exceptional donations of a few individuals. I doubt that there is a more beautiful school in America.
The buildings these Benedictines have erected in recent years are remarkable for their uniformity of style and harmonious arrangement, but the abbey did not start with either uniformity or harmony. The first two buildings are totally at variance with each other and with those subsequently built. It is interesting to note how these changes of style recapitulate the development of American scholastic architecture. The school began with the Manor House, an example of New England fretwork Victorian; the second building, St. Benet’s, is Maginnis and Walsh’s typical English derived, no-expense-spared brick; and the rest built more recently are in a contemporary idiom, constructed of redwood and native stone with copper roofs.
The Manor House was acquired just after World War I by the founder, Henry Rufus Sargent, a convert from Episcopalianism who, taking the name of Leonard, became a monk of Downside Abbey in England in 1915. The Hall Manor, as it was then called, belonged to Mrs. George Gardner Hall, herself a convert, who generously sold it with its entire furnishings, out-buildings, and seventy acres, for $10,000 in cash and a $5,000 mortgage. In 1919, on June 25th, Dom Leonard formally inaugurated the Priory. Subsequently it passed from the jurisdiction of the monks at Downside to those of Fort Augustus, and the Manor House became the nucleus of a school, which they were to establish in 1926 with Father John Hugh Diman as its head.
A less ecclesiastical or scholastic building than the Manor House would be difficult to imagine. It is typical of the Rhode Island residence of a prosperous merchant who farmed on the side. Little is known of its first owner, Amos D. Smith of Providence, but research has unearthed his correspondence with the architect, Richard Upjohn, dating from March 1864 to June 1865. Smith, who had earlier commissioned the famous designer of Trinity Church in New York to build him a brick edifice in the Italian villa style in Providence, now ordered a wood frame structure whose ubiquitous fretwork and remarkable chimneys recall the Hamilton Hoppin House in nearby Middletown (now demolished), which Upjohn had done a decade earlier. The Manor House was built in 1864, as Father Peter, the treasurer of the monastery, once discovered from a shingle with that date on the roof.
The opening of a school necessitated the preparation of accommodations for both teachers and students in the summer of 1926. A priory, designed by the Boston architects Maginnis and Walsh, and consisting of a long one-story house with six or seven small rooms for the monks to live in, joined the Manor House to the new chapel, formerly a farmer’s cottage and originally a billiards room. A small house for classrooms was built beside it and a carriage house was remodeled to make a gym. Thus half a century ago, with touching simplicity, the new monastic school began.
The school year of 1930-31 saw the first graduation exercises. Two boys proudly received their diplomas! But enrollment had greatly increased; an addition was built on the Manor House to the north, comprising a dining hall on the ground floor and a small dormitory above. In 1927-28, the Red Dormitory was built to the northwest of the Manor House, and classrooms were added to the school house. In the following year, the New Dormitory was built to the west of the Red and the Chapel was enlarged. All these buildings were of wood and beaverboard. To improve their appearance they were frequently repainted; and legend has it that when a parent once exclaimed how nice the Red looked so refurbished, a passing monk murmured there was nothing a paint brush could do that a match couldn’t do much better! But these buildings still stand, though no longer used as boys’ dormitories owing to the State’s new fire code. The Red has become a guest house for the Monastery; the New is to be razed.
The Manor House and these temporary buildings constitute the first phase of Portsmouth architecture. The Prior, then Dom Hugh Diman, and the parents decided that the school had matured and that a permanent group of buildings should be erected. Like good Catholics, they turned again to the architects who were, and still are, greatly admired by the hierarchy, Maginnis and Walsh. These immediately produced a scheme for the whole monastery, which they submitted in a superb rendering.
Thanks to the generous “seed” gift of Mr. Basil Harris, the first of the four dormitories planned was soon under construction and was opened in 1931. Like many of the dormitories at Notre Dame, which the same firm designed, it is a solid, no-nonsense, derivative structure. On its completion, one likes to think St. Benedict leaned out of heaven and said to the Prior, “No more!” But probability favors costliness as motivating the change to a contemporary architectural idiom.
The next building to be erected, the squash courts, called primarily for economy and engineering. The Prior, Dom Gregory Borgstedt, chose a professor at M.I.T., Laurence Anderson, as architect in 1940. His bills were modest-and the structure functional. A fire some years before had made a new gymnasium essential. Anderson again produced a sensible project, which achieves distinction with the simplest materials. To span a great open basketball court, he used a frame of steel I-beams and steel trusses. A believer in natural illumination, he installed two immense windows on either side the length of the court with vertical louvers to control sunlight and also to give an interesting pattern on the exterior. The cost in 1950 was just over twelve dollars a square foot, a figure so amazingly low that the building became known among architects.
The Prior was delighted with the economy compared to St. Benet’s, and in 1951, when a new dormitory, St. Bede’s, had to be built, he again gave the commission to Anderson’s firm. They designed a one-story structure with a courtyard in the center. In contrast to Maginnis and Walsh, who at St. Benet’s had shown a greater belief in the light of learning than in the light of day, Anderson, at St. Bede’s, used glass extensively. The effect achieved is certainly brighter and more cheerful.
But one superiority Maginnis and Walsh, from long experience, showed over their successors at Portsmouth. They recognized that boys are unconscious barbarians, eager to damage. By comparison with St. Benet’s the recent dormitories reveal more visibly the signs of their battering. Maginnis and Walsh built solidly, if expensively, and their building has proved indestructible. A monk who is no admirer of their firm once said, “If a bomb fell in the vicinity of Portsmouth, St. Benet’s would be the only building left.” He is probably right.
When St. Bede’s was completed, a group of parents and Portsmouth supporters were shocked by its modernism. They compared it to a motel and held that it was unsuitable for the Priory. Dom Aelred Graham, who had become Prior after Gregory Borgstedt, was begged by vociferous friends of the monastery to return to the fold and employ Maginnis and Walsh in the future. He was faced with a difficult decision. He knew that the next building must be the monastic church. The monks had been far too long in their temporary place of worship. A monastery without its church is like a ship without its rudder. A beautiful place to recite the Hours and say Mass was of the utmost necessity. But what should be the style of this, the most important edifice to be erected?
The conservatism of Maginnis and Walsh had a strong attraction for the English Prior. Their design was certain to be popular with a large part of the lay constituency and some members of the monastic community. Two monks, however, both familiar with contemporary art and one of them trained as an architect, begged Dom Aelred not to take the easy and familiar way. The Prior showed them what Maginnis and Walsh proposed, and they conveyed their dejection. With the Prior’s permission they got in touch with an architect whose churches, built principally in the Northwest, they admired. He was Pietro Belluschi, the Dean of Architecture at M.I.T. They asked for photographs of his work, but none were available, and all he could produce was a clipping from Sunset Magazine which he sent to Portsmouth. This they showed the Prior and pointed out how Belluschi had solved the problem of a number of small churches with intelligence and artistic merit. The Prior studied the photographs and said, “Well, I’ll let you know next Sunday which architect I have decided on”. One of the monks replied, “In that case I have no worries.” The Prior asked why, since he felt so passionately in the matter, and the monk answered, ”Next Sunday is Pentecost. And you could never choose Maginnis and Walsh on Pentecost.” On Sunday, the Prior, having consulted with members of the community, told the two monks their faith had been rewarded and that he was on his way to see Belluschi. The meeting was a success and this gifted architect has designed all the buildings at Portsmouth since 1952.
Pietro Belluschi has proved to be the ideal person for this work. He is an Italian, and from his earliest days he has known the liturgy of the Church. He was trained as a civil engineer in Italy and America, an instruction of exceptional value in designing modern buildings. In Portland, Oregon, he started to work in an architect’s office, and though he had no formal education in architecture, he was soon a partner and the principal designer of his firm. It was at that time that he made his basic discovery, that the backs of buildings are often more beautiful than the fronts, for no one adds irrelevant ornament where it can not be seen.
Then began his wanderings through the Northwest where he fell passionately in love. His love affair was with the traditional redwood barns he saw scattered across the countryside. He came to be known as “the man enamoured of barns.” They profoundly influenced his designs, as the Portsmouth Abbey buildings prove. Belluschi believes that there is “a great deal of poetic potential in understatement.” This is fundamental to his work; he found that a barn never overstates.
Belluschi has always stressed integrity and simplicity – a Benedictine point of view. No exaggeration, no rhetoric, no theatricality; instead, balance, proportion, harmony of spirit, all qualities St. Benedict approved and made the goal of his Rule. Obviously Belluschi was the perfect designer for Portsmouth.
He had the Benedictine virtue of humility, too. Father Peter told me that when he wanted to introduce an engraved stone into the retaining wall in front of the refectory facing the church, in order to record the name of the architect, Belluschi demurred. “Please don’t,” he said. “There is enough adulation of architects without that.” Such an attitude recalls the builders of the Gothic cathedrals who have for the most part remained anonymous.
I remember my excitement in 1958 when I was first shown Belluschi’s plans and elevations for the new church and monastic wing. He proposed for the chapel an octagonal building raised on a circular platform made of stone quarried on the site. This Rhode Island fieldstone, enframed in redwood, also forms the lower half of the church. The upper half, a clerestory of stained glass, contrasts with the massiveness of the base. The height of the building is enhanced by a slender spire crowned by a cross. The simple nobility of this edifice dominates the entire monastery and is the focal center of the school and the community.
The building is both traditional and original. Its central type plan recalls both medieval baptistries and the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, which was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in St. Benedict’s lifetime. This ancient architectural scheme, which provides a particularly close contact between celebrant and congregation, is used in a fresh way. The interior is discreetly scaled to invite a sense of personal worship. One enters through portals adorned with a scriptural text beautifully lettered and hammered out of copper. These doors, among the finest I have seen in America, were designed by Father Peter with John T. Benson, and executed by Father Peter. His work as treasurer of the community has sadly curtailed his exceptional artistic ability.
Inside, one has a sense of soaring verticality as he looks up at the great, laminated birch arches which support the tower. Then the eye is caught by the beauty of the colored light streaming through the stained glass of the clerestory. Walking around in this dim, entrancing illumination, one comes on six chapels, each occupying a segment of the octagon. The two remaining sides are the entrance narthex and the retrochoir, where the monks can recite the Hours removed from the body of the church and in partial isolation.
Shafts of light, falling from an opening above the altar, irradiate a crucifix hanging high above the celebrant. This crucifix, supported by myriads of thinly drawn gold wires, strung in a pattern designed by Richard Lippold, seems at High Mass to float on clouds of incense rising from the thurible swung below. To see this marvelous work of art is an extraordinary visual experience. It is as though God’s grace, transmitted along a web of shining beams of light, is drawn to the altar by the head and outstretched arms of the crucified Christ. When the church is filled with boys and monks singing, the effect is sublime and unforgettable.
Glorious as this monastic church seems to me, when its designs were first unveiled, the Prior faced harsh criticism. I remember I wrote a letter on his behalf, which received considerable publicity because those of the alumni who were censorious were surprised that there was not a unanimous condemnation. Such critics have long been silenced (it now seems astounding that they ever existed), and the monastery has continued to develop in the style determined by Pietro Belluschi with the approval at first of the Prior and now of the Abbot, Dom Matthew Stark.
The monastic wing was built at the same time as the chapel and connected to it by the retrochoir and the sacristy. It, too, is of redwood with a stone base. Cells for thirty monks, a calefactory and a refectory are provided. Meals come from a common kitchen for the whole community, on one side the meals for the monks, on the other for the boys, who eat in the Stillman Dining Hall, which was also constructed at the same time.
In the sixteen years since the church, monastery and dining hall were inaugurated, Belluschi has designed and the Abbey has built an auditorium, a science building, an administration building, an infirmary, an indoor hockey rink and three dormitories-an outstanding program to construct and finance in a decade and a half. These buildings with their copper roofs, their redwood walls, and their native stone bases have a happy uniformity of material and a delightful variety of shapes.
All the new buildings have innovative features, but the most original are the three new dormitories, appropriately named after the patron saints of three important Portsmouth superiors, St. Hugh’s, St. Leonard’s, and St. Aelred’s. Each is “L” shaped, and each unit is repeated to increase economy. But there is no monotony for they are placed diagonally down a slope leading to Narragansett Bay. Thus there is a delightful alternation of levels. The individual dormitories also have an attractive variation in their profiles, because the centers – the corners, so to speak, of every ”L’ – are single-storied whereas the wings are double-storied.
Each dormitory has a married master with his own attached house and a terrace. The fenestration is so arranged that none of his rooms is overlooked by the boys or other masters. Each dormitory also has a cell for a monk or single lay master at the head of each wing, with a study on one level and bedroom on another. Thus he can suddenly appear at one of his doors if there is any disturbance in the upper or lower corridor – an important tactical advantage! These passageways are never more than ten rooms in length, and though each dormitory holds forty or more boys, there is a great feeling of intimacy. I was impressed by a wooden band running around all the rooms and the common room, three quarters the way up the wall. In the dormitory I visited, the boys had tacked up large color reproductions of drawings by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, and of paintings by various Impressionists. I felt such “pin-ups” showed a delightful and unexpected sophistication.
Wandering around the campus, I tried to analyze why I had a feeling of serenity and happiness. Why did all these buildings taken together seem so satisfactory? There was first their unity of scale, their domestic rather than institutional character. But then it occurred to me that they had another virtue – their harmonious placement in this exceptionally beautiful setting. In front of the church, for example, there is a large green, on the side of the church there is a much smaller cobblestoned area with buildings on three sides, and between the administration building and the auditorium there is a still smaller space, paved and roofed, with a fountain in its center. I decided that one of Belluschi’s particular talents was this interplay between exterior areas and structure – a feeling for spatial composition one finds often in Italian cities of the Renaissance.
But the full beauty of the Portsmouth Abbey plan is not yet entirely visible. One more building containing a library and a place for classrooms, which ranks in importance just after the church and the dormitories, is still to be constructed. Until this is built, the quadrangle in front of the church will not be complete. Once more the alumni and parents are being asked to contribute. I profoundly hope this financial drive will have a successful conclusion. For this complex of modestly designed, modern buildings is one of the most rewarding sights of its kind in America .
How wise the monks were to decide on a modern idiom for their monastery! Every age has its own particular needs and aspirations. Until recently, Catholic edifices and works of art have reflected this ever changing viewpoint. In our time, however , through timidity and tastelessness, the Church has abandoned its dynamic , artistic leadership. But many courageous Benedictines here and abroad are determined to change all this, to regain for the Church its lost preeminence as a source of beauty and inspiration.
Their efforts are to be seen at Portsmouth not only in the architecture but in the adornment of the buildings. The other day I was reading that superb tribute to monasticism, Dom Jean Leclerq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire For God, and I came across a twelfth-century quotation from the Abbot Suger of St. Denis, the founder of the French Gothic style: ‘As for me,’ concludes Suger, “I confess that I took great pleasure in devo ting all the costliest and most precious things I could find to the service of the administration of the Most Holy Eucharist. If, to fulfill an order from God manifested through the mouth of the Prophets, golden chalices, vases, and cups were used to receive the blood of goats, calves, and the red cow of the Expiation, how much greater is our obligation to use, in order to receive the blood of Jesus Christ, in perpetual service and with the utmost devotion , vases of gold, gems and everything that is considered most precious. Surely neither we nor our worldly goods can suffice to serve such great mysteries.”
As Suger so eloquently advocates, the monks of Portsmouth Abbey, through the use and display of the most precious works of contemporary art they can afford, have tried to intensify and glorify the worship of God. The sermon these Benedictines have preached is that there are superb painters, sculptors, and craftsmen longing to work for religion, as the greatest artists until recent times have always worked for the Catholic Church. The paucity of monastic resources alone has limited them in their commissions. I have spoken of the genius of Pietro Belluschi as an architect. But I wish to stress equally the loveliness and the fitting nature of the adornment of his buildings. The copper doors of the monastic church, so impressive in their simplicity, were designed and hammered out, as I have said, by a member of the community, Father Peter. The crucifix over the High Altar I have already mentioned , and I pointed to its brilliantly conceived design, owed to Richard Lippold, but I did not speak of the lovely figure of Christ carved by a Swiss, Meinrad Burch. The Stations of the Cross, which run from chapel to chapel and which I find very moving, are also by Burch. The tapestry over the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, one of the most beautiful abstract designs I have ever seen, is by an American with an Italian name, Esther Puccinelli. And in the reception room at the monastery is an Annunciation by a gifted American painter, William Congdon. How splendid it would be if he were commissioned further, to paint a series of scenes connected with St. Benedict, of places like Subiaco and Monte Cassino!
The Portsmouth Abbey also has a small, varied, but well-chosen and touching collection of works of art from Egyptian times down to such contemporary artists as Luks, Mosca, and Gardner Cox. It includes a gargoyle from Cluny, stained glass of the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries and some Moorish columns from the Alhambra. These are used to give the boys studying the history of art some experience of original work, which can help to illustrate their courses. It is to be hoped the alumni will increase this nucleus of a museum so patiently brought together by the monks.
In 1964, I was asked to give the Commencement Address at Portsmouth. I tried to convey to the students an awareness of the privilege it was to have been educated in an abbey of such beauty. I said I wanted to make them realize that this entailed obligations on their part, a responsibility to work for a more beautiful Catholicism in our country. Beauty, I pointed out, is like goodness – it can’t be assigned to somebody else. We are all individually responsible for the beauty or the lack of it in our religion, in our total environment. Here at Portsmouth, I told them, I hoped they had learned a lesson, a lesson I believed more important than the knowledge they might take away of physics or mathematics, of history or literature. Having spent part of each day in a beautiful church, they had seen the glory of the Liturgy when performed in a resplendent setting. The works of art with which they were surrounded must be recognized as a testament of impassioned repudiation of those sham and meretricious objects which like some dreadful blight are destroying the loveliness and therefore, to some extent, the vitality of our Catholic worship. It is true that our church is founded on a rock. But there is no reason why this rock should have become a bleak, forbidding boulder.
President Kennedy once said, “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty… I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”
The Benedictines of Portsmouth for fifty years have taught our children the values of true civilization, and they have shown them that art, alive and vital today, is an essential part of that civilization. I am sure that in the minds and hearts of the pupils of these monks there is impressed what President Kennedy likewise so admirably said, “The nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man – the fate of having nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.” The Benedictines who have erected this abbey can look back half a century with pride and look forward into the future with hope.