Moving to Cleveland was to be the end of my very short career as a budding historian of medieval art. Or so I thought. For what could this city offer someone like me, a freshly minted expert on the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe? The answer, as it turned out, was quite simple: Cleveland offers more than plenty.
Naturally I was well aware of and acquainted with the renowned collection of medieval art and objects at the Cleveland Museum of Art. But any trace of the Gothic cathedral in the collection appears in fragmentary form only—a carved capital here, a sculpted jamb figure there—thus devoid of its original context and setting.
Eager to put my knowledge to use, and momentarily saddened by seemingly too few prospects in Cleveland for a medieval art historian, I met a colleague for lunch to lament in the hip but historic neighborhood of Tremont. And then it clicked. Cleveland, the once great urban center (now again on the rise) is filled with revival church architecture, much of which was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century when Cleveland’s wealth was growing exponentially. It was a time of renewed interest in the historic architectural styles of Europe, including Classical, Romanesque, and Gothic. More broadly, the term “revival architecture” refers to buildings that hark back to earlier styles, forms, and elements from various eras. Both nostalgic and all its own, today revival architecture peppers the city of Cleveland, adding distinct character to an ever-changing modern skyline.
Cleveland boasts revival styles of nearly every major period and geography, including Neo Classical (e.g. Cleveland Museum of Art’s 1916 building), Neo Romanesque (e.g. Grays Armory), and Neo Gothic (e.g. Glidden House) buildings. In Tremont alone, there are more than one dozen historical churches, many of which are constructed in a revival throwback style, borrowing elements from older architectural forms.
Dating from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, many of the churches in Tremont were constructed with Neo Gothic bravura, during a time when the concept of re-enlivening medieval architecture was already deeply rooted in a broader Gothic Revival movement permeating many cultural realms. This discreetly emphatic yet cautious interest in the Middle Ages began in Europe during the late eighteenth century and eventually arrived in America in the mid-nineteenth century, primarily in the form of architecture, among other things. The historic churches of Tremont, many of which were formed and built by early immigrant communities, embraced revival architecture to celebrate a very personal and unforgettable Old World past.
One of the earliest churches in Tremont is St. Augustine, located at the corner of W. 14th Street and Howard Avenue. Built in the 1860s, this church looks to the great Gothic churches of Europe for inspiration with its pointed arches, gabled roof, and lancet windows—each a motif typical of Gothic ecclesiastical structures. The true hallmark of European Gothic churches, however, is a highly decorated portal. The main, and sometimes secondary, portals or entrances to these great European churches were highly decorated and embellished, with hundreds of figural sculptures adorning each architectural element. These sculpted portal programs served to educate, warn, and remind viewers who crossed the threshold into the church of central biblical and Christian messages. At Notre-Dame at Paris, for example, the main west portal and the two side transept portals are covered entirely with large and legible sculpture that illustrates Christian doctrine for viewers to absorb. This major feature of Gothic churches is completely absent from the Neo Gothic church of St. Augustine.
Similarly, Igleisa Pentacostal el Calvario Church in Tremont (on the corner of W. 14th Street and Starkweather Avenue), originally called Emmanuel Evangelical United Bretheren Church and built to serve the German immigrant population beginning in 1908, is also Gothic in style. Belfry, large stained glass windows, spires, and tracery work adorn it, yet the church is completely devoid of exterior figural sculptures. Many other revival churches in Tremont – St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Pilgrim Church, Our Lady of Mercy Church, and so on – follow this same pattern: clear and bold architectural elements reference Gothic or Romanesque architecture, but little, if any, human forms adorn the portals or the facade. In Tremont, the exception to this apparent rule of thumb is the church of St. John Cantius, erected in 1925, which displays a handful of figural sculptures in niches that frame the central portal door.
At first I found odd the absence of such a major component of Gothic churches on a Neo Gothic building. Yet the embrace of Gothic architectural elements and rejection of figural sculpture would seem to befit the traditions of many of the non-Catholic denominations that originally erected the churches and that steered away from figural sculpture. Furthermore, Tremont was an ecclesiastically dense neighborhood and congregations were in continual competition for funds and followers. In contrast, the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe were built at a time of unprecedented ecclesiastical power and wealth, and well before the Reformation and subsequent formation of new denominations. The unilateral power of the Church allowed for ambitious building campaigns in the Middle Ages.
While the lack of figural sculpture may relate, in part, to artistic constrictions and constraints of a specific denomination or economic burdens, there are many Neo Gothic churches in Europe and America that upon first glance are hardly distinguishable from their architectural predecessors of the Middle Ages. For example, Trinity Cathedral in Boston, the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, and the west portal at Metz Cathedral in Metz, France, each display expansive figural and decorative sculpture. Yet, on the other hand, there are famous examples of revival architecture that forgo architectural sculpture all together: St. Patrick in New York and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Cleveland.
With this differentiation in mind, it serves us well to recall that revival architecture is derivative of a style, not an exact copy. In this sense, many of the builders, commissioners, and patrons of the great revival churches of Tremont may have embraced an even older concept of ecclesiastical architecture, one that predates the Middle Ages, placing emphasis on what is on the interior rather than the exterior. The churches of early Christians, for example, displayed bare and austere exteriors that gave way to highly ornamented and decorated interiors. Entering the church emulated entry into a sacred and heavenly realm.
At the turn of this past century, the revival architectural forms of Tremont kept with the ecclesiastical traditions of Europe through basic architectural forms and elements while also breaking with the custom of expansive (and often ornate) ornamentation and figural sculpture on the exterior. The deliberate inclusion and exclusion of such certain features of Gothic architecture on Neo Gothic structures is what makes these Tremont churches a gentle blend of what is modern and what is traditional, ultimately producing a reflection of the neighborhood they served and the culture of the time.
Alexandria holds a PhD in Art History. View more articles by Alexandria Kotoch.