In Your Midst

The Cathedral Builders

July 2004


So wrote the builders of the Cathedral of Seville in 1401. Another great cathedral-builder, Christopher Wren, said it in a different way: “Architecture aims at Eternity.”

No matter the time or place, cathedral building is an exhilarating, daunting, history-making task. Cathedrals are places that, by their very nature, gather people in: the spiritual centers of their dioceses, cathedrals also stand at the centers of commerce, industry, learning, and the arts. And they reach beyond a local Catholic community to become a source of civic pride for an entire region. York, Canterbury, Chartres, Reims—the names summon up images not only of the towns themselves but of the great cathedrals that dominate their landscapes. In building a cathedral, a city says to the broader world, this is who we are—this is who we want to be!

The annals of cathedral-building are full of legend and drama. At the building of the cathedral of Laon, it is said, the oxen were so inspired by the project that they hitched themselves to the wagons and, joyfully lowing, dragged impossibly heavy loads of stone to the summit of the hill. At Chartres, the faithful themselves pulled the carts in a spirit of penance and devotion, and they came from all over France to do it! At Beauvais, moved by pride as well as piety, they built a soaring choir, the highest in Europe, only to have it collapse just twelve years after it was completed. When the choir was finally repaired, the builders added an extraordinary 490-foot spire which astonished the surrounding countryside for just four years before descending, in suitably dramatic fashion, on the Feast of the Ascension, 1573 (providentially, injuries were strictly minor).

Legendary, too, are the accounts of disagreements between patron and builder. It has been suggested that Abbot Suger—the mastermind of St.-Denis in Paris—deliberately concealed the names of his builders, so that all the credit for the “new light,” as he called it, the Gothic revolution, might go to him. A 13th-century priest railed against an architect from the pulpit, complaining that he “directs by words alone and seldom or never dirties his hands; however, he receives a much larger recompense than the others.” The frustration went both ways, especially when cathedral-builders had more than one cantankerous cleric to deal with. In Milan, the building committee had nearly 300 members, both clergy and lay, a democratization (and bureaucratization) of the building process that slowed things down considerably. In building St. Paul’s of London, Christopher Wren had the entire British Parliament to contend with. He created no fewer than six different designs for the cathedral, and resorted to all kinds of tricks to get around his infinitely choosy patrons, from drawing a spire which he did not intend to build, to concealing with scaffolding the changes he was making to the official plans.

The Building Committee assisted Bishop O'Dea with all the practical aspects of cathedral-building.  It was a distinguished group, including some of Seattle's most prominent businessmen.  From left:  George Donworth, J.A. Baillargeon, Philip Kelly, J.D. Farrell, J.P. Agnew, Bishop O'Dea, William Pigott, John B. Agen, Daniel Kelleher.

By 1904, Bishop Edward O’Dea had built a number of churches, not to mention schools, orphanages, and hospitals; but he knew that he was embarking on an historic project when he began dreaming about a cathedral for Seattle. It is a privilege accorded to few bishops to build a new cathedral; and like his predecessors of centuries before, O’Dea gave considerable thought to the location and design of the building, and he even toured Europe in search of art treasures.

But Bishop O’Dea was faced with some challenges that the builders of the great Gothic cathedrals were not. In the twentieth century, there was no natural idiom for a Catholic cathedral, no immediately-recognizable architectural style. Some churches of the era sought to ‘reclaim’ the Gothic (associated, in much of the English-speaking world, with the Anglican Church), but others—like the just-opened Westminster Cathedral in London—deliberately experimented with pre-Gothic, Christian Byzantine styles, in an effort to express their uniquely Catholic identity.

And there was another challenge: there was something to prove. This young nation could make money—that much was clear; but could it build anything that would last? At the dedication of St. Patrick’s in New York City 25 years before, Bishop Ryan had boasted “that the spirit that planned and erected the vast Cathedrals of the Old World survives in the men of the New World, and here are found heads to conceive, and hands to execute, and hearts to love the glorious monuments that shall until posterity be erected.” Bishop O’Dea wanted to prove that the same was true of Seattle: young though the city was, it was here to stay.

Mindful of these challenges, Bishop O’Dea had a pretty good idea of what he wanted for his cathedral church—and it definitely wasn’t Gothic. At the time of the great Cathedral Fair, in October 1903, he published what purported to be a plan for the new cathedral (actually, it was an architect’s drawing for the parish church of the Presentation, then under construction in Chicago). According to the Seattle P-I all that remained was to raise the money: “All plans for the building have been completed and the style of architecture determined. It is to be of a Spanish-Romanesque character. The most imposing feature of the edifice will be the great spires, inclosed by the old Spanish balconies seen now in the missions of California.” The Spanish Romanesque style seemed a natural choice for a cathedral dedicated to Saint James, the patron of Spain, and the allusion to the California missions made a connection with the rest of the Catholic west coast. The P-I account also referred confidently to state-of-the-art electrical and ventilation systems, slanting floors, a vast assembly hall, a central dome, and “spacious society and sodality rooms”—in short, all the modern conveniences!

Armed with these ambitious plans, Bishop O’Dea began the search for an architect early in 1904. His original notion—simply to borrow the plans of Chicago’s Presentation Church for his cathedral—did not pan out, so O’Dea solicited designs from Seattle architects William Kingsley and James Stephens. (Neither got the commission; but Stephens did design and build the pro-Cathedral, St. Edward’s Chapel, the dedication of which marked the beginnings of the Cathedral parish. More on that in our next issue!) O’Dea also looked farther afield, writing to a number of Chicago architects, including Messrs. Egan and Prindeville, who had designed St. Paul’s, the Catholic cathedral of Pittsburgh—a grand, very traditional Gothic revival building which would be dedicated in 1906.

And O’Dea wrote to architects Heins and LaFarge. For fifteen years, they had been in charge of one of the most prominent cathedral projects in the country—St. John the Divine in New York City. Their plan for a Romanesque-Byzantine building just north of Central Park was exceedingly ambitious. If it had ever been finished, their St. John the Divine would have measured 520 feet in length, with an immense spire over the crossing. Endless delays and construction problems had held up the project (in the end Heins and LaFarge had more success, and more fun, with some of New York’s classic subway stations and the animal houses for the Bronx Zoo); but ambition, at least, was not lacking.

The plan Heins and LaFarge submitted to Bishop O’Dea for St. James Cathedral must have surprised him: for their proposal couldn’t have been more different from their own plans for St. John the Divine; and there wasn’t a hint of the Spanish Romanesque! They proposed a majestic building, with two 175-foot towers fronting Puget Sound; and a graceful dome rising over a harmonious, centrally-planned interior. The Heins and LaFarge plan drew on the architecture of the Italian Renaissance; it was an architecture with little of the evanescent delicacy of the Gothic, but which, rather, suggested solidity, strength, permanence. It did not require much imagination to see what a striking impression this grand, golden cathedral would make, presiding from the top of First Hill over a grubby red-brick town. And what a statement it would make as well, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike—what an invitation to ‘move up higher’; what a vision of the ‘city on the hill’!

And so Bishop O’Dea relinquished his predilection for the Spanish Romanesque, and Heins and LaFarge took a break from the endless turmoil of St. John the Divine, and together they began to build a serene Renaissance building that would speak both of innovation and of tradition. Letters and cables must have raced back and forth between Seattle and New York during the summer and fall of 1904 as Heins and LaFarge completed their designs. And in the meantime, Bishop O’Dea undertook an equally important building project: the building up of a community of faith in this new parish on First Hill.


What will the new Cathedral look like?
Bishop O’Dea solicited designs from architects around the nation for his new cathedral. The design he selected—a classic Italian Renaissance style building—was quite different from the other churches being built at the same time.

St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh. Egan and Prindeville, architects. Dedicated in 1906, this ambitious cathedral recreates the “decorated Gothic” style of the 14th-century.

Church of the Presentation of the BVM, Chicago. O’Dea was very fond of this Spanish Romanesque design for Presentation Church in Chicago.

St. John the Divine, New York City. Heins and Lafarge’s prize-winning design for New York’s Episcopal Cathedral was never realized.


This article is fourth in a series about the early days of St. James Cathedral. Look for a special issue of In Your Midst in November 2004, when we will celebrate the centennial of the founding of the parish (November 13, 1904)!

No. 1:  "The Priest, the Bishop, and the Great Northern Railway"
No. 2:  "The Cathedral Fair"
No. 3:  "Making Music in Seattle"
No. 4:  "The Cathedral Builders"
No. 5:  "The Founding of the Cathedral Parish"
No. 6:  "Bishop O'Dea's Neighbors"
No. 7:  "An Innocent Abroad: Bishop O'Dea Goes to Rome"

No. 8:  "The Laying of the Cornerstone"

To read more about the adventure of cathedral building we recommend the following books:

Alain Erlande-Brandenburg. Cathedrals and Castles: Building in the Middle Ages. Abrams, 1995.
Erwin Panofsky (translator). Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures.
Macaulay, David. Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. Houghton-Mifflin, 1978.
Tinniswood, Adrian. His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren. Oxford, 2001.

And of course, our own...
House of God, Gate of Heaven. Jackie O’Ryan, editor. Editions du Signe, 2000.

Corinna Laughlin is the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

Link to other articles in the July 2004 issue

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