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Inspired to Build Sacred Architecture

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Architect Ethan Anthony claims to have laid the cornerstones for the first true Gothic churches built in the U.S. since the World War II. With graceful stone spires, soaring arches and ornate stained glass windows, they are legacy designs intended to last for centuries. By dedicating himself to the revival of such traditional sacred architecture, Anthony is carrying on the tradition of his firm’s early twentieth century founder, Ralph Adams Cram, who created religious masterpieces such as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. “Sacred architecture is architecture of the spirit, and includes all denominations and inclinations, from Buddhist all the way to High Roman Catholic,” said Anthony, 62. “It’s not about the ego or church image but more about spiritual fulfillment,” said Anthony, who completed such structures as St. Edward’s Chapel at the Casady School in Oklahoma City, Okla.; Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church, Houston, and Phillips Chapel at the Canterbury School, Greensboro N.C.

Q: Modern day sacred architecture – isn’t that an oxymoron?
A: It depends on what coast you’re on. Here in New England, it is a contradiction in terms, but most of our work is in the Bible Belt area, including the Midwest, South, and all parts of the heartland. Construction in New England, though, is few and far between. The archdiocese still has far more churches than they wish they had.

Q: You’ve completed a wide range of churches. What project is your favorite?
A: The Syon Abbey, a monastery in Virginia. It sits on the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. We build it with tremendous support from the monks to do the design that they envisioned. They even got their hands dirty and did some of the construction themselves. The building came out beautifully.

Q: Can sacred architecture also be sustainable?
A: We try very hard to be energy-efficent in the way we build, and incorporate a lot of LEED principles in our design, although usually the religious community can’t afford to apply for LEED designation, which is very expensive. We use durable building materials that don’t decay quickly, extra insulation, and other sustainable measures.

Q: Your firm was founded in 1889 by Ralph Adams Cram. How does his work influence you?
A: Cram was one of the founders of the Boston Society of the Arts and Crafts, and his sense of high-quality material, groundness in tradition, and being a part of a long history of classic architecture is very much what I am interested in as well. When I joined the firm, I started going through all the archives – there are maybe a hundred thousand drawings in the Cram collection in the Boston Public Library. I spent many days going through these drawings, and looking at the details. It set a high standard for me to aspire to.

Q: How did you become interested architecture?
A: From the time I was a little kid, my mother taught me about carpentry and talked about architecture with me. She was very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and modernist architecture. The irony of my interest in traditional architecture is that I grew up in a very modernist house with a flat roof that was a bit ridiculed in our neighborhood.

Q: What will the church of the future look like?
A: Churches and spiritual life are very diverse and constantly changing. We continue to have a range of different solutions to that one question, “What is the best ‘home’?” People continue to fall on one side or another of this question, either modern or traditional. But even in traditional churches, you will see incorporation of technology, such as incorporating sound systems in the liturgy.

Q: Do you ever feel you were guided by divine inspiration when designing a church?
A: "Inspiration" is a critical part of every project. I often despair of finding a solution, then the answer arrives on its own. My best work is done on an airliner tray. Closer to God. I work even better in First Class!

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