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Historic All Saints Church in Dorchester receives much-needed make-over

Posted by Laura Gomez  April 15, 2013 01:44 PM

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Jared Bennett for Boston.com
Jeffrey Gonyeau shows one of the holes in the All Saints granite frame.

Built in 1892 by a young architect who would go on to be one of the prolific designers in America, the All Saints Church in Dorchester’s Peabody Square has heritage, and its character abounds.

The granite figure, which houses an Anglo-Catholic High Church Episcopalian Diocese, shows some of the hubris of its designer as well as what historic preservation consultant Jeffrey Gonyeau calls “well intentioned repairs” that have actually set the building back from its original splendor.

Gonyeau, who lives in Dorchester and is a member of the church’s men and boys choir, is heading a $2 million restoration project beginning this summer and ending in 2014. The work will involve removing and replacing every inch of grout in the building’s frame and repairing loose masonry work on the towers.

Inside, layers of paint will be chemically removed and heating and electrical systems will be brought up to date. Beyond cosmetic repairs, the project includes the installation of new bathrooms, handicap accessible entrances and a new elevator. To celebrate the church’s restoration, parishioners are working to establish the building as a National Historic Landmark.

Although All Saints imposing tower and Gothic style stand on their own, the building’s legacy grew with the legacy of its designer, Ralph Adams Cram.

Born in New Hampshire and working out of Boston, Cram rose from a draftsman without formal architectural education to one of the most prolific architects of his time. He accepted commissions to build the Cathedral of St John the Divine and Saint Thomas Church on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. His work and opinionated, public personality landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1926.

But before all that, Cram built the All Saint’s Church in Dorchester in the Gothic style that would define his career.

“People come and look at this building and they say, ‘Oh this just another one of those gothic churches,’” says Gonyeau. “No, this is the first one in this pure style.”

Colonel Oliver Peabody commissioned the church in 1892, and selected the young and as of yet unknown Cram to design it. The main portion, the nave, was built that year, with the powerful tower and many other additions, all designed by Cram, to come until 1929.

“What’s interesting is that he stayed with this church through his entire career, even after he had moved on to much bigger and grander things,” explains Gonyeau, “he was constantly tinkering with the All Saints Church.”

The points where later additions meet the original nave are sites of extensive water damage and the primary focus of restoration. But Gonyeau says the All Saint’s Church offers a rare chance to see a young master learning his craft, and making some mistakes along the way.

Original designs and early photographs show a large stained-glass window on the southern side, directly behind the altar. Parishioners soon found the sun pouring through the window blinding and patched the window. The church’s main pews extend into the outside pathway, which occasionally presents a challenge to the choir and service activities.

Gonyeau calls the area where the nave and newer additions meet the “M.C.Escher staircase,” three sets of stair which don’t quite line up.

“Even though he went on to be the Gothic revival guy in America for fifty years,” Gonyeau says, “this was the first time he actually tried to work these things out in a building that actually got built.”

Cram was known for his large personality, as well as his large buildings. In the church’s parish house, designed by Cram in 1902, church members asked him to install a stained glass window taken from the original building, which stood near present day Ashmont Station.

“Cram was kind of persnickety,” Gonyeau says, “and he thought his taste was better than everybody’s.” But he complied with the church’s demands and included the old window -- behind a closet door.

Because All Saints maintains a comprehensive record of Cram’s correspondence with church officials, Gonyeau says there “aren’t many blanks to fill.” The architect was a meticulous planner and somewhat of a control freak, down to designing the candle sticks the church uses to this day.

But Gonyeau says maintaining this style of building is a lost art. The interior arches of the main hall were painted over, covering the original red sandstone with a cream white. The paint not only suffers severe water damage, but Gonyeau says the material was a unique choice for Cram.

Gonyeau says the red sandstone, paired with the oak pews, original earth toned walls and red stained glass windows lining the hall all worked in concert to create a powerful red color scheme. “They had a pallet in mind,” Gonyeau says,” and it all worked together.”

The church is working to meet a $500,000 fundraising goal. The goal was set by an anonymous foundation which pledges to give $3 for each $1 the church raises for a grand total of $2 million for repairs. Timothy Van Dyck is co-chair of the capital campaign and says that amount is no small change, “especially since ours is primarily a working class parish.”

But Van Dyck, who has been a member for 12 years, says that goal is within reach. Parishioners have donated to the cause as well as outsiders who recognize the building’s significance.

“I can look people square in the eye and say this is an architectural gem that sits in Dorchester,” He says, “and also culturally a significant building for the community.”

Father Michael Godderz says the project started when a trustee from the foundation recognized the church’s need for restoration while touring with an architectural group. For Godderz, the foundation’s help harkens back to when the Peabodys bankrolled construction for the otherwise low-budget parish.

“In the church we would say it’s providential,” explains Godderz, “but other people might say serendipitous the way history is repeating itself.”

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