A Holy "More"
Even today, as Trinity shares the confines of Boston's Copley Square with two more massive and imposing cousins - the skyscraping Hancock Tower and the neo-classical Boston Public Library - the building continues to draw over 100,000 visitors annually and make best-of lists year after year.
Why? The coherence and boldness of its design? Its fitness to its purpose? The quality of its execution? The breathtaking interior? The La Farge murals and stained glass? The sculptural, humanistic façade?
Of course. But there's more. "In Trinity Church today many find in the murals and windows, the arches and curves, and the soft, luminous interior light a sense of a holy 'More' at work in their lives," says former Rector Sam Lloyd. That "More" is an experience too often lost in the bustle of the self-driven everyday, and should not be overlooked in any formal study of Richardson's masterpiece.
Housing a Bold Spirit
It was, after all, not merely form, history, and purpose that guided Richardson, but his spirit - and a boisterous and bold one at that. For Richardson ultimately sought with his Trinity design to give architectural form to the spellbinding preaching of his friend, Trinity's Rector, Phillips Brooks - which, of itself, was something new, bold, fresh, and vital. So he scrapped his first sketches - which called for the longitudinal nave of three aisles with clerestory characteristic of cookie-cutter Gothic Revival Episcopal churches of the time - and sketched instead an unconventional Greek cross plan, with chancel, nave, and transepts of equal size grouped around a central square.
This new approach represented a radical departure not only for American ecclesiastical design, but suggested new methodologies as well. It presented an inclusive, open auditorium plan closer in spirit to the emerging needs of democratic contemporary American congregational practice, than to the hierarchical, conventional Episcopal designs and worship practices of the day.
Richardson's plan suited Brooks' style perfectly. For Brooks' parish was - and its legacy remains - a living church, in which every parishioner not just heard, but embodied the Word. The Greek cross and wide-open interior were perfect vehicles for that Word, as expressed through Brooks' commanding figure, shining eyes and resonant voice, where it radiated out from the absolute center of any service at which he presided. The Greek cross formed the embryo that would grow into the centralized hall that is the great open theater of Trinity's interior.
Open Design for Open Worship
Richardson's work was - and remains - truly original. While he named the eleventh century Romanesque churches of Central France as his inspiration, he called Trinity a "free rendering" of those sources.
The three-dimensional effect of its massive open interior, for example, bears no historical precedent. The centralized space seems to rise from the modified cruciform perimeter straight into the tower, one vast, coherent vessel - an unbroken cross reaching to heaven, an open, static, serene, massive pyramid of space and light.
But Richardson knew the "More" of worship required more than sheer volume. So he balanced this massive openness with personal moments of color, detail, and storytelling, intimate notes struck in the murals and stained glass designed by John La Farge. His work, too, sought the spiritual center of the congregation for guidance. It is said that Phillips Brooks, preaching from the pulpit near the chancel entrance, often looked for inspiration to La Farge's stunning tripartite Christ in Majesty windows, where the translucent figure rises resplendent against the western light flanked by lancets of voluptuous aquamarine.
On the exterior we are reminded by the quiet voice of Richardson's Massachusetts contemporary, Emily Dickinson, that "the outer - from the inner - derives its magnitude." Just as Brooks put liturgical necessities in the service of the sturdy, sure weight of Christ's good news, ornamental detail in Richardson's exterior got sacrificed to the sturdy lithic masses, round arched openings, the mass and void, and the color, texture, and scale typical of Romanesque concerns. Since the site was free-standing and the church thus would be seen in the round, Richardson employed these devices to full sculptural effect, inviting the subtle play of his restrained chromatic selection with the muscular quietude of his elemental forms.
Richardson lived just nine years after the dedication of the church, yet, with Trinity Church, he left an indelible mark on the history of American architecture. Even today, the Richardsonian Romanesque is called upon to recall the sturdy democratic American spirit in town halls, railroad stations, libraries, courthouses, and homes across the nation. But Richardson's design also established Trinity Church as an enduring center of Christian vitality in Boston, a house where all are welcome, all voices are heard, all hearts are open, and all desires made known to a loving, caring, sure-handed Creator.
Excerpted from James F. O'Gorman, The Makers of Trinity Church in the City of Boston (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). Copies are available in The Shop at Trinity and at fine booksellers nationwide.