The elegant classical chapel designed by the Andover, Mass., firm of Eric Inman Daum, Architect, earned a Bulfinch in the ecclesiastic category, and deservedly so. Too few buildings of any traditional character, and especially of principled classicism, are built even in New England, where you’d think the prejudice against historical styles would be weakest. In fact, new work in the traditional styles is most commonly found in the South.
Eric Daum’s Boch Chapel and Mausoleum, in Norwood, Mass., is not on, let us say, Tremont Street in Boston, or on the Common itself, so as to grab the greatest possible public attention. But aside from applauding Ernie Boch Jr., the auto magnate, musician and philanthropist, for his fine taste in buildings, the public should applaud his decision to encourage the sort of journalistic coverage of his project that most wealthy clients prefer to avoid. The chapel is on the grounds of his estate. Boch will have the enjoyment of it, perhaps second only to the future occupants of its crypt. Outside of the photos here and elsewhere, the public will rarely if ever lay eyes upon it. Too bad!
Daum won this year’s Bulfinch Award, handed out by the New England chapter (on whose board he sits) of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, in the ecclesiastic category. For the ornamental plaster work of the ceiling of the chapel’s dome, the firm of Foster Reeve won a Bulfinch in the artisanship/craftsmanship category.
In spite of its private location, the chapel is in its language public to the core. It is in the Greek-Revival style: “This robust and geometrically precise style,” writes Daum, “was seen to embody uniquely American virtues of honesty, integrity and directness, and was considered to be the first “national style.”
Honesty and directness shine forth from the chapel’s Doric temple form, but that does not mean a rejection of subtlety and nuance. It seems as if every facet of this building proclaims the rhetoric of precedent, at times with a twist. For example, in the building’s primary interior space, called the Great Room, its Doric columns “are a subtle nod to early 20th century Austrian architect Adolf Loos’s Villa Karma.” Loos wrote Ornament and Crime, which, as Daum points out, “served as a rallying cry of the Modernism Movement.
Yet his use of veined black marble Doric columns seems to belie his claim. The brightly veined green marble columns of the [Boch] Garden Pavilion make the statement that the beauty of classical ornament survives the Modern era.
It may be nearly impossible for any work of classical architecture to avoid commenting on modern architecture in some way. Daum’s inability to resist using the marble columns of the Great Room to make a point is much to his credit. Most observers will not know enough to grasp the point unless they read it in Daum’s description of the building. To explain the meaning of this or that architectural feature in any building may heighten appreciation of its beauty, but such esoteric explanations are not in the least necessary for an observer to feel its beauty. The beauty of the Boch temple speaks for itself and, without necessarily aiming to do so, and whether its architect agrees or not, the temple throws a shadow that puts every work of modern architecture into the shade.
There is in Daum’s description of the chapel a piling on of classical arcana that is almost as thrilling to an aficionado of classicism as the piling on of details in the temple itself. Here is an excellent example:
The entry porch of the Boch Garden Pavilion is a three-step crepidoma or stylobate upon which sit four 11′-0″ Greek Doric columns. The shafts were each turned from a single block of granite and are not fluted. The necking, a thin groove around the circumference of the shaft, separates the shaft from the capital above. The remnant above the shaft above the necking is fluted just beneath the echinus of the capital. The historic source of this combination of fluted and unfluted portions of the shaft is the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnus. The shafts at Rhamnus were uncompleted, but their incomplete form inspired 19th century copies.
A “three-step crepidoma or stylobate“? As they say, it’s Greek to me! But let me attempt a very brief definition. The first is a multilevel platform on which a building stands; the second means a continuous base supporting a row of columns. Got that? By the way, you can just catch that partial fluting highlighted in fading sunlight just under the capital of the leftmost column in the black-and-white photograph atop this post.
I find it compelling that ancient architects were inspired to turn incomplete form into a kind of official precedent for future work, whether during the Renaissance or during the Modern Era, as shown by Daum’s use in his temple of that ancient work-stoppage. Did the workers walk off the job at Rhamnus (in Attica, the region of ancient Greece where Athens was located) and leave off at a point where the fluting stopped at an equal distance down from the capital? Or did they leave it ragged and it was evened out by later architects inspired by the famously aborted column fluting, but seeking to reflect their admiration in a more symmetrical manner?
Here is another example:
The entry, through a pair of bronze doors set in a granite surround, leads to a vestibule. To the east and west are a closet and a small lavatory, ahead the granite doorway leading to the central Great Room. The jambs of these doors in the vestibule are sloped inward in the common Grecian motif recalling the Bronze Age Treasury of Atreus, or Tomb of Agamemnon. The lintel is heavy to suggest the weight it supports, and its ends project into the wall beyond.
Maybe Daum should have gone even further, making the lintel seem to groan under that weight, bending downward very slightly (it is granite, after all) toward the middle, like an old shelf bent under its load of books.
The Doric order used in the Boch temple, or chapel, is described minutely by Daum. He mentions how the columns “taper as they rise,” but does not use the word entasis, which is the word used for that taper. Throughout classical history, columns have more or less entasis – or none at all, straight up and down. Two explanations for entasis have come down to us (that I know of), one that it was used to offset the optical illusion of a taper on a column that is actually straight, so that an observer won’t notice the illusion; the other explanation, which I prefer, is that a column’s taper is the architect’s (or craftsman’s) way of expressing the stress of the weight the column carries, which causes it to bulge out like a muscle in a weightlifter’s arm.
This is one of the many reflections of nature and humanity at the essence of classical architecture. The Bulfinch jury should be commended for recognizing the excellence of this chapel’s design, and, again, Ernie Boch for having the boldness to have it designed in the classical mode.