The Sacred Modernist: Marcel Breuer and the Design for Saint John’s Abbey Church

A Lecture and Book Signing by Victoria M. Young, PhD
January 27

In the 1950s the brethren at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota—the largest Benedictine abbey in the world—decided to expand their campus, including building a new church. From a who’s who of architectural stars—such as Walter Gropius, Richard Neutra, Pietro Belluschi, Barry Byrne, and Eero Saarinen—the Benedictines chose a former member of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer. In collaboration with the monks, this untested religious designer produced a work of modern sculptural concrete architecture that re-envisioned what a church could be and set a worldwide standard for midcentury religious design.

Dr. Young documents in her presentation the dialogue of the design process, as Breuer instructed the monks about architecture and they in turn guided him and his associates in the construction of a sacred space in the crucial years of liturgical reform. A reading of letters, drawings, and other archival materials shows how these conversations gave shape to design elements from the church’s floor plan to the liturgical furnishings, art, and incomparable stained glass installed within it. The post–World War II years were critical in the development of religious and architectural experiences in the United States—experiences that came together in the construction of Saint John’s Abbey and University Church. Using the liturgy of the mid-twentieth century as a cornerstone for understanding the architecture produced to support it, Young’s new book, Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space, showcases the importance of modernism in the design of sacred space and of Marcel Breuer’s role in setting the standard.  

Victoria M. Young is professor of modern architectural history and chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work is featured in Casabella and Saint John’s at 150: A Portrait of This Place Called Collegeville, and she is curator of the exhibition permanently installed in Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House, part of UST’s art holdings. She serves on the State Review Board for Minnesota as well as the Governor’s Residence Council, and is a former president of the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. She currently is the national Society of Architectural Historian’s Chapters liaison.

A Members-Only Curator Tour of “The Architectural Image, 1920-1950,” National Building Museum

March 7

Between 1920 and 1950, architecture changed more profoundly and more rapidly than during any similar timespan in history. At the beginning of the period, neoclassicism—as promoted by the centuries-old École des Beaux Arts in Paris—still dominated in the U.S. and much of Europe. But the newly established Bauhaus school in Germany, advocating for functional design free of unnecessary ornament, challenged that tradition. By the end of the period, International Style modernism, which was largely based on Bauhaus principles, was by far the predominant force in architectural education and practice.

Prominent artists documented these changing tastes, theories, and obsessions, finding architecture and construction compelling subject matter. Some of these artists saw beauty in the inherent geometries of buildings, which they crisply captured via woodcuts or similar high-contrast media. Some celebrated the workers who built soaring skyscrapers or who toiled in modern factories. Others were fascinated by the burgeoning skylines and great works of infrastructure that distinguished the modern metropolis.

This exhibition presents 70 prints, original drawings, and paintings from the period, all drawn from a single private collection in Washington, D.C. Included are works by such noteworthy printmakers as Howard Cook, Louis Lozowick, and Charles Turzak. Collectively, these works not only shed light on the dramatic emergence of modernism, but also reveal a certain optimistic spirit that persisted despite the political, economic, and social upheaval of the era. By virtue of their bold patterns, intriguing perspectives, and masterful execution, these images invite the viewer into the captivating realm that lies at the intersection of art and architecture.

Tour of the exhibit led by G. Martin Moeller, Jr., Senior Curator at the National Building Museum.

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March 21-22

11th Biennial Symposium of the Historic Development of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
Co-Sponsored by the D.C. Preservation League and The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

One of the first significant apprentices of Frank Lloyd Wright, Barry Byrne (1883–1967) was a radical architect who sought basic principles as fervently as his mentor Wright and his inspiration Louis Sullivan. From these roots he developed a design philosophy that began with the function of the building. He followed Wright's principles but forged an individual style more reminiscent of Sullivan and Irving Gill, with taut planar skins enveloping modern space plans. In 1922 he designed the first modern Catholic church building, St. Thomas the Apostle in Chicago, and in 1924 he traveled to Europe where he met Mies, Mendelsohn, Oud, and other modernist architects. He was the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe, designing the concrete Church of Christ the King, built in 1928–31 in Cork, Ireland.

Dr. Michael charts the entire length of Byrne's work, highlighting its distinctive features while discussing the cultural conditions that kept Byrne in the shadows of his more famous contemporaries. Byrne lacked the architectural ego of his mentor Wright and believed true architecture was intrinsically humble, concentrating for much of his career on Catholic churches and schools throughout North America, many of them now considered landmarks. A dedicated modernist who rejected historical mannerisms and celebrated contemporary materials and processes, he was also a devoted Catholic, progressively participating in the liturgical reform movement from the 1920s until his death. In his practice his modernism and Catholicism came together, revolutionizing the ground plans of Catholic churches in anticipation of the reforms of Vatican II forty years later.

Vincent L. Michael is Senior Director of the Global Heritage Fund in Palo Alto, California, the John H. Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe

A Lecture and Book Signing by Vincent L. Michael, PhD
June 11

The Second Empire style has come to epitomize Victorian architecture, and often in a negative setting.  Everyone from Charles Addams to Alfred Hitchcock has worked to cement the image of a house with a mansard roof representing age, decay, and obsolescence, if not murder and mayhem.  Yet this style (as historians have defined it) was extraordinarily popular in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.  Architects and taste-makers generally despaired at its universal popularity for all classes of society and all types of buildings (except churches).  Yet the public was infatuated.

Why was this style so popular and why did it lose popularity?  A common assumption that it found favor is that there was a widespread infatuation with France during the Second Empire.  While there is truth in that, especially for the grand public buildings, it does not fully explain the popularity of the “French roof” from Maine to California.  Its popularity grew during and shortly after the Civil War, well before many of the iconic buildings such as the State, War, and Navy Building in Washington and the Philadelphia City Hall were under construction. 

This lecture is national in scope and based upon an investigation of the extensive listings in the National Register of Historic Places.  It will look at the origins of the style in America and explore the spread of its popularity across the country.  Many sources for the spread of its popularity are investigated, including literary journals, early architectural journals, style books, agricultural journals, and pattern books.   By 1870, and during the decade that followed, the Second Empire style was arguably the most popular architectural style in America.  It demise, unlamented by most architects, rapidly followed despite the continued use of the “French roof” is ways no longer recognizable to the country of its origin.

Roger G. Reed is an historian for the National Register and National Historic Landmark Programs.  He is the author of Building Victorian Boston, The Architecture of Gridley J. F. Bryant.

French Roof Mania: The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire Style in America

Lecture by Roger G. Reed
September 30

Described from the outset as Levitt and Sons’ “most de luxe venture,” Belair at Bowie, Maryland (1960‐70), grew out of more than a decade’s experience in mass housing design, construction, and marketing by a firm whose name and identity was synonymous with postwar residential construction.

For the company, which started in 1958 at Levittown (later Willingboro), New Jersey, Belair provided their initial product and marketing redirection away from what had previously been a largely working‐class base. With ground broken two years later at Belair, Levitt and Sons made the final turn from minimum houses created mainly for the middle‐income working class to those designed expressly for middle‐class consumption.

The Latrobe Chapter will visit this significant development with Jamie Jacobs, author of the recently published Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia. The 2‐2 ½ hour tour will allow members to experience first‐hand the significant architecture and landscape of Belair at Bowie, Maryland.

members‐only study tour of Belair at Bowie, Maryland

October 3

Spanish mission churches are venerable icons of the American Southwest, with popular culture widely appropriating their images for revival architectural styles, western film sets, and even the branding of fast food.  The oldest surviving missions of the United States stand among the Pueblo Indian towns and ruins of New Mexico, where Franciscan friars arrived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  Although the Spanish instigated these constructions, it was Pueblo laborers who built them and provided labor necessary to keep them operational.  Native Americans worked and often lived alongside friars in mission residences known as conventos, resulting in culturally mixed communities in which negotiation, exchange, and resistance were part of everyday life.  Despite almost a century of research, however, historians remain uncertain about the degree of Indigenous contribution to these structures and reception of the missions’ ideological programing.

This talk considers the significance of New Mexico’s mission architecture through the lens of the two particular examples among the Zuni Indians.  The missions at Hawikku and Halona Pueblos were both established in 1629, and built according to a single architectural design.  Archaeological excavations of their conventos provide glimpses into the mission community’s everyday practices in contrast to the rhetorical objectives that New Mexico’s Franciscans encoded in their designs and writings.  Employing an interdisciplinary approach that draws on archaeology, anthropology, and primary sources to consider the meaning of the convento as a design and series of architectural spaces, Mr. Ericson approaches mission architecture in a new way by focusing on everyday life and the role of community members in constructing its meaning.

Klint Ericson is a Ph. D. Candidate in Art History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  Since 2013, he has been a Peter Buck Research Fellow at Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, conducting dissertation research among the collections of the NMNH and the National Museum of the American Indian. 

In the Celestial City and the Middle Place: Architectural Form and Everyday Life in Seventeenth-Century Zuni Missions

Lecture by Klint Ericson
December 1