Ralph Adams Cram was a renaissance man who believed the Renaissance was an unfortunate detour for western culture.
Cram designed great buildings in his lifetime in both the Gothic Revival and Art Deco styles. He was a talented essayist and an accomplished writer of horror stories. H.P. Lovecraft praised his story, ‘The Dead Valley,’ which appeared in a collection called ‘a classic of weird fiction.’
Cram led a complicated life. He was a high church Anglican who co-founded the Catholic periodical Commonweal. Though married – happily, by most accounts – to a wealthy Virginia woman, he spent summers at a homosexual monastery in Wales.
Once a household name, Ralph Adams Cram is pretty much forgotten today, unlike his contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright.
He was born on Dec. 16, 1863 in Hampton Falls, N.H., the son of the Rev. William Augustine, a Unitarian minister, and Sarah Elizabeth Cram.
He grew up during the Gilded Age, a time of stultifying, fussy Victorian art and architecture. Cram sought to return to the glories of the medieval age and to reinvent American church and college architecture.
After graduating from Exeter, he moved to Boston to study architecture for five years in the architectural firm of Rotch & Tilden. He then traveled to Rome to study classical architecture. On Christmas Eve at Midnight Mass he had a dramatic conversion experience. He turned away from his Unitarian roots and from then on practiced as an ardent Anglo-Catholic. Cram’s biographer, Douglas Shand-Tucci, wrote the Anglican church appealed to Cram because of its ‘grand liturgy, its ancient intellectual power, its splendid churches of every period, its virtual identity with English culture.’
In 1889, Ralph Adams Cram set up his firm at No. 1 Park Square in Boston; his first commission was remodeling a tenement house in Brighton. He and his partner, Charles Francis Wentworth, then decided to concentrate on churches. They won commissions for four churches: two in Boston neighborhoods, All Saints Church in Ashmont and Christ Church in Hyde Park,; the Swedenborgian Church in Newtonville, Mass., and St. Paul’s Church in Brockton, Mass.
In 1900, Cram married Elizabeth Carrington Read, the daughter of a Civil War captain. When he returned from his honeymoon in Italy he almost threw out an invitation to undertake his next project: a building campaign at West Point. From his success there he would go on to become the consulting architect at Princeton, Wheaton, Sweet Briar, Boston University, University of Richmond and Wellesley Colleges. He would also head the architecture department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Cram believed his style, dubbed ‘Collegiate Gothic,’ was the only one that expressed the educational ideals that Princeton and other universities inherited from medieval England.
Cram designed great buildings in his lifetime, including the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, Emmanuel Church in Newport, R.I., and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
His legacy can be found throughout the churches and colleges of the Northeast, especially at Princeton, Phillips Exeter Academy, St. George’s School, St. Paul’s School and Williams College.
He also designed distinctive Art Deco buildings, including the Federal building in Boston.
During the 1920s, he was a household name. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and the New York Times called him ‘one of the most prominent Episcopalian laymen in the country.’
Ralph Adams Cram died Sept. 22, 1942. The Episcopal Church honors him on Dec. 16 as a feast day.