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Westminster Presbyterian Church displays Gothic influences
By Kathleen Ostrander

 

While Springfield area residents recognize Westminster Presbyterian Church by its imposing stone tower, the nation recognizes it as one of the creations of the premiere architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson of Boston.

Westminster, 533 S. Walnut St., was built in 1906, but the congregation traces its beginnings to 1853. About the time when the fourth location was ready to be built, congregation representatives decided to retain the Boston firm to design the church.

Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson had already made a name for itself in the design of several other churches, and the firm liked the English Gothic style. It had won a competition to design a chapel at West Point, and it impressed congregation members.

Gothic style emphases vertical lines and light, which is achieved at Westminster with high pointed arches. A mark of this type of architecture is also high towers and spires. Gothic churches in England were supposed to be the tallest and most imposing building in the area, hence the use of tall outside spires and pinnacles.

Walking into the church, a visitor is immediately struck by the feeling of a power within. But because the walls are painted a light sand color, it is a warm enveloping type of power, not menacing or oppressive. It gives an aura of the presence of a greater power watching over the congregants.

Arches are used to move the eye to the top of a building, and in churches they are used to move eyes to the heavens. In Gothic architecture the theme repeats over and over, and Westminster is no exception.

There are ribbed arches across the ceiling, arched entrances to the side aisles and arches on the ceiling above the aisles. The beautiful stained glass windows, which pour prisms of light in throughout the church proper, have arched tops and outside entrances are framed with arches.

The stained glass windows have no tracery, or ornamental stonework “supporting” the top of the glass. Tracery is a usual element in Gothic architecture. At Westminster the lack of tracery makes the windows seem all the more impressive. The idea of not adding tracery to make the windows stand out and be more imposing was taken from the design of Whitby Abbey.

The large window in the chancel is a transfiguration window designed by Harry Goodhue, the brother of one of the architects. The window was done in the studio of Reynolds, Francis and Ronstock in, of course, Boston. It is an adaptation of a Bellini painting that one of the architects had seen in Italy.

Transfiguration windows depict Jesus taking Simon Peter, James and John to a mountain top and God informing them that Jesus is his son. Jesus is transfigured with light and in the Westminster window, he seems to glow. The colors in the center window are set up to give a prism effect, and light flows from both sides of the center window to bathe the two side windows in light.

Much care was taken by early congregation members to get specific windows depicting specific scenes, explained Dale Rogers, director of music and art for Westminster.

Congregation members who purchased the windows for the church sent likenesses of their relatives to the studios and facsimiles of their faces were incorporated into the central figures of the windows. The newer windows have a harlequin, or diamond, pattern on the bottom and the ceiling in the newer parish hall mimics the pattern. Although it wouldn’t necessarily have to — one of the marks of Gothic architecture is numerous additions all with different styles. Care was taken to preserve areas where light came in when additions were built onto the original church site, Rogers said.

There is a plethora of interesting architectural and interior design twists throughout the church and the property.

The memorial garden outside of the church was added later and it features a stone Celtic cross of traditional knot work designs. The carved stalls in the chancel, with cushions needlepointed by congregation members, were gifts from Robert Todd Lincoln.

The light fixtures were converted from gas to electric, and Rogers said some of the original fixtures were in the church basement. The ornate outside door pulls and hinges are from one of the church’s original locations.

History, beauty and a solid foundation — Westminster Presbyterian has it all.

 

Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )

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