The Old Cathedral, Eighty Years Later

Church of St. Louis of France, After 1933, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, HABS MO,96-SALU,1

Right on the eve of the demolition of the Levee for the new Gateway Arch grounds the Historic American Buildings Survey photographed the Old Cathedral’s exterior and interior. By then the Old Cathedral was surrounded by warehouses, and very few people actually lived anywhere near the first church in St. Louis (it is a myth that a large number of people were evicted for the clearance of the Arch Grounds–it was only about 100 residents according to research by National Park Service employees in the last decade). While I have a different lens than the photographers at the time, I went back earlier this month and attempted to recreate the views from the same vantage point as much as possible, post 1959-60 and 2013-14 renovations.

One thing that is noticeable is just how filthy the church was, coated with the dirty Southern Illinois bituminous coal dust burned for the previous century. It was cleaned off during the 1959-60 renovation, as the demolition of the old rectory on east side, and the old warehouse on the west side, revealed just how stained the rough hewn side walls of the Old Cathedral really were.

John Vachon, Old Cathedral, May 1940, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 001874-M4

The facade now looks cleans and in good condition, though of course since it was built before the development of St. Louis’s extensive railroad connections, only relatively soft local limestone could be used for construction. It has certainly deteriorated a bit, particularly in the details on the Doric column capitals in the portico.

The interior, however, has undergone dramatic changes in the two renovations of the last sixty years. Perhaps the most dramatic is the complete reconfiguration of the high altar, removing a reredos and replacing it with a Baroque crucifixion painting.

John Vachon, Priest Delivering Sermon, Old Cathedral, May 1940, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 001875-M2

This copy of the great Spanish painter Diego Velázquez is a break from the typical Roman Catholic church in St. Louis, which usually features a complex sculptural composition. The original painting by Velázquez, one of my favorite painters, is located in the Museo del Prado. The stark, frontal image of Christ on the Cross with an austere background and no other figures has a long pedigree in Italian art, where Velázquez studied. Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni and Federico Barocci pioneered this composition, and the Spaniard surely saw these influences.

The Joan of Arc statue has found another location elsewhere in the sanctuary, by the way (there’s a church in St. Louis for the saint, as well). One thing that is so important, and was corrected in the most recent renovation, is that while the Greek Revival was inspired by the art and architecture of Ancient Greece, it was not all white marble all the time! The Greek Revival celebrated bright colors, just like the ancient world did, not only because it looked good, but it showed off the wealth and prosperity of the patrons.

John Vachon, Celebration of Mass, Old Cathedral, May 1940, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 001875-M3

One feature the 1959-60 renovation discovered was the window above the high altar that was bricked over only a decade or two after the original construction of the Old Cathedral in 1834.

The eastern chapel, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, has strong eastern light, even with the adjacent buildings in 1940.

John Vachon, Old Cathedral, May 1940, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 001876-M1

Now its focus is on the patron of the church, St. Louis IX of France. A new Ombrellino has been put in place, signifying the Old Cathedral’s role as a minor basilica, replacing the old one which had faded.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. ME says:

    The original windows appear to have been stained glass. I guess they weren’t able to restore them? Although the current windows do compliment the simplistic beauty of the church.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      A Greek Revival (and most styles of architecture throughout Western Civilization) building would not have had stained glass in its windows. Stained glass developed during the Gothic era of architecture in the 12th through 16th centuries, and died out afterwards for the most part until the Gothic Revival in the early 19th Century. The stained glass in the Old Cathedral was added probably sometime in the mid to late 19th Century, and was removed as it was not stylistically accurate for the Greek Revival. The window mullions are also more akin to the Romanesque, and you can see they were moved in the renovations as well.

      1. ME says:

        Intresting. Thanks Chris!

  2. sonrie says:

    I loved seeing the old b/w photos compared with your current photos. I have not been in the Old Cathedral in several years, so not since the renovations have been completed. I really love the old style interiors of Catholic churches and wish that more have been retained (though the new look is also highly beautiful). I also sometimes wonder what it would have been like for the riverfront to have not been demolished and to have been mixed use housing and business/commercial/tourist like in other major cities. I think it would have been the heartbeat of our city.

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