Grotesque Romanesque

Almost all architecture, from Ancient times until seventy-five years ago, rewarded the observer who looked up. Interesting, often delightful details await there.  Our earliest skyscrapers often had decoration of a scale that could only be clearly observed with magnification from the ground or from a nearby high vantage point.

Shadyside Presbyterian offers many interesting features above, among them our “grotesques.” They exist at two levels on the lantern tower, below and above the clerestory windows.  In general, a grotesque is a fanciful carving of a face, animal or vegetation.  The earliest date from the Classical period, where, in addition to a decorative function, they may have served to ward off evil spirits.  The name has Latin roots, associated with decoration of caves or grottoes.

Rows of grotesque corbels above and below clerestory window

Medieval sculptors were often afforded freedom in the form of decoration they applied to monumental structures. The resulting carvings sometimes had symbolic significance and sometimes were caricatures of acquaintances.

Shadyside is an example of Romanesque Revival architecture (specifically the Richardsonian phase). While such structures drew many forms and features from buildings of  Western Europe of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, their conception was not slavishly archeological.  Although the cross-shaped, central tower form of Shadyside has many Romanesque (and pre-Romanesque) precedents, the large stained glass windows in the transepts would have been unusual in these sources.


How, then, do our grotesques match up against Romanesque examples? First, while their form is a grotesque carving, their (nominal) function is as a corbel – a block-like support for a wall surface that projects beyond the surface below.  We find many Romanesque examples with the same form and function.  An examination of ours, however, reveals differences with Romanesque precedents.

Grotesque corbels at Kilpeck Church (c. 1140) Herefordshire, England

Photos by Sacred Destinations Travel Guide

Our grotesque faces are highly modeled and are more realistic looking than most Romanesque carving. To the modern eye, sculpture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries looks abstract, simplified and perhaps exaggerated.  In some cases, they seem delightfully cartoonish.  In fact the relatively refined appearance of our grotesque faces would seem more at home in Gothic sculpture.


Left: Gothic Carving at Chartres Cathedral, France Right:  Shadyside

Photo on left by Sacred Destinations

The eclecticism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cheerfully allowed such apparent anachronisms.  The level of detail on foliate and interlace patterns does not seem much different, however, than period examples.

Richardsonian Romanesque carving in Toronto, Canada, Upper row similar to Shadyside’s, lower row more like Romanesque period carving.

Photo by Richard Warriner

Shadyside Church is not alone among Richardsonian buildings in this respect.  Grotesques of similar styling appear on the designs of H. H. Richardson and his followers.  And, while these carvings may seem to have a Gothic origin, they are not to be confused with Gothic gargoyles, which, by their strictest definition, are used as water spouts.


Gothic gargoyle, Bern, Switzerland and Romanesque corbel, Herefordshire, England

Photos by Sacred Destinations

No pattern seems to emerge in the design or arrangement of Shadyside’s faces. Their expressions range from pensive to grim to…well, grotesque.

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Stones of Shadyside

Sandstone. It doesn’t sound very durable.  Certainly, stone made from sand doesn’t seem like a material for a church that is expected to survive centuries.  But, there it is in the 1889 proposal specifications to Shadyside Presbyterian from the architect, Shepley Rutan & Coolidge: Beaver  County sandstone.

However, some of the applications for this variety of sandstone speak of its durability – government buildings, streets and many bridge piers around Pittsburgh use the stone.  Advertisements have been found for homes built of recycled Beaver County sandstone bridge piers.  There is a range of sandstone types of differing durability.  Some weather quickly.  Other types stand up well to the elements.  In general, sandstone is more easily carved than many kinds of rock.  In some technical texts,  Beaver County sandstone is known as Homewood sandstone, for the borough in the county where it is very abundant.

Stone color of original building & crispness of carved detail retained from 1890

In 1891, the US Geological Survey published this description of Homewood sandstone:

“While usually quite hard, it generally splits well and makes excellent building stone, the blocks from it being almost indestructible. Although generally of a yellowish or buffish gray tinge, it occasionally consists of almost pure white quartz grains, and hence sometimes supplies glass sand of excellent quality.”

Chapel 1892

At the time of the church’s construction, there were a number of active sandstone quarries in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. We have not discovered from which quarry the stone was obtained. There were two well-established quarries operated by the Park family at Crowe’s Run, near  Conway and at New Galilee in Beaver County, starting in the early 1880s. The original main church building and the chapel (completed in 1890 and 1892, respectively) employed stone of a color that might be called “buff” or “putty.”

Quarry-faced random ashlar

The church walls are laid up in random, quarry-faced ashlar. Ashlar is stone that has been squared and smoothed to ease laying. Quarry-faced indicates that the exposed surface is left rough, giving texture and shadowing/reflecting facets that add interest to a simple and monumental mass. Random signifies that rectangular blocks of various sizes are used, so that  no regular pattern results.

Smooth-faced ashlar water table

Uniform-sized, smooth-faced ashlar is used in some locations, such as the water table. This the transitional section between the main wall and the foundation, which slopes outward from top to bottom. The original function was to direct rain water washing down the wall away from the foundation, to avoid erosion. It is also a pleasing, subtle design feature, imparting an appearance of stability to the building.

Recent construction showing falsework supports of voissoirs in arch

Shadyside Church’s Romanesque Revival style employs round arches at many door and window openings. Special wedge shaped blocks form the round arches as well as the segmental arches at the cloister and  new Westminster  entrance portico. These blocks are known as “voissoirs.” We saw that the ancient construction device of “falsework” was used on the portico. Wooden frames support the voissoirs until the arch is completed.

Gray & rust-color stone (enclosed in box) mixed with original putty color stone replacing window in 1937

Since the dedication of the Chapel, Shadyside has undertaken five significant building campaigns. The first one extended the Chapel to the north in 1908. The stone work was matched well enough to the original that little evidence remains. Subsequent building projects presented difficulties in stone selection, resulting from the progressive soot-darkening of Pittsburgh’s industrial atmosphere.

Juncture of 1937 office wing with 1892 Chapel showing color change

Stone colors distinctly different from the original “putty” were used in the 1937-38 project. A round apse was added to the east wall of the sanctuary building. An office wing was built from the northeastern corner of the main building to the chapel, creating the courtyard which recently has been transformed into the Sharp Atrium. At the same time, windows were in-filled adjacent to the new apse and at the Pastor’s Study.

The new stone was of gray color and some of it contained rust -colored veins, both subtle and pronounced. In the apse and window work, these were mixed with stones from the original wall. This original stone must have already been gray or black with soot. (See photo at bottom of page) It is not clear what visual effect this mixture would have produced. On the office wing, mainly the new gray & shades of rust-color stones were used.

1963 photo of Pastor’s Study showing progressive darkening of 1890 stone & 1937 infill

The mixing is apparent in a black and white photo from the 1960s. By this time, the 1937 stone work used to fill in windows had acquired some soot, although the skies were becoming cleaner. In the 1990s, the church stonework was chemically cleaned. Remarkably, after cleaning, the mixed stone sections blended well enough with the original walls that they were forgotten until they were noticed during construction of the Atrium.

Stone color 1953 Parish Hall

The Parish Hall was the next major addition, in the early 1950s. The mainly gray stonework includes of the rust hues. Perhaps the 1937-38 specifications were available and matched. In any case, this wing blends well with the rest of the complex, including the fields of solid putty color of the main building.

Juncture of 1982 Scharfe Wing with original building

The early 1980s “North Porch” addition (the Scharfe Wing which encloses the Craig Room) must have presented special problems. Today, after cleaning has restored the original 1890 stone surface, the North Porch stands out because of its distinct monochromatic gray hue, contrasting with the putty color. People familiar with the construction of that addition recall that the stone was obtained “from the same quarry.” Perhaps that refers to the 1937 quarry from which the gray stone was taken. Because the church was nearly black by the 1980s, it may have been decided that only gray and none of the rust would be used on the extension for a better match. More research is needed to uncover whatever information is still available from all the additions, starting in 1937.

Sample stone panel from 2010 near Chapel

Although the cleaned surfaces eased the problem, a daunting and important task faced those charged with producing stone for the “Building Community” construction project.   The church’s Building Committee was very sensitive to preserving and honoring the original fabric of the historic structure.  They undertook, with  Celli-Flynn Brennan Architects and  Volpatt Construction of Pittsburgh to match the existing stonework.  We have seen that there was a wide variety of material to match.

Brick inner wall construction used in 1890 & 1937 seen at the Apse

M I Friday Mason Contractor of Pittsburgh and  Russell Stone Products of Grampian in Clearfield County,  Pennsylvania, were engaged to supply the stonework.  Russell Stone operates quarries in what is known as “Curwensville Stone” which includes Homewood sandstone.  Several large sample panels of stone were fabricated and brought to the church for evaluation of the match to adjacent walls under varying conditions of lighting and moisture.  The success of the ultimate selection is apparent and the masonry will doubtless weather to an even closer match.

Concrete block & stone construction at Westminster entrance 2010

In addition to the slight variation in stone, changes in building methods are detectible in Shadyside Church’s latest additions. In the original buildings, brick inner walls were used with the stone exterior.  This is visible in the view of the 1937 apse, where it was opened for the Atrium beam support.  Today, the interior construction is thicker concrete block.  As can be seen in the photo of the Westminster entrance during construction, thinner stone sections were used.  Even after completion, this fact is expressed at corners where the reduced stone thickness is apparent.

2010 Westminster entrance portico against 1892 Chapel

For all the emphasis here on matching stone, exact duplication is neither a requirement or necessarily desirable. Certainly, some cathedral building campaigns spanned several centuries.  Not only material, but construction techniques and even architectural style changed, and this can be discerned by the careful observer.  Construction sympathetic to existing structures and honesty in expression of building technique are desirable goals.  It is also helpful to maintain consistent stone sizes, surface texture and lay-up pattern.  We are fortunate that many generations at Shadyside Church have had the means and the wisdom to add to our historic church building in a harmonious way.

Progressive darkening of exterior walls due to soot followed by chemical cleaning (L-R) 1890, ca 1905, ca 1920, 1963, 2006

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…A Cathedral to a Chicken Coop

Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Station, Coraopolis

Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge 1895

“I will plan anything a man wants from a cathedral to a chicken coop.” Henry Hobson Richardson revealed to a client what his portfolio confirmed: a broad range of buildings including churches, civic and institutional buildings, offices, town homes, country homes, libraries and railroad stations.  Neither did his successors, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, limit their scope.  And although they built only three structures in  Pittsburgh  , the variety is great:  Freemasons’ Hall Downtown (not extant), Shadyside Presbyterian Church and the P&LE rail station in Coraopolis.  Work is underway to preserve and reuse this valuable community asset by Coraopolis Train Station Project.

Old Colony Railroad Station, North Easton, MA

H. Richardson 1881-1884

It is a sign of Richardson’s genius that he is famous for his rail stations, when the first commission entered his office in 1881, just five years before his death.  Commuter rail stations were one of the most important building types in the late nineteenth century.  The railroads courted regular travelers from new suburbs with practical shelter, comfortable and handsome surroundings and, in many instances, elaborate landscaping.  The term commuter stems from the practice of discounting fares for frequent patrons:  their ticket prices were “commuted” to a lower rate.

Port Cochere, North Easton Station, Landscaping by Frederick Law Olmstead

Pittsburgh ’s pattern of residential building moved from the downtown area, to Allegheny  City (the North Side), to the East End and finally down the  Ohio River.  Summer homes were built in Sewickley, eventually used year-round.  The Pittsburgh & Lake Erie line had service on the opposite side of the  Ohio that reached to Youngstown.  They commissioned Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge to design an attractive station at Coraopolis in 1895, five years after Shadyside  Church. (The firm designed three stations for P&LE.)

Towers at Coraopolis Station & Shadyside Presbyterian Church

Richardson and his contemporaries pioneered the use of broad, low, hip-roofed structures, usually with long covered waiting areas at trackside. Often, the stationmaster needed visibility up and down the tracks.  This was provided two ways:  a bumped-out bay with observation windows or a tower.  Coraopolis employed both.  The lower tower formed the bump-out and, as early photos show bricked-in upper windows, whether it was used for observation is uncertain.  The tower is a quotation from Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge’s Shadyside Presbyterian lantern.  The proportions, round-arch windows with stone voissoirs, sharply incised square windows and “sprung” slate roof are immediately familiar to those who know the church.  (A sprung roof has an outward curvature or shallower slope at the lower edge.)

The station displays an unusual masonry treatment. An ample brown-tan sandstone water table is “battered”, enhancing the organic grounded sense of the structure.  The main walls are brick, but of unusual proportion.  They are Roman bricks which measure 2” x 4” x 12” in contrast to common brick at 2” x 4” x 8.”  Red mortar offsets the buff-colored brick.  Windows and door arches (round and flat) are sandstone.  The arches and stringcourses match the water table stone.  The polychromy of the Coraopolis station distinguishes it from the firm’s other  Pittsburgh  buildings.

Roman Brick with Red Mortar

The installation emphasized convenience and shelter with a port-cochere extending from the street side of the building. This feature has an Arts-and-Crafts feel, with the sloping water table section of the columns and extended, embellished wood rafters.  Tudor references emerge in the flat pointed arches and half timbered gable.

Port Cochere at Coraopolis Station

Polychromy continues on the broad hip roof, with red cap tiles at the ridge of the gray-black slate planes. The tower sprung roof is echoed here in the broad overhang covering the walkways.  Further picturesque roof touches include an eyebrow window, deftly executed in slate, to admit light to the interior.  The skills imparted by  Richardson  to his successors find expression in a building that does not feel frenetic, even though it has so many architectural features packed into its small size.

Exploration of the station interior awaits a time when the sadly deteriorated building can be re-opened. After retiring from commuter service, it was used for storage and warehousing.  The Coraooplis Community Development Foundation has acquired the structure, which the National Register for Historic Places lists.  Plans are to return it to a community asset on a par with its life as a rail station.  Renovation is to accommodate a café, museum and community center.

1918 Photo – Trackside Waiting Area Enclosed

And so, as Richardsonian Romanesque architecture suited a wide variety of building types, individual structures are used and adaptively re-used creatively. There are, however, no plans to designate any space as a chicken coop.

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Transfiguration Mosaic Symbolism

Ask a first-time visitor to Shadyside about the biggest surprise in our worship space, and the response likely will be our mosaic of the Transfigured Christ.  Many are taken with its sheer beauty.   Some think it unusual for a Presbyterian church.  A few express concern about an image of Christ in a church squarely in the Reformed tradition. These same would probably mention the prevalent use of explicit symbolism throughout the nave and chancel.

The use of symbols and images in worship is commended by their teaching (or, perhaps, reminding) value.  Those who express concern might do so because of the temptation to worship the image or symbol – idolatry in its rudimentary form.  The planners of the 1937 sanctuary remodeling showed confidence in the maturity of worshippers here to learn and be inspired, rather than to fall into adoration of objects.

Close inspection of German artist Rudolph Scheffler’s tilework reveals many instructive symbols.  Those at Shadyside who have studied the mosaic conclude that Christ is depicted at the Transfiguration.  An Ascendant Christ is not believed to be the subject, since there are no wounds of the Crucifixion seen on his hands and feet. The stunning beauty itself point to  the Transfiguration story, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”   The halo-like object is called a nimbus, traditionally indicating holiness.  This one has three rays within it, a tri-radiant nimbus, reserved exclusively for the Triune God.  In fact, within each ray of the nimbus, there is an oval surrounded by four circles. There is a reference to a jeweled nimbus in Church Symbolism by F R Weber and Ralph Adams Cram.  Like a jeweled crown, this represents the highest majesty and therefore is used only in connection with the Deity.  Having thus identified Jesus, Scheffler depicts his hands in the gesture of blessing.

The Gospel accounts tell of a surrounding cloud, from which the Father spoke.  In the mosaic, the cloud rolls back into ten “cloudlets,” recalling the Ten Commandments, the Law. Moses was at the Transfiguration, representing the Law.  If this reading is correct, by a principle of parallelism, we should find reference to the Prophets through Elijah, also present at the Transfiguration. A common symbol for Elijah is a red vestment, an allusion to his ascent to Heaven of a fiery chariot. Does Scheffler suggest Eliljah by giving a reddish cast to the cloak Jesus wears?

Twelve stars array around Jesus, a number with many associations (the apostles, the tribes of Israel, the Minor Prophets).  It can certainly symbolize the disciples, three of whom were with Jesus on the mountain.  Doubtless, this does not exhaust the mosaic’s symbolism.  The Byzantine inspiration of the mosaic is coherent with our architecture. Rome and Byzantium were primary influences on the Romanesque.

Perhaps the composition as a whole should remind us of two divine benedictions at the Transfiguration:  The Father’s loving instruction, “This is my Son, whom I love…Listen to him!” The Son’s pastoral encouragement, “Get up…Don’t be afraid.”

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