Monday, December 09, 2013

Stained glass and pipe dreams at St. Paul's

An interesting piece of trivia about the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Des Moines --- where Fred was ordained a deacon Saturday --- is the fact it's a clerical-collar-wearing first-cousin of the Lucas County Courthouse.

The Des Moines-based architectural firm of (William) Foster & (Henry F.) Liebbe designed St. Paul's during 1885 in the Gothic Revival style. Eight years later, during 1893, that firm designed the Lucas County Courthouse in Romanesque Revival. Those guys were nothing if not trendy and both buildings have held up well.

But the cathedral's neighborhood, sadly, is not what it once was --- now acres of echoing concrete and towering high-rises, including the Principal Financial Group tower, Iowa's tallest building, immediately to the southwest.

This old photo (via Drake University's Cowles Library) gives an idea what the neighborhood looked like near the turn of the 20th century, when the area was known to some as Church Hill. That's St. Paul's on the far left and the dome of First United Methodist is almost visible atop the hill to the right of what now is Iowa Methodist Medical Center (right click and open in a new window for a better view).

In the center foreground is First Baptist Church, which by the time it fled downtown during 1990 was housed in a1940s structure that looked like a bus terminal run amok. The old Central Presbyterian Church, long gone, is clad in scaffolding here. In the background are earlier incarnations of Central Christian, Plymouth Congregational and another church, all of which have long since moved to greener pastures.

Just out of the photo to the right would have been two other great old downtown churches, the Cathedral Church of St. Ambrose and, to its north, St. John's Lutheran. Bless their hearts for hanging on; both still are there.

A few odd things happened to St. Paul's as Des Moines paved this great old neighborhood. As the landscape was rearranged by heavy equipment, High Street --- which runs in front of the church --- was lowered, as was Ninth Street, on the west side of the church. If it weren't for retaining walls, those adventures in excavation would have left the church basement fully exposed.

That's evident here, where the chapel entrance is at ground level and the main entrance, up a long flight of steps above it. There's also an entrance under the tower to the west and those lucky enough to find a parking spot in the Cathedral parking lot usually come in the office entrance and meander down a long hallway in order to reach the narthex.

The whole arrangement is adaptive and a little quirky, so guests unfamiliar with the cathedral sometimes have trouble figuring out how to get inside and once there, have trouble finding the right exit, too.


St. Paul's did not start life as a cathedral but rather as the oldest (established 1854) and largest of Des Moines' Episcopal churches --- the mother of St. Andrew's, St. Luke's, St. Mark's and, in West Des Moines, St. Timothy's.

The seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa was established in Davenport during 1853. Construction of Grace Cathedral (now Trinity Cathedral, left) commenced there in 1867 and concluded in 1873 --- making it the second building in the United States constructed specifically as a  Episcopal cathedral.  Had it not taken quite so long to build, Iowa might have edged the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour in Faribault, Minn., consecrated in 1869.

By about 1950 it became evident that a cathedral on the Mississippi was not serving adequately a diocese that stretched to the Missouri. So the bishop and diocesan headquarters relocated to Des Moines. St. Paul's was elevated to cathredral status in 1992 and named the liturgical center of the Diocese of Iowa, although Trinity remains the historical cathedral.


The Des Moines building has undergone a number of changes, of course, since 1885. The bell tower's spire originally soared and was built of wood. It was destroyed in a 1930s storm. The tower was reworked in the 1960s and strengthened again when a 25-bell carillon was installed. Those bells continue to ring out over downtown on the quarter hour.

Proudfoot, Bird & Rawson designed the 1952 Parish House that now fills the east portion of the church lot and contains offices, classrooms, the Guild Hall and chapel. It wraps around a two-story courtyard that manages to be very pleasant and also helps to make the cathedral undercroft, where social hall and kitchens are located, very pleasant.

More recently, the rather soul-less parking lot that filled the remainder of the block north of the cathedral was ripped up and replaced with a smaller parking area with permeable pavers, surrounded by a rain garden and prayer labyrinth.


The cathedral chancel is in the form of an apse, reworked to enlarge the amount of space available for liturgical purposes and a much larger pipe organ after the building was elevated to cathedral status. This works well here, because the church is tall. Trinity Church in Ottumwa is similar in several ways to St. Paul's, but lower, so the apse there can seem a little squashed.

I'm really fond of St. Paul's stained glass, first because it's so well done but also because of its variety. For those fond of stained glass, moving from window to window is like moving from chapter to chapter in a book.

Memorial windows along the east wall of the nave strongly express the Aesthetic movement and light flows easily through them.

The west windows tend to be more complex and heavier. This window, for example, memorializes Kate Foster Parsons, who died at age 20 in 1883. The figure represents St. Catherine of Alexandria.

The wonderful rose window high in the south wall of the nave, also an Aesthetic Movement expression, was given by Hoyt Sherman (builder of Hoyt Sherman Place and namesake of the Sherman Hill district) in memory of an infant daughter who died in 1867.

This window barely missed destruction when an anti-war bomb blast during the early morning of June 13, 1970, rocked the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce building, then a block east along High Street. Windows in the narthex below it, extending toward High Street, were destroyed and this great window, damaged. Restored and enhanced, it inevitably causes everyone leaving the nave to look up before exiting.

The great Casavant Freres pipe organ is the princpal musical instrument of the cathedral. Initial installation occurred during 1993 and it was completed in two phases, one in 1997 and the other during 2009. It is one of Iowa's finest instrument, used both for liturgical purposes and frequent recitals.

Divisions at both the front and rear of the nave (note giant oak pipes encased in towers flanking the entrance) can make it seem as if you're seated inside the instrument, which really cool if you appreciate organ music.

Anyone in Des Moines during Advent is welcome to stop at the cathedral at 12:45 p.m. on Wednesdays, Dec. 12 and 19, for "brown bag" (feel free to bring along a sack lunch) recitals. It also will be featured during the cathedral's Festival of Nine Lessons Carols at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15; and a half-hour organ prelude will begin at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve, prior to the 10:30 p.m. festival Eucharist.

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