Note: This is a preliminary version of an article published in the American Catholic Historical Review issue of Winter 1987, with illustrations.
Origins and Education
Frederick Vernon Murphy was born February 16, 1879, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. His father, a tin worker, died in on a train with his family, returning from a fruitless attempt to improve his health in Colorado. Murphy was three. His mother, aiming for the best possible education for her son and his younger sister Maud, moved them to Chicago and operated a boarding house on East Superior Street. The children attended the public schools, where Murphy learned to draw. Although he also took some classes at the Chicago Art Institute, he would later recall the high quality of the public schools. Murphy’s awakening to wider possibilities began with his visiting, as a teen-ager, the 1892-3 World Columbian Exposition which is credited with fostering the revival of classical architecture and planning under the aegis of the City Beautiful Movement.
In 1899 Murphy, allegedly taken with our nation’s capital’s "provincial charm", secured a position as a draftsman in the Supervising Architect’s Office, and was soon joined by his mother and sister in Washington. This office was busy designing federal buildings such as post offices, and, for him, must have seemed a promising first step towards a government career. A draftsman by day, taking classes in Architecture at what is now George Washington University in the evenings, he found time to compete in 1905 for a scholarship offered by the Washington Architectural Club for travel to Europe. Murphy won it, and went. And, while in Paris, why not take the 10-day entrance examinations for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts? The Ecole was the pre-eminent school of architecture. Against the best foreign candidates the world’s universities could offer, Murphy took first place. Surely the possibility of ignoring this opportunity, however unexpected, did not arise.
Murphy attended the Ecole from 1905 through 1909 and became diplome (his only degree) later, in 1915. Each student joined an atelier (workshop) where he worked, individually and in groups, under the guidance of a practicing architect, to prepare for the examinations and exhibitions. The atmosphere was informal, the hours were long, and the pace was frantic. Murphy joined the Atelier Bernier; he maintained contact and was left a splendid measured drawing in Bernier’s will. Since its first American student, Richard Morris Hunt, in 18--, the Ecole had shaped architectural practice and education in the U.S. Tagged as conservative by the classical emphasis in its training and projects, the Ecole stressed basic principles: a well thought-out plan; formal composition; and symmetry. These principles freed the architect to design in the classical or any other appropriate style. At the Ecole Murphy made life-long friends. Classmates like William Van Allen, the architect of the Chrysler building, and Clarence Stein, the pioneer of the New Town movement in the U.S., became leading architects and planners.
Murphy returned to the Supervising Architect’s Office in 1909. Even then, Washington bureaucracy was such as to require President Taft himself (by Executive Order November 22, 1909) to waive the waiting period for Murphy’s re-instatement. Despite the President’s intervention, Murphy soon resigned to embark on a double-faceted career: the re-creation in Washington of his Ecole experience. He would become simultaneously the professor of his own prolific atelier and a successful and highly respected practicing architect.
The Department of Architecture at Catholic University
The Catholic University of America, about 30 years old in 1911, was poor but monumentally ambitious. Nominally devoted to the training of priests, it aimed at pre-eminence in all of the liberal arts and professions. In fact, the organization of students into houses of study belonging to various religious orders was reminiscent of the medieval University of Paris with its national colleges. This was to be combined with rigorous scholarship derived from the German universities. The timing was good but the resources seemed inadequate; there had been a brush with bankruptcy in 18--. Nevertheless, the fourth rector, Thomas J. Shahan, decided that Architecture’s moment had arrived and invited Murphy to establish a School of Architecture. This gesture of trust resulted in a department unsurpassed at the University and, at its peak, unsurpassed in the U.S.
During the early years Murphy taught only a few students and was the sole instructor. The department grew, however, and Murphy was joined by Albert Bibb for the design courses and by Ernest Ruebsam for the technical courses. The department achieved its greatest renown in the 20s and 30s. It became associated with the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City, which sponsored competitions among the U. S. architectural students. In 1926 the BAID gave Murphy's department an award for the greatest number of awards proportionate to the work submitted. A 1941 study of architectural education noted the "brilliant record" of the CUA department which it attributed to the close contact between the students of the atelier and their director, Murphy. The Beaux-Arts tradition of informal but inspired teaching, long and frantic hours, and camaraderie has been successfully transplanted to Washington. A recent history of the CUA states that "most acclaim", among the divisions of the School of Sciences, was received by the Department of Architecture.
The department also excelled at winning the Rome and Paris prizes, grants to study at the American Academy or at the Ecole. Graduates of other schools would come to CUA to prepare for the competitions. George Nelson, a distinguished industrial designer, recalled, "-----". Nelson missed the Paris Prize but won the Rome Prize instead.
After the initial years, the success of the department was aided by Murphy's students who joined him on the faculty. They included Thomas Hall Locraft, a Paris Prize winner who succeeded Murphy as Department Head in 1949; Paul A. Goettleman, who succeeded Locraft; Joseph A. Miller, still a faculty member; Richard Collins; and Neil Keller. The department, recently recognized as a separate School of Architecture and Planning, is flourishing today.
The Architectural Practice
Also in 1911, Murphy formed a partnership with Walter B. Olmsted, with whom he had shared a drafting table in the Supervising Architect's Office. Murphy and Olmsted existed until Olmsted died about 1936. For several years thereafter, the firm carried Murphy's name alone until Murphy and Locraft was formed.
Especially in the beginning, the commissions of the architectural practice came mainly from the associations with Catholic University and from Catholic Bishops associated with the University, such as Cardinal Gibbons. The work of the firm in the period 1911-20 included the Maloney Chemical Laboratory, Graduate Hall, and the gymnasium at CUA; St. Paul’s College and the Sisters’ College in the neighborhood; two modest Washington churches in the Gothic revival style, Georgetown Lutheran and St. Joseph’s; a Josephite church in Alexandria, Virginia; and several parish schools in Baltimore including St. Peter’s and Star of the Sea. The most elaborate project of this period was the chapel at St. Charles College, the minor seminary in Catonsville near Baltimore. In a classical revival style, the chapel features elegant proportions, matched marble walls, an elaborate main altar (in collaboration with John Early, an architectural sculptor), and mosaics by Bancel LaFarge.
The firm also drew up a master plan for CUA, unfortunately ignored when the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was placed where the campus entrance had been planned. With Charles D. Maginnis of Maginnis and Walsh of Boston as architect, Murphy became associate architect for the National Shrine in 1919. In this capacity, he supervised the construction, acted as local representative, and, according to contemporary documents, assisted in the design. The plans were drawn and the crypt church was constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. When the upper church was finally finished in the 1950s, although Murphy was not actively involved, his name was still on the plans and he received a substantial fee directly from Maginnis and Walsh. Murphy had a long association with Maginnis. An Irish immigrant with little formal training, Maginnis designed many churches, buildings at Boston College, at the College of the Holy Cross and at Notre Dame University, and the high altar at St. Patrick’s Cathederal. Murphy served as Maginnis’s associate for the chapel at Trinity College near CUA (a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects) and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament (a perfectly splendid Gothic revival church and Murphy’s parish). Maginnis sent his son to study under Murphy at CUA and joined the Architectural Society at CUA as an honorary member. Maginnis was elected president of the AIA, received an honorary degree from Harvard, and was voted the Gold Medal of the AIA. This last award is given only sparingly – it is startling to see Maginnis, considered an arch-conservative, in the company of luminaries of the modern movement like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Eliel Saarinen.
At the same time the Byzantine-Romanesque National Shrine was being conceived and planned, Murphy drew the plans for the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington (of which more later) and several other churches in the same style. These included St. Francis de Sales in Buffalo; Holy Family in Dayton; St. Mary's in Mobile; and three smaller churches: All Saints in Baltimore; Holy Redeemer and St. James in Washington. Also from this period are the attractive gates and Rosary portico of the Franciscan Monastery in Washington.
Another notable building of this era was the John K. Mullen Library at Catholic University. Maginnis had suggested the "Italian" to Murphy as an appropriate style, and the building, on an axis with the transept of the National Shrine, does complement it. The project also gave Murphy an opportunity to look again at the campus plan, taking account of the placement of the National Shrine. He added four buildings along the Shrine-Library axis; two were built.
In 1931 Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore-Washington commissioned Murphy to draw plans for a new cathedral, to be funded by a bequest from Thomas O'Neill in gratitude for his department store's having been spared from the great Baltimore fire of 1904. In a letter to Murphy, Curley described the commission as "the chance of a lifetime", which Murphy had no reason to doubt. Murphy and his team, which by then included several gifted former students (such as Locraft, Goettleman, and Robert A. Weppner, a Rome Prize winner), sketched a selection of approaches from which Curley picked a strong Romanesque design. The front supported twin towers reminiscent of Notre Dame and a massive central tower crowned the crossing. This design received wide publicity. The New York Herald Tribune commented on the handsome set of transepts. Curley's use of "lifetime" turned out to be prophetic. The project was delayed by the existence of a life trust for O'Neill's widow, by Curley's death, and by depression and war. Eventual construction in the 1950s was to a different design and, of course, by different architects (Maginnis and Walsh). The loss of this commission was perhaps the greatest of Murphy's few disappointments.
Nevertheless, the 1930s, despite the depression, were busy. The notable commission was the Vatican Legation (now Embassy) on Massachusetts Avenue. Others included Dunbarton College (now Howard University Law School); Curley Hall and the Music School at CUA; the Benedictine Abbey and School; the Fourier Library (at Notre Dame College) and Girl's Catholic High in Baltimore; a series of parish churches; and the Fulton Sheen residence. The firm sent Robert Weppner to Donnemora Prison in New York (Pennsylvania?) to survey the site and draw plans for the Church of the Good Thief, which was then built by the inmates. Church-related architecture was then, as now, notably conservative, and examples of any modern style are scarce. However, some of these, notably the Fourier Library, have been singled out as examples of the Art Deco Style. The most decidedly modern project of this era was the headquarters (no longer extant) of the National Catholic Welfare Conference on New Hampshire Avenue. During the depression Murphy associated himself with Allied Architects, a Washington group formed to qualify for government commissions. In this connection, he participated in the House of Representatives Office Building (Cannon Building) and designed the main gates of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
During and after World War II, the firm's projects included work for the War Department; the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel, the Schools of Nursing Education and Social Service, and a house of studies for the Friars of the Atonement at CUA; the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Reiss Science building at Georgetown University; buildings for Visitation College and the Stone Ridge School; John Carroll and Holy Cross high schools; and a novitiate for the Capuchin Friars near Annapolis. Parish churches included St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Luke's, and St. Benedict the Moor; the Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore; and Immaculate Conception in Sioux City. A spectacular modern expression is --- in Forestville, Maryland. An interesting assignment was the sensitive renovation of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore, an important monument from the days of Bishop John Carroll before the massive Catholic immigrations began. The major project of this era was the World War II Memorial Cemetery at Saint Avold, France, near Metz. The cemetery included a memorial chapel of formal dignity with sculpture by Michael Lantz. Murphy took great pride in this prestigious commission because of his association with France.
During his career, Murphy received honors and recognition. These included the Legion of Honor for fostering an appreciation of French architectural education, election to fellowship in the American Institute of Architects and to the presidency of its Washington chapter, an honorary doctorate from his friend Bishop Turner at Canisius College in Buffalo, and membership on the Fine Arts Commission( of Washington), the first Washington architect to serve. This last advisory position proved more controversial than expected. President Truman, not unreasonably, proposed adding a balcony to the White House and expected a rubber stamp approval from the Fine Arts Commission. Murphy and the majority felt the addition would mar the effect and proposed that HST should swelter inside. The balcony was built and the Commission received new membership at the first opportunity, an almost unprecedented change. Murphy formally retired from the firm in 1957 (he had retired from CUA in 1949) and died in 1958. Locraft, a much younger man, died in 1959. The practice of Murphy and Locraft was continued for several years as Locraft and Associates and, finally, Allard and Youtz.
Murphy had settled, with his mother and sister, on Quincy Street in the village of Brookland near CUA. There he designed his own home as well as residences for Thomas Shields, the founder of the Sisters' College; for the Misses Kernan, who taught at Trinity College; and for William Turner, who taught philosophy at CUA and went on to be appointed Bishop of Buffalo. Murphy seemed fulfilled by a successful life of teaching, architectural design, and golf, despite occasional offers from prestigious universities. In 1936, to the amazement of his students and colleagues, Murphy, 56, married Margery Cannon of Denver. She was a graduate student in English Literature attending CUA on a Mullen scholarship; they had been introduced by Msgr. David O'Dwyer, director of the National Shrine. Murphy and his wife, who died only recently, raised three sons at their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Margery Murphy's inquisitive mind, gracious manner, and warm concern created a wide circle of friends who enriched Murphy's life both professionally and personally.
The Shrine of the Sacred Heart
Murphy’s favorite project was the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. This was to be a large urban parish church situated on 16th Street, then the street of embassies, important Washington institutions, and many other churches. It was a uniquely prominent commission; not a cathedral, but large in scale and exposed, away from the sheltering environment afforded by the CUA campus. Although guided by the parish leaders, Murphy had his best opportunity to combine his Beaux-Arts training with his maturity as professor and practitioner to exhibit his understanding of how structure could best create a Sacred Space for Catholic worship.
CUA has always been a center for early Christian studies, and the Byzantine-Romanesque style Murphy chose was considered especially fitting for churches because of its early prominence in Christianity. Nevertheless the Gothic ruled, so that Sacred Heart was saluted as a notable departure by, among others, the architectural critic of the London Mercury: "The churches and schools which are illustrated are for the most poor affairs. They look like imitations of English imitation Gothic…" The critic, remarkably astute although lacking first-hand observation, continues, "My reference to American church building illustrated in the review would not be complete if I did not refer to the church of the Sacred Heart at Washington, D.C., by Murphy & Olmsted—Maginnis & Walsh, associate architects. This is a fine stone building, roofed for the most part with Roman tiling, the walls are of big smooth blocks of stone, the capitals and other decorative features are derived from those of the Byzantine Empire. The building is one of those which will give inspiration to architects. It will take its place among the works which influence further development. In a sense it is an exotic, but it is an exotic of the type that can be acclimatised, that can assume forms and colors drawn from the new soil in which it is planted".
The interior was executed by John J. Early in tinted exposed concrete aggregate, a process invented by Early and first utilized at Sacred Heart. It was not an imitation of mosaic, but served the same functions at a vastly reduced cost. A recent survey of Washington architecture states: " The solidity and spareness of the stone walls interact with the lightness and delicacy of the mosaics (sic) to create a particularly satisfying balance of architectural form and decoration. "
According to Murphy’s own written description, the purpose of the interior treatment went far beyond decoration. It was to: "…impress the truths of sacred teaching in a manner much more forcible and enduring than the customary introduction of ornament devoid of traditional meaning". Surely this is consistent in spirit with the purpose and effect of Byzantine icons and mosaics, and of medieval stained glass.
Seen today, Sacred Heart seems an early example of the art moderne, especially in its greatly stripped-down exterior. The survey of Washington architecture continues: "The tall and exceptionally wide central nave, transept arms, and colorful low rotunda and dome rise as pure geometric forms above the nearly solid Kentucky limestone walls, broken only by narrow arched windows." The same survey comments on the Beaux-Arts influence: "The arcaded porch attached to the facade is composed of eight polished pink Milford granite monolithic columns set between slender corner piers; its tall proportions correspond to the aisle heights and reinforce the sense of intersecting horizontal and vertical volumes, a common spatial concern of beaux-arts era architects, whether they were designing in medieval or classically inspired styles."
It may be said, then, that Murphy drew the design of Sacred Heart from several sources: the ancient Byzantine-early Christian answer to the requirement for a Sacred Space; the expression of this style in modern terms, achieving a contemporary expression characterized by simple forms with an absence of undue ornamentation; the Beaux-Arts influence in the formal composition of the principal facade and the intersecting horizontal and vertical volumes; and the extensive interior decoration, done in a manner affordable by a parish, to "impress the truths of sacred teaching."
Observations on Sacred Space
In dealing with "Sacred Space" as exemplified in the architectural solutions of Frederick Vernon Murphy to the requirements of Catholic worship, it has been the thought of the authors to trace his entire career and then to make some observations on individual structures, the Shrine of the Sacred Heart first among them.
Our first observation is to point out the defining role of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The Ecole defined architecture as the design of public buildings, and so these structures would express civic purpose and dignity in a monumental way. Murphy’s structures not only tend to be landmarks in their neighborhoods but exhibit their purposes unmistakably. Further, Murphy’s career followed on the heels of the Victorian era when a certain exuberance prevailed, notably a profusion of decoration which we consider excessive. The Beaux-Arts principles – a plan; formal composition; symmetry – led to designs characterized by restraint, not by excess.
On the other hand, churches are public buildings, and so Murphy took their requirements very seriously, whether the commission be a modest chapel or a monumental edifice like the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. The exterior should express the function of the building in a natural way. The interior architectural detailing and decoration should incorporate Christian symbols and designs, thereby enhancing the functionality of the building for worship. Murphy rejected those aspects of modernist architectural theory, popular in the 1930s, that modeled buildings on machines and rejected any decoration or detailing.
It is sometimes stated that the architectural quality of American buildings for Catholic use has been inferior to the that of secular buildings, presumably a result of the estrangement which admittedly existed between Catholics and the general culture during periods of our nation’s history. The authors maintain that this is not the case, at least when judging by the best examples, rather than by the average or worst cases. To an impressive extent, commissions for Catholic projects have gone to the best architects. For example Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the National capitol, and of the Baltimore Basilica (called by Pevsner the most beautiful church in North America), designed many other Catholic churches, as did Baldwin and Penington, who designed many of the original buildings at CUA. The superb training in Beaux-Arts principles received by Murphy and his associates Locraft and Goettleman contributed to their first-class work. Their achievements were recognized by numerous awards in juried competitions. It was no accident of history that these able professionals devoted their practice to Catholic architecture. It was, rather, a logical result of the Catholic insistence on excellence. Consider the team as it existed in the 1930s – Murphy, graduate of the Ecole; Locraft, Paris Prize winner; Weppner, Rome Prize winner; and Goettleman, distinguished architect and architectural sculptor.
Our second observation addresses the intimate relationship between the architectural practice and the architectural department at CUA. Again, how extraordinary that Murphy, Locraft, and Goettleman were principals in both. Surely the department benefited from a direct link to the real world. Are academic influences reflected in the buildings themselves? Certainly they were to the extent that Beaux-Arts training is an academic influence. Beyond this it is difficult to say. One tends to expect, sometimes incorrectly, new or radical ideas from the academic world. These architects produced no radical approach. One finds, however, a certain openness to new ideas and experiments. The use of concrete on the interior at Sacred Heart was an experiment. The chapel for the Sisters of St. Joseph featured carved alabaster windows, another innovation. At St. Benedict the Moor, the architects devised a rotating altar so that the space could be used as church or auditorium. At the Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore, done in the early 1950s, the altar is at the crossing of the nave and transepts, faced by pews on three sides. This, it is fair to say, anticipated the Vatican II change. In contrast, the contemporary Baltimore Cathedral has the main altar at the distant end of a the long, narrow nave.
Beyond occasional references to the authenticity of the early Christian style, Murphy’s practice was devoid of rigid commitment to the architectural approach of any era. He did not believe, as did Ralph Adams Cram, that civilization had reached its zenith at some epoch, so that that the architect must find inspiration from that same epoch. Rather, he liked Romanesque because he saw in it freedom and an absence of rigid rules and ideology. While Murphy might refer to having received inspiration from various sources, in fact each building of his was a totally original creation.
"Sacred Space" came to mean many things during Murphy’s career. Consider the campus of CUA: its university buildings, residence halls, associated colleges, houses of study, chapels, and shrines. All had a sacred mission. (These buildings have been relatively neglected in architectural studies of Washington.) The pervasive influence of the Catholic church in the everyday lives of Catholics was felt mostly through Catholic education. For example, the Archbishop of Baltimore-Washington during much of Murphy’s career was Michael J. Curley. He considered no parish complete without its school. At the dedication of Sacred Heart, he reportedly chastised the congregation for building the elaborate edifice before the school, complaining that he would "rather be dedicating a one-room schoolhouse." Curley often insisted that the Church’s most valuable members were the teaching sisters, that the church would collapse without them. (To one point of view, events have proven him right.) Curley saw the Sisters’ College at CUA as "the real golden link between the Catholic University and the whole Catholic educational system in this country". It sometimes happens that the architect gets cast loose from his moorings, that there is not a clear connection between structure and client. This could not occur with a plainspoken client like Curley.
In the final analysis, however, it is the effect of the Sacred Space on its inhabitants that counts. By this criterion, Murphy’s churches are impressive. Even serving various congregations, they leave no one unmoved. The chapel of St. Charles College is now the parish church for a thriving retirement community, Charlestown. It sits high on a hill, a reminder of the Italian Renaissance, American style. The space inside takes your breath away. Priests from around the country spent their formative years as young boys within these elegant walls. Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us." No seminarian could depart from St. Charles without a profound appreciation of the importance of the priesthood. And this can be said of virtually all the churches designed by Murphy and his associates. For every church, the architect attempted a total design – the plan, the materials, the design and placement of the interior features, the glass, the altars, statues, lights – down to the last holy water font. The goal was an atmosphere of piety and reverence conducive to worship.
Phoebe Stanton, in her work on the Gothic Revival, notes that throughout history there have been swings between churches designed as meeting places, and churches which were entrances to another world, a sacred space. The churches by Murphy and his associates fit the second category, a sacred space.