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Ralph Adams Cram:
Wild Boy of American Architecture

2,775 words


Ralph Adams Cram, 1863–1942

“We all understand that intriguing tribal rites are acted out beyond the groomed exteriors and purple-tinged bow windows of Louisburg Square, but except for what some literary, chosen-few Bostonians have divulged, we don’t know what these coded rituals are, and never will.” — Truman Capote, “Hidden Gardens” [1]

“Great cathedrals, such as colonial Spain built between Mexico City and Buenos Aires, have had little appeal to a people disparaging greatness and grandeur.” — Michael O’Meara, New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe [2][2]

Robert Crunden’s The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945 [3][3] is a valuable collection of representative works — essays, chapters, letters, reviews — by the usual suspects of the “Old Right” — Mencken, Nock, Santayana, Davidson, Tate. It’s a great second-hand bargain at Amazon, which makes up for the annoying little “introductions” Crunden contributes, which dismiss his, and his reader’s, supposed objects of interest in such terms as “emotional extremism masquerading as cultural analysis” or “hardly rates as good political science,” whatever that means; for someone with such PC contempt for those who dare to wade outside the “mainstream,” it’s puzzling why he felt the need to spend the time on this anthology — which was supposedly originally twice as large.

One name was unfamiliar to me, at least, and even Crunden calls him “the most neglected” of his subjects: Ralph Adams Cram [4]. And imagine my excitement when reading on and finding Cram described as:

[A]n Anglo-Saxon racist, an connoisseur of Oriental art forms, a decadent homosexual, an apostle of “anti-modernism,” a hopeless political reactionary [hopeless? What other kind is there?] and the most gifted Gothic architect in [early XXth century America].

Sounds like Cram was one of the originals of what I’ve called, on my blog and in my forthcoming book, Wild Boys!


Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

Apparently, there’s only one “serious study” of Cram, a two volume work by Douglass Shand-Tucci[4] who, as you can guess from his fancy name, has “a very trendy obsession with issue of sexuality,” although that’s just Crude Crunden sticking his nose up again.

Since our first essay for Counter-Currents featured Noël Coward [6] as an exemplar of the “Bohemian Tory” ideal promoted by Russell Kirk, it’s only appropriate that a far more positive review of the recently published second volume of Shand-Tucci’s biography can be found in Kirk’s journal The University Bookman, here [7].[5]

According to the Amazon listing, Cram basically built America’s church and college landscape [8]:

Supervising architect at Princeton, consulting architect at Wellesley, and head of the MIT School of Architecture, he would also design most of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the campus of Rice University, as well as important church and collegiate structures throughout the country. By the 1920s Cram had become a household name, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine.

According to McCarthy’s review, his achievements extended far beyond architecture, however:

He was a fine, and controversial, essayist; a novelist (Gothic, of course); a co-founder of Commonweal magazine, though Cram, a High Church Anglican, never became a Roman Catholic; also a co-founder in 1925 of the Medieval Academy of America and its journal, Speculum; and he was responsible for the first wide publication of Henry Adams’s Mont St. Michel and Chartres, which Adams had been reluctant to put into print.

And all this, mind you, in addition to running what Shand-Tucci calls “a full-fledged homosexual monastery” at Caldey Abbey off the coast of Wales, while at the same time happily married to Elizabeth Read back in the USA. An architect’s Männerbund!


Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

And here’s a link to yet another alt-Right favorite: among Cram’s Gothic tales is “The Dead Valley,” of which no less than H. P. Lovecraft himself wrote, “the eminent architect and mediævalist Ralph Adams Cram achieves a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description.”[6]

It turns up most recently in the new Library of America volume American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps.[7] I can attest to the effect of the story, but I was unaware of the Lovecraftian way the threads of Mr. Cram’s interests were circling around me.

And speaking of popular writers with distinctive but critically abused prose styles, Cram apparently even influenced Ayn Rand!


Princeton University Chapel

While her Howard Roark is usually taken to be based on Frank Lloyd Wright, Tucci points out that Roark’s contempt for modern pseudo-Gothic monstrosities (“buttresses supporting nothing” is Roark’s dismissive conclusion) is fully in line with Cram’s nuanced Medievalism, a kind of proto-archeofuturism, as expressed here:

Shall we restore a style? . . . Shall we recreate an amorphous medievalism and live listlessly in that fool’s paradise? On the contrary . . . We are retracing our steps to the great Christian Middle Ages, not that we may remain, but that we may achieve an adequate point of departure: what follows must take care of itself.[8]

Rather than futilely boasting “I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition,” as Roark does, Cram, as McCarthy says, wanted his architecture, “to be traditionalist without being antiquarian, to be modern without being rootless.”[9]

Even the neo-con fuddy-duddies over at the First Things blog recently found some good in Cram:

It’s not, of course, that we shouldn’t sometimes be frightened by full-throated architectural rhetoric. Far from it. It’s just that I can think of those more deserving of our fears than Cram. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand created the architect Howard Roark (modeled after Wright), whose Wynand Building was to be “a gesture against the whole world . . . the last achievement of man on earth before mankind destroys itself.” In comparison to that, Cram was a kitten.[10]


Cadet Chapel, West Point

Kitten, eh?[11] Let’s see how “cute” our Wild Boy becomes when the subject of politics come up.

Like Lovecraft, Cram also came to approve of FDR’s New Deal; like most “Old Rightists,” he recognized the resemblance to Mussolini — but unlike these “old liberals,” he approved!

Anglo-Democracy . . . [would] be a democracy of status and of diversified function, under an hierarchical, not an egalitarian system of organization. In a word, it will be conditioned not by the quantitative standard but by the qualitative standard. [12]

“Anglo-Democracy” sounds a lot like Spengler’s “Prussian Socialism” or Yockey’s “Ethical Socialism,” and as advocated from time to time on this blog.[13] It’s interesting, terminologically, that Cram’s “Anglo” qualifier picks out exactly what Spengler and Yockey would dissociate their ideas from; for them, England and the Anglo-Saxons were the veritable “nation of shopkeepers“ promoting the money-centric idea of equality.


Church of the Covenant, Cleveland, Ohio

We can get a better idea of Cram’s ideas on equality and elitism in one of the essays that Crunden reprints, which had decisively formed Albert J. Nock’s “misanthropic” social philosophy. As McCarthy reports, Nock’s “view of mass man’s lowly level was crystallized by Cram’s 1932 American Mercury essay, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings [13].”

“We do not behave like human beings because most of us do not fall within that classification,” Cram concluded, noting that only a handful of historically exceptional individuals haven risen above the mass of mediocrity and savagery. “What kinship is there between St. Francis and John Calvin; the Earl of Strafford and Thomas Cromwell; Robert E. Lee and Trotsky; Edison and Capone? None except their human form. They of the great list behave like our idea of the human being; they of the ignominious sub-stratum do not—because they are not.” Cram’s doctrine was not as misanthropic as it might seem: He valued the herd of humanity as both precious in the eyes of God and as the seedbed from which the truly human few could arise. But he rejected egalitarianism, presentism, and the thesis of evolutionary progress; civilization’s “standard of today is no whit higher than that which obtained in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, Periclean Athens, the Byzantium of Justinian or the Europe of St. Louis,” he averred.


Doheny Library, University of Southern California, Los Angeles

Again, the credo of the Bohemian Tory, who loves the masses — at least, his own people, such as Cram’s Anglo-Saxon race — as a necessary seedbed for creating the great men that other races will never be able to equal or surpass; rather than as raw material for some impossible utopia of equality after suitable . . . re-educating.

Is it any surprise that such a towering figure of the American spirit is unknown today?

Admit it, you’ve never heard of him before. And why should you have, since our “disseminators of culture” are doing all they can to hide him in plain sight — so much more effective than a ban, which might make him interesting.

The recently published (2010) Penguin Classic edition of Book of Tea for example, provides a bare handful of notes, unlike the usual massive armature, one of which refers the reader to a contemporaneous but reversed appreciation, West to East, in a work by another Boston aesthete, identified as “Ralph N. Cram” — admittedly, the author’s original error, but apparently not worthy of correction by the famous Penguin editors.


Christ Church, New York City

Meanwhile, 2010 also brought us the Tuttle reissue of the work referred to, Impressions of Japanese Architecture and the Allied Arts, which, while at least getting the author’s name right, is shorn of its subtitle, as well as its first chapter. No explanation of the first change is given, but the editor, one Mira Locher, informs us that

Although in many ways Ralph Adams Cram was a radical thinker for his time, he was still a product of an era in which the “Oriental” race was understood as essentially different from and incomprehensible to Westerners. . . . Hence the publisher has chosen omit [sic] the chapter and . . . [his] musings on race.[14]

Radical good, but not too radical. Yes, the little academic harridan, herself or her publisher unable to compose a grammatical sentence in English, dares to fiddle with the prose of a master certified by Lovecraft himself! One wonders why if, as implied, Cram thought the Japanese to be “incomprehensible,” he would bother to write about them at all. Why not discuss the language of whales instead?

Here, then, is the conclusion of the chapter from whose Lovecraftian horror Ms. Locher has shielded your innocent eyes (thanks to the folks at archive.org):

I do not mean to imply by what I have said above that it is impossible to judge it by western standards: in so far as these are universal and neither local nor special, Japanese art stands the test as well as that of our own race. Indeed, I am not sure that it may not possess a distinct value in enabling us to discriminate between those standards universally accepted, which are fixed and for all time, and those others, equally accepted, but arbitrary, ephemeral, unsound. All art meets and is judged on one common and indestructible basis: but each manifestation possesses numberless other qualities, many of them of almost equal value, but peculiar, intimate, and personal. These must be judged by other standards, and it is here that I think we shall fail in our estimate of Japanese art, since the two races are at present absolutely unable to think in the same terms. If, failing to apprehend these minor qualities, we can separate them, and lay them, for the time, to one side, so revealing the kernel which contains the very essence of all, we shall be able, if not to judge Japanese art justly, at least to realize the position it takes in the body of art that belongs to mankind as Man. (pp. 23–24)

Brrr, the blood positively runs cold! “The body of art that belongs to mankind as Man”? Hitler reborn!


Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

Cram, a Traditionalist in architecture, was as capable as, say, René Guénon, a Traditionalist in metaphysics, of appreciating the principles of another tradition, and perhaps being influenced by them, even admitting their superiority to one’s own, without failing to realize that their particular historical form was an local adaptation by a distinct culture — or dare we say it, race — and hence not directly usable by ourselves short of a crude imitation, arbitrary syncretism, or parody. Some of us can tell the difference between Debussy and “Chopsticks.”

But this editor is unable to make such relatively subtle distinctions, and must have thought the slightest hint of “they’re not like us” especially at the start would lead “modern” readers to throw the book aside in disgust. Perhaps she is correct, but whose fault is it, other than that of academic Grundies and Pecksniffs like herself?

And his Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in the world and the second largest church of all – eclipsed only by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome? We can read this on a tourist blog:

The cornerstone was laid in 1892 but the grand plan envisioned by the noted ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram and the firm of Heins & LaFarge (designers of the legendary City Hall subway station and the Bronx Zoo) has proceeded fitfully, and now, 113 years later, the still unfinished building has fallen on hard times. Most of the grounds are fenced off with nasty looking chain link. The scaffolding still in place for the southwest tower looks like it is rusting on the stonework, and the northwest tower remains un-begun. The north transept was ravaged by fire in 2001, and the cathedral has struggled to recover from that tragic event.

It is hard to escape the feeling that St John the Divine as a cathedral building is a hopeless cause. It had been about 18 years since my last visit, and in spite of the progress on the south tower (all made at least a decade ago) the cathedral still looks obviously unfinished and is even beginning to show signs of neglect. It stands as a sad, poor relation to other edifices of similar scale, such as the Washington National Cathedral.


Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City

There’s that word again, “hopeless.” As René Guénon relentless documented in The Reign of Quantity, there is no room today for those who would be conditioned not by the quantitative standard but by the qualitative standard.

Still, like Tradition, the cathedral remains. Someone once said of Evola that “he was our Marcuse, only better.” As for Ralph Adams Cram, the Wild Boy of American architecture: “He was America’s John Ruskin. But our Ruskin could build.”[15]


1. Reprinted in A Capote Reader (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 673

2. Michael O’Meara, New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe (Bloomington, Ind.: 1stBooks, 2004). Kindle location: 5727.

3. Robert M. Crunden, ed., The Superfluous Men: Critics of American Culture, 1900–1945 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999).

4. Douglass Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture. 2 volumes. Boston Bohemia (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994); Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).

5. Daniel McCarthy, “An Architect for all Purposes,” The University Bookman, vol. 46, no. 1 (Spring 2008).

6. H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” VIII, The Weird Tradition in America.

7. Published in 2009, with a rather indifferent introduction by Peter Straub, who also did the Lovecraft volume in the same series.

8. See Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests, p. 171. I would point out that this is also the real motivation behind the recent growth of “historically accurate” musical performance: not to futilely seek to recreate some imaginary “Medievalism” but to strip away layers of “Romantic” and “Modernist” traditions — and we know Who dominates those, don’t we? — so that we can forge our own original relation to the past. Music: another field conquered by Cram!

9. Contemporaneous with Cram, The Decoration of Houses [1897], co-written by Edith Wharton and her architect friend Ogden Codman, Jr., delivered a magisterial rebuke to the future Roarks: “Once this is clearly understood, the supposed conflict between originality and tradition is no conflict at all.” Rev. and expanded ed., Norton: 1998, p.11.

10. Matthew Milliner, “Architecture and Absolutes,” August 27, 2010, at http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/08/27/architecture-and-absolutes/ [18]

11. “He’s as gentle as a kitten” — Bela Lugosi referencing his hulking henchman, Tor Johnson, in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.

12. From 1934, quoted by McCarthy, op. cit.

13. See Greg Johnson’s “Notes on Populism, Elitism, & Democracy” at https://counter-currents.com/2012/09/notes-on-populism-elitism-and-democracy/ [19]

14. Ralph Adams Cram, Impressions of Japanese Architecture. With a new foreword by Mira Locher (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 2010), pp. 20–21.

15. Matthew Milliner, “Just Another Routine Lecture at the Yale School of Art” Thursday, August 26, 2010 at http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/08/26/just-another-routine-lecture-at-the-yale-school-of-art-2/ [20]