Catholic Ecclesiastical Architect: E.L. Masqueray

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota

My favorite Catholic architect is the Franco-American Emmanuel Louis Masqueray (1861-1917). In his day he was one of the most noted architects in the country. When I was a boy my father drove me by his grave at Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota. We got out of the car I already knew he was my favorite architect based on a few of his works I had seen. There before his gravestone we offered a prayer in the afternoon Sunday light in front of the granite monument erected by his friends after his death. I recall being so inspired, I wanted to know more about this man. Of his architecture it can be said his creations were the most modern and original, the most economical and distinguished, the best adapted to the material employed, neither severely classical nor over-ornamented. His works were marked by simplicity of scheme, breadth of disposition, good proportions and good scale, objects he always sought and studied. All architects have something to learn from his works. Ornament was only employed where essential to the color values of the design.

Masqueray was born at Dieppe, Normandy in the year 1862. When he was a few years old his family moved to Rouen, where the young lad received his first impressions of the beautiful in architecture. There he came to know great architectural landmark that defined the skyline. These included the Cathedral of Notre Dame (famous for its three towers, each in a different style), completed in 1880. He was also inspired by other local churches and other buildings such as St. Ouen, St. Maclou, the Palais de Justice, the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), and the numerous other landmarks that abound in the ancient capital of the Normans.

At age 12 Masqueray was taken from Rouen to Paris. At the age of 16 with the death of his father he decided to become an architect. He entered as a pupil the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the National School of Fine Arts, where the best architects studied for high-level education and training. At first he studied under Charles Loisne, but later when he retired from active teaching, he became a student of Leon Ginain, the architect of the famous library of the Ecole de Medicine in Paris. As a student Masqueray quickly made a reputation among his young fellows at the Ecole, and was long remembered by them as a brilliant artist who ought to have taken the Grand Prix de Rome. However, this well-known architectural prize did not dazzle him enough to induce him to remain longer at the school than he thought necessary.

 Nevertheless, at the age of 18 he completed his studies and graduated. He received from the Academie des Beaux-Arts the Prix Deschaume and a year later the Prix Chaudesaigues. This coveted prize enabled him to travel and study in Italy where the architecture of the Italian Renaissance greatly inspired his noble aspirations. His enthusiasm was aroused and he set to work sketching and measuring, making drawings and prints of a then little visited gem, the Ducal Palace of Urbino. Today it is considered one of the most important buildings in Italy. The drawings he made in Urbino gained him a fist class medal prize at the Salon in 1883.

In the succeeding Salons of 1884 and 1885 he exhibited other fine drawings that included some of the tomb of Cardinal Phocas in the Church of Santa Maria del Populo in Rome as well as the Chateau de Rambures in Pacardy (commenced in the 11th century, but not completed until the 15th century), considered one of the most complete examples of the military architecture of the Middle Ages. This site is still visited today by many enthusiasts of architecture; it is a stunning castle and one of the first made entirely of brick. The drawings of the castle were done so well they were purchased by the Minister of Fine Arts for the Commission des Monuments Historiques. Later Masqueray’s restorations of the Palais de la Cour des Aides at Rouen as well as drawings of Amiens Cathedral that were exhibited at a later Salon, led to his appointment to the Commission des Monuments.

Cathedral of Sioux Falls, SD.

Overcome with a desire to cross the ocean and see the New World, Masqueray accepted an invitation from friends in New York to move to the new American metropolis and arrived in 1887. The budding architect first became an assistant in the office of the then young firm of Carrere & Hastings. He later accepted a position with Richard Morris Hung, where he became chief assistant. After Hunt passed away Masqueray remained for a few years with his son, Richard Howland Hunt. Then he left to join Messrs. Warren & Wetmore, with whom he worked until his appointment in 1901 as the main architect’s Chief of Design of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. It was while Masqueray was acting as assistant to Hunt, his patience became exhausted with the types of assistants the office had procured. They were the products of mere office training or of American colleges.

Cathedral of St. Paul, Modern French Renaissance, 1905

He therefore resolved to establish his own studio, an atelier to train young men studying architecture on the lines of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1893 he founded the first independent studio of architecture according to French methods in the U.S. It was called Atelier Masqueray. The idea was warmly approved by Hunt who had once himself attempted the same thing. Hunt had confined his atelier to the instruction of his own assistants – Post, Ware, Van Brunt, and others – teaching and coaching them after office hours. This model of education was furthered by John M. Carrere, a former close associate of Masqueray from the Atelier Ginain in Paris, who undertook the organization of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects who was an alumnus of the French School and of other similar ateliers to create inter-atelier emulation and to establish the French system of training in the U.S. by means of competitions. To Mr. Masqueray, therefore, is due the credit of founding in the year 1893 a modern system of architectural training which is practically universal throughout the United States.

University of St. Thomas Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul, Minn.

University of St. Thomas Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul, Minn.

The competitions were seen as crucial to forging the best possible architects at a young age. The competitions of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects are participated in by the students of all the leading universities who are also members of “ateliers.” The winners of the Society’s “Paris Prize” were admitted to the first class in the Ecole des Beau-Arts in Paris, where they rivaled many of the strongest French students, a tribute to the American training founded on the lines laid down by Masqueray. After his New York atelier was organized as a self-governing institution, Masqueray found another acceptable professor in Mr. Hornbostel, and continued as he left it.

Cathedral of St. Paul, Modern French Renaissance, 1905.

In 1901 Masqueray's creative and artistic abilities caused him to be chosen as the Chief of Design for the World's Fair in St. Louis. Masqueray was chosen for this position by Isaac S. Taylor, a St. Louis architect who was the Chairman of the Architectural Commission and Director of the Works for the Fair, in charge of supervising the overall design and construction projects. He appointed to the staff of designers only two of his own pupils - Swales and Nasagle, while he drew 2 from Paris – Champney and Levy, one from Boston – La Beaume, and 2 from the office of Carrere & Hastings – Karcher and Sharpley. With these assistants he designed nearly half the work at the Exposition.

Cathedral of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

With Masqueray at his side as his Chief of Design, the artist had a platform to gain national and international notoriety. In this position for 3 years, he designed several Fair buildings: the Palace of Agriculture, the Cascades and Colonnades, the Palace of Forestry, Fish, and Game, the Palace of Horticulture, and Palace of Transportation. All of these projects were later emulated in civil projects across the U.S. through the very interesting City Beautiful Movement that was a philosophy of urban planning that flourished at that time.

Rear view of Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn.

Over 19 million people attended the Fair, including Archbishop John Ireland of the northern Diocese of St. Paul in Minnesota. Archbishop Ireland had big plans for a worthy cathedral and the funding was in place from a local self-made millionaire railroad magnate, James J. Hill. Throughout the designing of the Exposition, which occupied more than two years of continuous effort, the Chief of Design and his staff worked with the assistance of about 100 draughtsmen. Through it all Masqueray arose with conspicuous credit. He was seen as the thing between the hammer and the anvil, between the foreign participants and the Board of Architects and the majority of the Directors of the Exposition and the Director of Works.

Cathedral of St. Paul, Modern French Renaissance, 1905

The success of Masqueray’s work at St. Louis brought him immediately afterwards some large commissions to execute in Minnesota. Archbishop Ireland invited him to come to St. Paul and work for him. Masqueray therefore resigned shorty after the Fair opened in 1904 and go to work on this next and greatest project, what would become the Cathedral of St. Paul, today also known as the National Shrine of St. Paul and America’s first Basilica, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. These are two of the finest liturgical spaces ever conceived on the North American continent.

Cathedral of St. Paul, Modern French Renaissance, 1905

Sadly he died at age 55 in 1917 after having designed 4 cathedrals (St. Paul, Sioux Falls, Wichita, and Winnipeg -- the last of which was never realized). He was stricken while on a street car on his way to his office at the Dispatch Building on Friday, May 24 and died 2 days later at the hospital on May 26. The official cause of death was uraemia, a dangerous condition when the kidneys no longer filter property, the result of the final stage of kidney disease. He had not been well the previous 5 months. A nervous breakdown also occurred 4 years previous, the result of overwork. Masqueray was unmarried and lived with his mother until a few years before when she passed. His legacy of beautiful churches has outlived him while he remains a preeminent figure in the history of American architecture. His constant epigram to students was: “The principal thing is to make it simple, then it will be less trouble to build.”  

Church of the Incarnation in Minneapolis, Minn.

In designing his churches, Masqueray proposed to build grand and serene edifices that would also represent the democratic, fast-paced society of the New World in America.  This called for a modified modern French Renaissance style, twentieth-century is in its purpose and ambience, while medieval in many of its secondary features (such as the ambulatory chapels in the apse).  His style was more of a Greek cross plan, with transepts and a nave that were short and wide, so that everyone in the church could have an adequate view of the altar and pulpit with ease.  For him, this was a modern approach that was a key to understanding his style.  There are no columns in his churches potentially blocking the view of the faithful in the pews, with an interior completely open.  His goal was to bring priest, choir, and people as close as possible in sight.  For Masqueray, everything in the design had to be grand while simple.  The architect averred that his major preoccupation was to compose an edifice in which "the principal object was that the congregation cold see and hear" (The Cathedral of St. Paul, p. 24).  True to the excellent principles he was taught in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes, Masqueray conceived the decoration with groups of ornamentation at certain points rather than to disperse it liberally over an entire surface, in order to maximize the visual affect.   

Ireland Hall at College of St. Thomas

In conclusion, the legacy of E.L. Masqueray is very important.  He reckoned with and handed on the store of experience of the great masters handed down to us through the ages.  He helped make progress from good precedent.  His works continually satisfy the eye, the intellect, the imagination of the beholder.  He proves that it is as regards the quality of charm that we shall always find a new building deficient as compared with an old one.  His works possess all the fine qualities and characteristics of the old traditional plans of the churches of Europe, but meet the demands of modern innovation, giving an impression of unsurpassed grandeur and simplicity.  

Despite the signs of age, the stains of weather, and the softening lines which the tinting of material and the eating away of its strength with decay, the old fabric of charming old churches will always be preferred and stand the test of time.  Our land has still not produced churches to compare with these churches of considerable magnitude.  The architectgs of the U.S. have still not produced many churches to compare with his works.  Masqueray succeeded as a Catholic architect because he has duly heeded the results of the experience of those who have gone before.  Good precedent has been followed.  Not without innovation. But it was followed creating super-eminent beauty.   Future generations will always bestow upon him the full meed of praise that justice bids us accord.  Hopefully these images will help readers appreciate his frank expression of the interior by the exterior, broad treatment of surfaces and careful consideration of the use and placing of ornament, which he taught as a teacher he practiced in his own works.    

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Wichita, Kansas

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