AKA: Trinity Episcopal Church #4, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - religious structures - churches

Designers: Brown, A. Page, Architect (firm); Arthur Page Brown (architect)

Dates: constructed 1892-1893

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Bush Street and Gough Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

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The Episcopal Diocese of California covering Northern CA had accumulated significant financial resources by the 1890s. With some of this capital, it chose to replace a number of cramped Early Gothic Revival, second-generation churches erected in the 1870s. (In the 1850s-1860s, rudimentary, sometimes prefabricated Gothic buildings were built, for all but the wealthiest parishes. The Saint Matthew's Parish Church in San Mateo was one of these well-endowed exceptions; it built a magnificent Gothic stone building in 1865-1866.) Trinity Church was an important San Francisco parish, the state's oldest, with many influential parishioners, capable of launching a large competition for its third-generation house of worship. The competition occurred in 1892, and the influential San Francisco architect, A. Page Brown (1859-1896) skillfully competed in architectural competitions, and won this one over some significant competitors. Reverend William Ford Nichols (1849-1924), the Episcopal Dioceses of California's Assistant Bishop, laid the cornerstone on 09/18/1892, with its formal dedication occurring two years later.

A. Page Brown's cruciform design reflected his study of Norman-era English Gothic churches of the 11th and 12th centuries. First, Trinity #4 had a fortress-like quality, typical of Norman Gothic, with very thick stone wall masses emphasized. Shapes of towers tended to be square and often squat. Trinity #4 has a comparable, squat crossing tower of Southwell Minster (begun c. 1108), for example. He carried on such typical Norman details as fierce, spear-like corner pinnacles and a crenelated tower (a la Ely). Historian Kevin Starr has noted how the church's recreation of English antiquity satisfied its 1890s San Francisco audience "...when a passion for historical analogy came to a provincial Pacific metropolis eager to see itself in the context of world history." Starr, however, exaggerated his viewpoint when he stated: "Modeled on Durham Cathedral in England, Trinity Episcopal is an archaeologically exact recreation of Norman ecclesiastical architecture. To enter this wondrous church, passing from rough-hewn granite-gray Colusa sandstone without to a cool-finished surface within, is to experience a number of things at once: the Oxford Movement historicism of late-nineteenth-century Episcopalianism, with its special reverence for the medieval English tradition." While its historicism did reflect Ruskinian adoration of England's medieval achievements, Trinity Church was not an "archaeologically exact recreation of Norman ecclesiastical architecture." Brown simplified his design significantly from Norman originals. This formal reduction was notable in his decision not to trim parapets with strong crenelations. It was not a cathedral, and therefore did not require the ornamental grandeur of an English cathedral such as Ely (begun 1083) or Durham (1093). It also could not have the extended naves of Winchester (1079) or Durham due to its tight urban site. The appearance of Trinity #4 was also not, in Richard Longstreth's words, "unintentionally crude." (See Richard Longstreth, On the Edge of the World, [New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1983, p. 87) Brown. like a great many architects on the Pacific Coast would see this process of decorative simplification as a modern adjustment, appropriate to the West's youth and remarkable natural surroundings. From a formal point of view, its lack of ornamentation accentuated the weight of the coursed rubble walls, adding to its look of permanence. Its survival of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 04/18/1906 proved its durability.

San Francisco Historic Landmark: 65

PCAD id: 3651