Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was an architect and writer based in Boston. He is best known for his churches and public buildings, which include the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and key buildings on the campuses of West Point, Princeton U., Rice U., U. of Southern California, and others, and both bridges between Plymouth, MA and Cape Cod. The Berkeley Building (aka The Old John Hancock) in Boston’s Back Bay was designed by his firm shortly after his death and pays tribute to the style he established. He also served as Head of the Architecture Department at MIT.
Cram grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Boston to pursue architecture, landing a job at a firm with the help of family friends. He also worked briefly as an art critic for a local newspaper. After winning a small amount of money in an architecture contest, he traveled to Europe with a close friend. This trip had a major impact on him– it inspired his lifelong interest in pre-Renaissance art and architecture, and during his visit to Rome he was inspired to convert to Anglo-Catholicism (ie the Church of England, now better know in the US as Episcopalianism).
One of Cram’s heroes was pre-Raphaelite art critic John Ruskin, who advocated a neo-Gothic approach to architecture, applying medieval principles to modern applications. Cram championed this style in the US, a reaction to the neo-Classical styles he felt had been overused and cheapened here.
In the 1890s Cram was a key figure in Boston’s bohemian scene and a member of the Visionists. During this time he wrote two books he later described as “indiscretions,” both published by fellow Visionists Copeland and Day. Black Spirits and White is a book of ghost stories inspired by his travels in Europe. The Decadent is a dialogue between two Visionist-like characters, one who advocates Christian Socialism and another who argues that Western civilization is in a period of decline (”decadence”) and advocates inaction.
Cram founded an architecture firm in 1889 with partner Charles Francis Wentworth. Visual artist and architect Bertram Goodhue moved to Boston to work for the firm as a draftsman and later became a partner. He also became a member of the Visionists. Both Cram and Goodhue had strong visions of their own, and Goodhue eventually moved on. In 1913 the firm changed its name to Cram and Ferguson.
In 1916, Cram masterminded an elaborate pageant titled “The Masque of Power” to celebrate MIT’s move from Boston’s Back Back to its current home in Cambridge. He recruited about 1700 participants in costume and a professional choreographer, and cast himself as Merlin.
Recommended further reading:
My Life in Architecture by Ralph Adams Cram (out of print but check your library)
The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and his Firm by Ethan Anthony
Above: Portrait of Ralph Adams Cram by F. Holland Day about 1890. Print in the Library of Congress.
Above: Ralph Adams Cram on the cover of Time magazine, 1926.
Above: Ralph Adams Cram dressed as Merlin for “The Masque of Power” pageant celebrating MIT’s move to Cambridge, 1916. From the MIT Museum.
If you are familiar with MIT you may be familiar with this image which hangs in the “Infinite Corridor” as part of a display commemorating the move.