Over the past 110 years, the relationship between the Rambusch Decoration Company and the Catholic Church in the United States has produced spaces to uplift the spirit and last for generations.
Since the firm’s founding in America in 1898, the Rambusch family has had a warm relationship with the Catholic Church. In 1906, only 17 years after founder Frode C.V. Rambusch arrived in America from Denmark, the interior design company had already completed commissions in 16 Catholic churches, mostly on the East Coast.
Rambusch’s architects have added beauty and glory to some of the best-known Catholic monuments in the United States. Well-known churches where the firm has worked include the Baltimore Cathedral, Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Va., and — most recently — the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Rambusch’s work appears in several places and represents several styles in the National Shrine. The Lourdes Chapel and Grotto, installed on the lower level of the basilica in 1931, features simple stone masonry, gentle lighting, and a rustic beamed ceiling.
The wrought-iron gates that separate the sanctuary from the nave of the chapel feature a lily motif, symbolizing Mary’s purity. Behind the altar rests a replica of the Lourdes statue and grotto.
In the upper church, on the west side of the narthex, is the Rambusch-designed Chapel of Our Lady of Pompeii. Commissioned by members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who are of Italian heritage, the chapel features rich marble walls and columns, a colorful “cut work” floor, and vivid mosaics proclaiming the titles of Mary and depicting the Mysteries of Light.
Pope Benedict XVI blessed this chapel’s altar crucifix on April 16, 2008, when he visited the National Shrine.
The Pompeii chapel is a recent installation, but Rambusch completed its latest work in the National Shrine only 18 months ago. The two great domes of the upper church, each 60 feet across and each containing 1 million precious glass tesserae, depict the mysteries of the Incarnation and redemption.
According to the Rambusch Company, every diocese in the United States contains at least one of the company’s commissioned works. Most recently, the Dioceses and Archdioceses of Allentown (Pa.), Atlanta, Baltimore, Baton Rouge (La.), Beaumont (Texas), Belleville (Ill.), Biloxi (Miss.), Boston, Brooklyn (N.Y.), Camden (N.J.), Charleston (S.C.), Columbus (Ohio), Covington (Ky.), Denver, Des Moines (Iowa), Evansville (Ind.), Fresno (Calif.), Grand Rapids (Mich.), Green Bay (Wisc.), Kansas City-St. Joseph (Mo.), Lafayette (Ind.), New Orleans, New York, Palm Beach (Fla.), Phoenix, Portland (Ore.), Rochester (N.Y.), St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Trenton (N.J.) and Wheeling-Charleston (W. Va.) have all commissioned work from the Rambusch Company.
As church architecture has changed over the past century, and especially over the past 40 years following Vatican II, the Rambusches have applied a variety of styles in their Catholic commissions — from Gothic to Romanesque, from ancient to modern. Yet the Rambusch Company, now in its fourth generation as a family business, also shares with the Church the value of continuity.
“In many cases, the building itself becomes our client,” Catha Rambusch, the spokeswoman for the Rambusch Company, says. For this reason, the artists and artisans of the Rambusch studios dedicate themselves not only to new buildings, but to preservation, restoration and renovation. One example is St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, where the earliest Rambusch work is a wrought-iron prie-dieu that dates from 1927. Just a few years ago, the Rambusches returned to the cathedral to install a brand-new lighting system throughout the building.
Martin Rambusch, the manager of the Rambusch studios, speaks of such projects with enjoyment.
“Some of our favorite commissions are those that call on us to refurbish, refresh or adapt anew our designs executed decades ago,” he says.
Just last month, for the first time, a collection of drawings, plans and designs for churches and other buildings containing the Rambusch Company’s work was available for viewing in New York.
The exhibit was held in the Marquis Gallery of the National Arts Club. It featured designs from the Rambusch studios, which are dedicated to interior decoration and design, and a self-guided walking tour of buildings the firm has worked on throughout New York City.
The exhibit focused on the process of architectural design. It consisted of drawings from designers’ tables and objects used in construction, such as castings.
Showcased were more than 20 sites around the city where the company’s work appears, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Joseph’s, St. Teresa’s, the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, and the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The tour afforded the opportunity to see stained-glass windows, a Rambusch specialty — the company has its own in-house studio where the windows are both designed and made.
Tour walkers also saw Lutheran churches, synagogues, museums, offices, residences, restaurants, studios, a stadium and even a day spa where the Rambusch Company’s designs appear.
The wide variety of spaces reflects the Rambusches’ conviction that the design of an object — such as a window, a lighting system, a wrought-iron gate, or an installed piece of art — should be intimately linked to its making and should be tailored to the style of its architectural setting.
Catha Rambusch says the idea of the exhibit was “to educate people about the process of design, to let them know that it doesn’t just happen in a day.”
Katy Carl writes from
Silver Spring, Maryland.