Everybody likes to be the best or first at something, whether it’s the first person in a family to graduate from high school or being the best fly-fisherman in Monroe County.
The same is true of church buildings, too, I think—especially with the onslaught of clustering/twinning/coupling of parishes and closing of others. If your church can lay claim to something—anything—that another church can’t, perhaps there’s some hope that word won’t come down from the chancery that your parish is about to be renamed and sharing a pastor with another nearby church… or worse, be shuttered.
In the 1990s it looked (to this writer) like Saint Louis Church in Buffalo might go that route of what-once-was/what-might-have-been. The church was old—in fact, it was the oldest in the City of Buffalo, if not in the entire diocese.
And St. Louis Church needed a ton of work, from the cracked floors to the dead flies in the holy water fonts. This was clearly a church that was a candidate for an extreme makeover. Or closure.
Finally, it was located in the inner city of Buffalo, and it was essentially shuttered after morning Mass.
However, St. Louis Church, even in its decline held one distinction that no other church in America could lay claim to: the highest open-laced spire in the United States At 245 feet, it’s visible from most parts of the city.
“But what is an ‘open spire’?” Good question.
I’m not an architect—though as Seinfeld’s George Costanza once quipped, “I always wanted to pretend I was an architect”—but Professor Thomas Gordon Smith is. In fact, he was the head of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and has designed both Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, and Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, so he knows his way around a church and its sometimes byzantine architectural nomenclature.
Per Professor Smith:
The beautiful St. Louis Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo was designed in the Gothic Revival style by the New York architects Schickel and Ditmar. They were inspired by the early-19th-century British architect Augustus Pugin, who was an adamant enthusiast and promoter of Gothic architecture. As a convert to Catholicism as a young man, Pugin claimed a connection between moral truth and principles of building in his designs and his writings about architecture. For example: he insisted that architecture should expose its structural system as an architectural equivalent of truth. One can see how Schickel and Ditmar expressed this principle in the exuberant, visually-open, stonework in the extraordinary steeple of St. Louis Church, which relies on the load-bearing qualities of the stone without the use of metal reinforcement for structural support. (Emphasis Added).
However, not only is this open-spire the highest in the United States, it may now be the only Catholic church in the United States to have a “pierced spire.” Per Church Tales of The Niagara Frontier: Legends, History and Architecture by Austin Fox, “The soaring openwork, octagonal 245-foot steeple recalls that of its counterpart in Cologne, Germany. It is reputed to be the only remaining pierced spire in the United States.” (pg. 62).
However, Professor Smith sees in it not so much the famous church in Cologne, but an even more famous one in Paris, with help from Ulm, Germany, too:
The beautiful Gothic spire at St. Louis Catholic Church may have been inspired by the needle-like fleche, or spire, over the intersection of the nave and the transept of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Notre Dame was begun in 1163 and its spire represents a shift from the sturdy octagonal towers that had a dominant presence on Romanesque churches.
“Instead of placement above the crossing, however, the spire at St. Louis Church is placed above a large tower that rests over the narthex [entry way], a major component in the west façade of the building. The Church of Ulm in Germany, begun in the 14th century and completed at the end of the 19th, features a magnificent stone spire that may also have been a precedent for St. Louis Church.
“The Gothic aesthetic emphasizes harmony and balance; architects using a Gothic approach work to blur the distinction between the wall and translucency on the interior of churches. The lace-like open stonework of St. Louis Church demonstrates a parallel blurring of structure and light on the exterior. (Emphasis added).
In his landmark series and book, Civilisation, Sir Kenneth Clark refers to “flying buttresses” as “one of those happy strokes where necessity has led to an architectural invention of marvelous and fantastic beauty.” (pg. 59). One—or at least I—am tempted to make the same case for the open-laced spire. Professor Smith mentioned The Church at Ulm above (often mistakenly called “The Cathedral at Ulm”), because it has the tallest spire of any church, period. However, its open spire makes it look even taller than it actually is. Thus, the open-spire design, which we see in a stunning variation in Borromini’s San Ivo Della Sapienza—which resembles a ziggurat combined with a cupola—allows the architect to make a Church seem to soar higher than it does.
Perhaps the best description of an open-spire comes from the classic 1867 Encyclopedia of Architecture which describes these unique toppings as “filled up with perforated tracery, so that the appearance of great lightness, united with great boldness, is imparted to the whole” (pg. 963)
And lest one think that open-work spires are simply a curio from a bygone era, it’s worth noting that Gaudi’s Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in Spain has at least four of them (though due to its seemingly endless stop-and-go construction since 1882, these are obscured by cranes, girders and draperies). When (if?) it is ever finished, Gaudi’s basilica will boast the tallest open-laced spires in the world.
But back in Buffalo, Saint Louis’s Church, did indeed get its long-awaited renovation project up-and-running, and, most happily, was completed in time for its 175th birthday.
St. Louis’s open-laced spire—perhaps both the tallest and the only one in the United States—now stands as a beacon to all of downtown Buffalo and, just across the street, the chancery itself. (The irony being that the church itself was built before the diocese was ever established!)