Remembering Catholic Architect Thomas Gordon Smith, Who Built Beauty With Classic Style

The late architect who created inspiring sacred spaces — including prominent Catholic churches in the United States — revealed a bold and radically traditional vision of beauty in building design.

(L) Architect Thomas Gordon Smith alongside his work including (T) watercolor perspective of Our Lady of the Annunciation Abbey at Clear Creek in Hulbert, Oklahoma, (B-L) interior watercolor perspective of the crossing in the chapel at Our Lady of the Annunciation Abbey at Clear Creek in Oklahoma, (B-R) interior of the Chapel of Saints Peter & Paul at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska.
(L) Architect Thomas Gordon Smith alongside his work including (T) watercolor perspective of Our Lady of the Annunciation Abbey at Clear Creek in Hulbert, Oklahoma, (B-L) interior watercolor perspective of the crossing in the chapel at Our Lady of the Annunciation Abbey at Clear Creek in Oklahoma, (B-R) interior of the Chapel of Saints Peter & Paul at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska. (photo: University of Notre Dame/Barbara Johnston/Courtesy of Thomas Gordon Smith Architects)

Thomas Gordon Smith was one architect who thought that the good, the true and the beautiful should be the authentic expression of church design. 

Professor emeritus and former chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, Smith is best known as a bold pioneer of the late 20th- and 21st-century revival of classical architecture, especially in the design of churches. On June 23, Smith, a Catholic father and husband, died at the age of 73. 

Smith was as well known for his gentle demeanor and gentlemanly manners as he was for his ubiquitous bow tie and horn-rim glasses. But his work — including prominent Catholic churches in the United States — reveals a bold and radically traditional vision of beauty in building design.

While Smith designed many private residences and public projects throughout the United States, he is best known in Catholic circles for Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) in Denton, Nebraska, and Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Other projects include church renovations and master plans for churches throughout the U.S. 

Smith is survived by his wife, Marika Wilson Smith, a sister and brother, six children and 10 grandchildren. A Mass of Christian burial was celebrated on June 29 at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart. 

Those who worked with him or shared with him a great love for the classical expression of sacred architecture are mourning the passing of a unique and brilliant man — an artist who put his talents to work for Christ and dedicated his life to expressing his love for Christ and his Church through the beauty of his art. 

 

Beautiful Career

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in art in 1970 and a master’s in architecture in 1975, both from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1980, he began his own architectural practice, and, beginning in 1975, he taught at various institutions of higher learning, including University of California-Los Angeles, Yale University and the University of Illinois-Chicago. From 1989 to 1998, he served as chair of the Notre Dame architecture program. 

According to a 2016 article, Smith said that he first became interested in the classical architecture of Western civilization in his youth, noting, “I spent a year traveling with my family in Europe, especially France and Italy, when I was 18 or so. That was tremendously valuable.” 

Throughout his career, Smith honed his interest and understanding of the principles and beauty of classical architecture and confirmed his passion to pursue the classical style after being named Rome Prize Fellow in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome for the academic year 1979-1980. A decade later, he brought that same passion to South Bend as chair of Notre Dame’s architecture program. It was a pivotal position, placing him in the vanguard of the revivalist movement in classical architecture. 

Smith gave the architecture program new life by formally separating it from the school’s College of Engineering, his wife, Marika, said in the 2016 article. “What we were able to do is change to a classical perspective,” her husband said in the article, “which means responding to and re-animating antiquity, as well as the Renaissance and, certainly, the period during the 1800s and later within the United States.” 

According to the obituary on Notre Dame’s website, so influential was Smith in this revival that Notre Dame was described in a 1995 New York Times article as “the Athens of the new movement.” Another obituary noted that in the same New York Times article, Smith responded to critics of the classical revival by quipping, “The whole idea of doing something original is so old now.”

Among his publications, Smith wrote Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention (Gibbs Smith, 1988), in which he encapsulated his architectural vision, and Vitruvius on Architecture (The Monacelli Press, 2004), a translation and commentary on the architectural treatise of ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (c. 80-15 B.C.). A 2001 biography, Thomas Gordon Smith: The Rebirth of Classical Architecture (Andreas Papadakis Pub) by Richard John, presents Smith as a predominant contributor to the classical revival in modern architecture. 

This revival was very much connected to Smith’s Catholic faith. As author and professor in Notre Dame’s architecture program Steven W. Semes notes in the 2016 article, “It is no accident that he has flourished in the Catholic milieu of the University of Notre Dame, or that a rebirth of classical architecture occurred there under his leadership. For Thomas, the classical tradition is the natural language of the Church.”

 

Influence by Design

James McCrery, architect and director of Studies in Traditional & Classical Architecture at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told the Register that his own work in classical architecture was greatly influenced by Smith’s mentorship. Among other heralded projects, McCrery served as the design architect for the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee. 

“Thomas welcomed me into the community of serious practitioners and thinkers in classical architecture,” McCrery said. “He encouraged me to grow as a leader within that community; he enthusiastically supported my own work and served as a mentor and adviser and exemplar in my early days entering academia at The Catholic University of America.”

Duncan Stroik, architect and professor of architecture at Notre Dame, was a graduate student in architecture during Smith’s time teaching at Yale. Like McCrery, Stroik has a number of watershed projects to his name, including Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in California and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. 

“I met Thomas Gordon Smith in my second year in grad school,” he told the Register. “While I knew a little about the classical movement and loved the great tradition of architecture, he was the first teacher that believed in practicing it faithfully. It was an inspiring semester that set me on a trajectory of classical design.”

Denis McNamara is an architectural historian who serves as director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas; he has authored several books on sacred architecture, including Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hildebrand Books, 2009).

“Thomas Gordon Smith was one of the first architects in the world to call himself a classicist in the age when nobody thought it was possible,” McNamara told the Register. “It was also considered by some to be career suicide to say that out loud. Because he said it first, it became real for others, both architects and theologians.”

 

Strong Foundation

According to McNamara, it was no small part of Smith’s genius that he had a knack for balancing the beautiful and the practical in all that he touched. 

“Thomas was a scholar and a very talented painter as well as an architect,” he said. “So he not only designed buildings, but painted very evocative renderings of them that made people fall in love with them. His designs for the Benedictine monastery at Clear Creek and the seminary for the FSSP in Nebraska proved that large, carefully designed classical buildings were affordable and possible in our own day.”

At the same time, as Stroik noted, Smith also believed the past was built into the possibilities of present-day classic architectural efforts to achieve lasting beauty. 

“Thomas Gordon Smith constantly referred to high style architecture of which the great models were the temples of the ancients and the temples of the Christians,” Stroik said. “For him, a touchstone was the Italian baroque churches, monasteries and palaces. He sought to bring all the arts to bear in his sacred buildings and loved telling a story through the iconography and art.”

Even in his work as an architect, Smith never really left the classroom behind. Among the lessons that McCrery learned in his professional and personal association with Smith, he said Smith emphasized “that serious architects must also be serious scholars; that serious architects must pass their knowledge on to successive generations.”

 

Towering Figure

The acclaimed English architect and designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christopher Wren (1632-1723) left behind an epitaph for visitors to his tomb: Si monumentum requiris circumspice (“If you seek his monument, look around”). The same could be said by those who remember Smith as a Catholic architect whose designs rise above the mediocre and mundane in other modern examples of architecture.

According to Stroik, the two greatest monuments to Smith’s work are the Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary and Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery.

Both edifices, he told the Register, “exemplify his love of classical churches, iconography, simple materials (brick and stone) made complex, and of polychromy or color.”

McNamara concurs, noting that Clear Creek in particular “expresses [Smith’s] architectural philosophy very well.”

“The monks asked for something to last 1,000 years and yet used modern technology and realistic budgets,” he said. “Thomas was able to create something that evokes the past yet uses many fresh details. ... Like the notion of Aristotle’s concept of virtue, he always found the mean between excess and deficiency in architecture, which means he found beauty.”

But for McCrery, Smith’s greatest monument is an interior architecture of sorts that expressed itself in his deep love for Christ and his Church, beginning with a firm foundation within his home (most lately in South Bend), which he and Marika had lovingly built up throughout their 50 years of marriage.

“With Thomas, everything flowed from his faith and his family,” he told the Register. “His marriage to Marika, his fatherhood to his wonderful children, his close friendships and mentorships, his professorial teaching, his practice of architecture — all were firmly rooted in and flowed from his faith.”

Nicolas Poussin, “Sts. Peter and John Healing the Lame Man,” 1655 — “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” ... He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.” [Acts 3:6, 8].

No Reason for Being Sad

“For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in his happiness.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 21)