I needed to get a new author photo and I wanted to pose against the neat red bricks of St. Paul’s Chapel on the campus of Columbia University. It was not difficult to set up, since Maud was the photographer and this is where she went to school.
When I.N. Phelps Stokes designed St. Pauls, it was the first non-McKim, Mead and White structure erected on campus. This was 1907. A photo from the time shows it looking new and bare. It would prove to be Stokes’ greatest architectural achievement.
Over a century later, the diminutive chapel’s Renaissance design still wins acclaim for its beacon-like green dome, its Italianate authenticity, its salmon-brick Guastavino vaults and its splendid acoustics. A schedule of magnificent music was posted outside the doors. People love to get hitched here.
Waiting for our photo session, I took a seat–as I had many times, many years ago, when I was studying writing and this was my school–on the curving stone bench across from the Chapel.
It actually spells out Love Your Alma Mater, but I like the more elemental, bare-bones message.
All around, the autumn hedges were producing moist red berries.
They looked like pieces of candy stuck there for the taking.
I ducked inside to check out Stokes’ inspired efforts. (Not pictured here, because no pictures allowed.) He created the glossy floors of marble fragments in intricate patterns resembling those you find in Italian churches, but these patterns are purely decorative, with no symbolic meaning. Sturdy wood chairs were preferable to pews, he decided. He and Edith had toured Italy in the winter and spring of 1905 as preparation for working on St. Pauls. During the trip he decided to bring back some wine – not just a few jugs of Chianti but 50 liters of red in casks that he then had decanted into half-pint bottles.
Stokes was a meticulous man, and a driven one. He wanted the job of designing St. Paul’s. His passion for the project was shared by his altruistic aunts, immensely wealthy sisters who refused to provided the funding unless their nephew was hired on.
I hovered in the back of the Chapel while mass was conducted in the nave. Short and sweet, body, wine, done.
My pictures also came about pronto. In the background the bricks, yes, to the side of the columned portico – at the top of each of those columns is a cherub carved by Gutzon Borglum, who was responsible for Mount Rushmore.
In the background of the photos stands a Quattrocento-style bronze lamp, pickled green by time, designed by sculptor Arturo Bianchini to show the four apostles of the Old Testament but also a pod of swimming dolphins.
Of course what you’ll see most of all in Maud’s pictures is not the bricks, not the dolphins, but my smile, beaming, because it is my daughter behind the camera and we are connecting through the medium of photography.