Who is James Renwick and What are His Plans?
by Jerry Leibowitz
Image Downloaded with permission from the Smithsonian Institution website
Who is James Renwick? This is not an Ayn Rand question about a fictional engineer. There was an engineer turned architect named James Renwick (1819-1895) who designed several of the most iconic structures built in America’s early years, including the Castle at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. While still a teen or a young adult, he graduated with a Master’s degree in Engineering from Columbia College, NYC, where his father with the same name was his professor. Not being the first Junior/Senior or Younger/Elder in this world, you would think that the two of them could be kept straight.
In 1853, probably as a result of a partial forced retirement, Columbia College commissioned a painting of its prestigious professor, James Renwick, Sr. to be done by John Whetten Ehninger. The painting is listed in Columbia’s current inventory, as well as an inventory from 1908, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge it has not been publicly displayed. As of this writing, the image on that painting remains a mystery. For years, if you googled James Renwick, Jr., the architect, you would eventually see the above copied image with an attribution that it was an Ehninger portrait from 1853. That was the attribution used by the Smithsonian Institution on its website. Renwick designed two important Smithsonian buildings, the Castle and the suitably named Renwick Gallery. The attribution claimed Renwick was holding a plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
I noticed a few things about the portrait that made me wonder how it could be a portrait from 1853. The most glaring oddity was the age of the subject. In 1853, James Renwick Jr., was 34 years old. The subject of the painting seems much older than 34 years old. Even more significant was the drawing that Renwick was holding. Work did not begin on St. Patrick’s Cathedral until 1858. Could he have drawn a plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then had his portrait done with that plan all by 1853? That would be news to anyone who studied the history of the Cathedral. Well anything is possible, I guess. But more on that later.
The plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral displayed by Renwick in the image does not look much like St. Patrick’s Cathedral as constructed. In fact, it does look like an early unconstructed plan of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, similar to the beautiful rendering of a plan drawn and signed by James Renwick presently located in the Archbishop Hughes room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The most distinct difference between the early plan and the Cathedral, as constructed, is that the early plan had two different spires while the Cathedral as built had two matching spires. But why would there be a painting of an older James Renwick (no longer Junior after his father died in 1863) holding a plan for a Cathedral that was not built? He seems to be deliberately showing us the plan, but why?
Before I addressed that question, I examined images of all other churches built by Renwick to see if the plan he was holding was for another building. Calvary Church, in lower Manhattan, once had two spires since removed, but it is clearly not as large as the Church in the drawing. Not only could I not find another structure that was close, but it occurred to me that if you were going to have your portrait taken and you were going to be holding a drawing of one of your works, you would have some reason for the drawing that you pick. Renwick was a man who left few clues to his motivations, so it was left to me to try to figure it out.
So what is it? Well, as usual, I have a theory.
The next time you are at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (after the monumental restoration), look up at the stained glass windows and among the incredibly beautiful religious symbols captured in the glass, done largely by Nicholas Lorin in France, you will see the very image of James Renwick, Jr. that is on the image copied above (although he is holding a different plan, see below). He is even wearing the same shirt and tie. How did he get up there????
The story that I understand is that Renwick, a Protestant, and Archbishop Hughes, the moving force behind the construction of the Cathedral, were incredibly simpatico on how St. Patrick’s Cathedral should look. Both wanted a huge Cathedral that would be welcoming to Catholic immigrants and could be seen for miles around. It was a “spare no expense” project, even though the Catholic Church was small and cash-strapped in mid 19th century New York City. Begun in 1858, the project proceeded well through donations largely through the strong will of the Archbishop until the civil war broke out in 1861 when virtually all construction in the city was halted. Archbishop Hughes died in 1864 and his successor, Cardinal McCloskey, tinkered with the design before construction was restarted. It was probably he who nixed the idea of two different spires in favor of the more balanced similar spires that were ultimately constructed. Renwick did not like the several changes made to his original plan, and displayed his concern by giving the Cathedral a stained glass window in 1879 which tells the very story! He made it a part of the patron saint St. Patrick stained glass window as if to make sure that it would be installed and be noticed. In one of the most brilliant moves in architectural history, James Renwick placed himself and Archbishop Hughes and Cardinal McCloskey and Nicholas Lorin in a stained glass window with two plans to the Cathedral; the one he and Archbishop Hughes are excited about and the one held by Cardinal McCloskey that was ultimately built. Up there the revised plan is barely acknowledged. In big letters you can see below their images the immortal words… “FROM JAMES RENWICK”.
I suggest that the above googled image of James Renwick tells the same story. I believe there was a photograph taken of Renwick in the 1870’s holding a drawing of the Cathedral he and Archbishop Hughes wanted to construct. A copy of that photograph was given to Nicholas Lorin to model Renwick for inclusion in the infamous stained glass window. I saw a copy of that photograph somewhere in the Renwick archives either at Columbia University or at the Smithsonian. As Renwick got older, he still ruminated about the plans for his masterpiece which were not built. From the 1870’s photograph, in 1929, an artistic family member named Howard Crosby Renwick produced the oil portrait of Renwick holding his best laid plans, to be seen for eternity. Unfortunately, that painting, as well as the Ehninger portrait of his father, is out of public view and were it not for the stained glass window, this story would remain largely untold. I did finally see the 1929 oil portrait of James Renwick holding the drawing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is in storage at the Avery Library of Columbia University, New York City. Who is to say if the portrait or the photograph came first? Somewhat at my urging the attribution of the portrait has changed, at least on the Smithsonian site, but who can correct such things in all of cyberspace, as if such a thing matters.
For history’s sake I suggest one further theory. I do not believe that Renwick produced any plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral as early as 1853 or 1854. My research indicates that Renwick may have been approached about the commission earlier, but I doubt that any plan existed much before 1857 when Renwick’s plans were accepted by Archbishop Hughes and made public. I suspect that it is confusion with the Ehninger painting of Renwick, Sr. from 1853 which has led to the supposition that there was a plan for St. Patrick’s Cathedral at that early date. I would welcome seeing proof of the contrary.
I began my fascination with the life and work of James Renwick after discovering a Scrap Book purportedly belonging to Renwick amongst items belonging to my wife’s family. If you look closely at the blue portfolio belonging to Renwick in the infamous stained glass window below, perhaps you see a long book sticking out. Could it be? Why not? A Scrap Book for eternity.