No. 58 April 2006
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The obituary of a religious architect is unlikely to make page one of a major newspaper today, but when Newark architect Jeremiah O'Rourke died in 1915, his death was treated as major news. O'Rourke had been appointed the Supervising Architect for the U.S. by President Cleveland in 1893, but his reputation as “one of the best known ecclesiastical architects in the country” earned him treatment accorded only the most prominent.
O'Rourke was responsible for more than a dozen Catholic churches in New Jersey as well as for two major ones (Paulist Fathers and St Paul the Apostle) in New York City. The article credits him with, among others, the following churches: St Josephs', St. Michael's, and St. Bridget's in Newark; St. Vincent's in Madison; Seton Hall in South Orange; St. Lucy's and St. Patrick's in Jersey City. I accept those attributions although I have not verified all of them. The list, in any case, is incomplete even for New Jersey. O'Rourke was educated in Dublin where his family was politically prominent, and came to America in 1850. He began work drafting plans for a Newark carpenter-builder, Jonathan Nichols. When he left nine years later to set up his own practice, he called himself an architect, perhaps the first practitioner in the state to call himself that. Other builders (such as William Kirk who designed three superb Gothic churches in Newark) by the late 1850s begin to be listed as architects, and on the 1860 census architect was for the first time an accepted category of employment.
The obituary says that Camden's Church of the Immaculate Conception, built in1864, was O'Rourke's first church, but that is in error. By 1860 he had designed the Mt. Carmel church in Boonton, and 30 years later his plans for that church were to be used again by St. Joseph's church in Bound Brook. Interestingly, both owe a debt to Richard Upjohn's reworking of the design of St. James the Less in Philadelphia. So as the teacher in Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Certainly it is not surprising that an early engagement for a young architect should draw on an acclaimed Gothic Revival design for inspiration.
St. John the Baptist in Orange was constructed between 1866 and 1869, and it was a major assignment. It is an exceptionally large church and quite an ornate one, done in the French Gothic manner. Later in life O'Rourke claimed it was his favorite and best work. 1872 was the year of two St. Mary's—one in Wharton and the other in Rahway; each is quite different from anything he had done earlier. I am not knowledgeable enough about architectural history exxplain the development of a personal style, but both were done after O'Rourke returned from an extensive tour of France and England in 1870 during which he studied European churches in some depth. The Bishop of the Newark Diocese had sent him in preparation for the design of a new cathedral in Newark, and upon his return O'Rourke prepared plans, but they were never used and it was almost thirty years before he submitted a new design for the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Two more Sacred Hearts (maybe three if we credit him with the Sacred Heart church in New Brunswick (1883), as well as several other saints) intervened. In Bloomfield, O'Rourke designed the Sacred Heart church (right) in 1878—a Romanesque design with an exceptionally tall tower—a plan that was to be echoed in several of his designs for Post Offices while serving as the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, and in his design for Jersey City's St. Lucy in 1895. In 1898 as he was about to undertake his largest project, he designed the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Trenton. Whereas Bloomfield's Sacred Heart and St. Lucy were clearly American designs, the Basilica is just as clearly a European design. At least to these eyes.
In 1897 the competition for plans for the Newark cathedral were re-opened; O'Rourke was one of four finalists, and 28 years after his original plans had been submitted, he won the contract. Construction began in 1898 with firms named O'Connor, McManus, and Boyle winning bids for excavation and foundations. Laying of the cornerstone was preceded by a parade and a ceremony watched by a reported 100,000 people, including an archbishop and more than a hundred priests. By 1903 the walls were 50 feet high, and stonecutters had begun to work on the façade and the towers. Two years later a controversy arose when columns and the piers that supported them appeared to be shifting, and a building inspector questioned the placement of additional columns. A subsequent investigation showed that the ground had not been properly prepared, inferior concrete had been used and earth had been mixed in with the mortar. The inference was drawn that O'Rourke had been aware of these deficiencies and was trying to compensate (or cover up) by installing additional columns; he was dismissed and replaced by Isaac Ditmars, who remained on the project until his death in 1934. At that point the cathedral was still twenty years from completion. Many additional people were involved in the design, for a cathedral consists of stained glass, elaborate woodwork, tilework, marble and bronze. O'Rourke deserves much of the credit, for it is an imaginative design, but we should not regard the cathedral as his work alone.
He was a devout man and wished to be buried in the habit of the Franciscans,
a request that was not discovered until well after his death.
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