Urban spelunking: St. Paul's tower speaks volumes without making a sound
Nothing beats a new perspective. That's part of the fun of climbing to the roofs and towers of local buildings – to get a fresh look at a familiar city. Those visits and climbs almost always offer a different take on the building itself.
Take St. Paul's Episcopal Church on the corner of Knapp and Marshall Streets, erected in 1883 to the plans of Edward Townsend Mix. If you're anywhere nearby you can hardly miss the Richardsonian Romanesque building, constructed with rock-faced Lake Superior sandstone that glows scarlet.
"Townsend was a student of Henry Hobson Richardson and the design he submitted was in the Richardson-Romanesque style or pattern that followed the idea of early fortresses built by the Roman army throughout the Roman Empire; more fortress style than church spire style," writes Paul Haubrich in "A Journey Through the History of St. Paul's Church, 1838 to 2013," published by the church.
"It has been reported, but not verified, that Mix had access to the drawings of Richardson's for a church commission in Buffalo, NY that was never built and that those designs shaped the work for St. Paul's."
A preparatory drawing Mix completed of his design hangs near the parlor, north of the sanctuary, and it is interesting to compare the rendering with the finished structure, as there are differences, notably in the smaller, east tower.
The congregation, organized in 1838, was originally located in a church on the corner of Jefferson and Mason that was later the site of the Layton Art Gallery and is now occupied by a non-descript modern building of storefronts topped with a parking ramp.
I've been in the church countless times on the outside and quite often on the inside. In 2012, I wrote about its Tiffany windows, the largest collection of Tiffany-produced windows in the state, which includes what is thought to be the largest Tiffany window ever made.
I had never before really looked closely at the rose window above the organ loft and was struck by its eight squat, candle-shaped petals – drawn in a stunning range of blues – surrounding a central octofoil panel depicting the faces of angels.
On a recent visit, I looked more closely at the interior, where I learned the church houses an early 16th century Flemish tapestry. Located in the sanctuary, to the right of the altar, adjacent to the giant Tiffany window in the east transept, the 12x12-foot tapestry depicts an outdoor wedding scene and was likely woven in Brussels or Tournai around 1510.
Brought to the U.S. in 1926 by Ralph Harman Booth for his Grosse Point, Michigan home, the tapestry, which appears to be in a good state of preservation, was donated by Virginia Booth Vogel and her brother John Lord Booth to St. Paul's in 1958.
Fortunately, the tapestry didn't arrive a decade earlier as part of the interior of the church was destroyed by fire, and there was smoke damage throughout, in 1950. Photos of the aftermath of the fire can be seen in the hallways of the part of the church that houses its offices.
While we walked through, I commented to Rev. Dr. Steve Teague that because everyone is so drawn to the wispy hues of the Tiffany glass, few ever seem to rave about the dark wood ceiling and roof structure, that is such an attractive element of the sanctuary.
If you visit, take some time to admire the craftsmanship and the patterns of the ceiling panels and the intricacy of the support structure, especially where it creates a complex web, above the altar.
Although it seems accepted wisdom that a pair of hulking wrought iron gates in the church basement are the work of local iron-master Cyril Colnik, there is some question about whether or not the gate on the west transept in the main church is his.
Although the east tower was shortened and its spire replaced with crenellations, the more imposing west tower stands quite a Mix drew it, and it is eye-catching and unique in this neighborhood top-loaded with churches and steeples.
A sun rises over the west-facing portal in the tower and on the next level up, there are pairs of stained glass windows topped with ocular windows. Another level up, there are simpler openings before reaching the open air belfry.
Just below the belfry, a winged angel, bearing a trumpet guards each corner. Below this level, on the southwest corner, there is a tower within a tower that is topped with a turret that rises higher than the main tower.
When you enter the door that leads to the 159 steps rising to the tower roof, you realize this tower within the tower is the spiral staircase. And it's a fairly tight one. The wooden steps pivot out of a central post that is made of a few long posts, each carved from a single tree.
Pay attention and you'll see the pencil lines made by a carpenter to show the precise location of each tread. The outer edges of the tread sit on wooden supports attached to the cream city brick that lines the interior of this part of the tower.
At that first level, there is a square room, perhaps 15x15 and a small space with access to the west-facing stained glass windows. Here a device squeals away to deter bats. Nevertheless, walking through the doorway toward the colored windows, I come face to face with a winged creature and am startled for a second before realizing it is a rubber bat hung as a joke by the church's sexton, Clark Cooley.
Back out the door to the steps, we go to the next level, which is also lined in cream city brick. There is a window in each of the four walls and openings in the floor that provide access to dark spaces below that I can't quite make out.
Back out the door to the steps, we go to the next level, open the door and our mouths drop. First, because I was expecting bells and see, instead, a drab loudspeaker. Second, because here, in the belfry, on each of the four sides, there are nine openings facing out in every direction across the city.
It's a little disconcerting because these openings are big enough to fall through, so we tread carefully, but snap away, getting pictures of the Downtown skyline, the steeple-laden views to the west and north, the icy lake to the east.
The cold wind swirls up here and that keeps the visit short, but we see there are more stairs, so we keep winding our way up, until we get to the top, where there is a door that is iced shut. It leads to the roof of the tower and we'll have to come back in spring to check that out. Just above is the wooden structure of turret roof. I snap a picture of some of the graffiti I see, which isn't much, and head back down.
In the sanctuary, Teague and Cooley await and they explain that Mrs. Daniel Wells (not to be confused with Daniel Wells, Jr., a well-known Milwaukeean of the same era), donated the funds to complete the tower, which sat unfinished for nearly a decade.
Mrs. Wells – whose husband helped the project along by donating the stone for the church and who had died before it was finished – funded the completion of the tower, with the caveat that it never house any bells.
"She lived in the neighborhood, and was tired of hearing numerous bells ringing during the day," writes Haubrich.
Later, a carillon was installed, says Teague, but Cooley adds it was removed about a decade ago and the tower has been silent since. But that's OK, this striking tower speaks volumes without sounding a single peal.
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