While Gothic arches, reaching upward, symbolize aspiration to heaven, here we see them reach towards a substituted objective, one that is more immediate: luxury condos, burgeoning above what was once Holy Trinity Church on Shawmut Avenue in Boston’s South End. A wish has been answered, but it is not the wish of those who prayed here. This photo, captured at night, shows the construction site aglow.
Known as the “German Church,” Holy Trinity served the needs of German immigrants in Boston in the early 19th century. Over the years it continued to hold German-English liturgies, as well as the city’s only approved Latin mass starting in 1990. As its congregation declined, some of the church grounds were dedicated to charities, including a shelter for older homeless people and another for at-risk youth. The parish was suppressed in 2008 with Cardinal O’Malley reassigning the building for “profane but not sordid use,” and now the structure is metamorphosing into The Lucas, a high-end development with 33 luxury residences ranging in price from $550,000 to upwards of $3,000,000.
When I see Holy Trinity, I see a place where generations of people have looked for spiritual, social, and in some cases material refuge. I do know that the Catholic church in Boston and worldwide has been ridden with scandal. And although I never attended services at Holy Trinity, I assume I would have differed with some of the preachings that were uttered within its stone walls. But this does not change what those gothic arches represent, a yearning that is universal.
What should have been done with the declining church? For the moment, let’s accept the platitudes that times change, buildings fall into disrepair, renovations are expensive, resources are scarce, parishes must be reconfigured, and economics does not support the infinite preservation of any structure — no matter how sacred — that loses money, particularly if the structure resides on a plot that could be used to make money were it released from the burdens of sacredness and charity. For this discussion, let’s posit that to become a luxury condo development was the unavoidable fate of Holy Trinity and that no one could have done anything to make the outcome any different. The narrower question that arises is, what should have been done with the church facade? Should it have been preserved or demolished completely?
It should have been demolished completely.
I’m sure it was expensive and complicated to preserve Trinity’s facade and I’m sure the developers felt they were doing their best to respect Boston’s history, and the church’s memory, by retaining some of its architectural details, so that passers-by could be reminded of what was once there, as opposed to encountering a sterile space where the past had been physically erased and overwritten. If your own most precious place were to be turned into someone else’s luxury tower, perhaps you would want that tower to bear some exterior remnants of the place you had known, so that you would be reminded of old times as you stood outside, or so that some child of the future might at least have a cue to discovering the history of your erstwhile refuge?
But the conversion of a sacred space into luxury condos is a violent act. We cannot soften that violence by physically melding the old with the new, not when the old and the new are so intrinsically disjoint. In fact, we intensify this violence by attempting to conceal it behind the guise of architectural preservation. We make a mockery of the past, a mockery of the church, a mockery of architecture, a mockery of the gothic arch as a symbol of spiritual striving when we try to have it both ways. Tear the church down, get rid of the arches, build the condos, don’t pretend you’re doing something nice.
The church as a visual icon now comes with a question attached, because of all these misguided efforts at preservation. When I see a soaring arch, I have an involuntary thought: “When are the condos coming?” I’ve been conditioned to associate sacred architecture with high value real-estate deals because I keep seeing these conversions everywhere: a church is not a church.
In the 1990’s I used to live near the Limelight dance club (reputed to be profane and sordid) which had taken over the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on West 20th Street in New York. When I moved to Boston’s South End in the 2000’s, the condo-ized Clarendon Street Baptist Church was a visual refrain in my life as a pedestrian. While still living in the South End, I used to attend concerts by the Renaissance choir The Tallis Scholars at the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Harrison Avenue. At a pre-concert talk some years ago, the group’s director Peter Phillips told the audience that this particular church had ideal acoustics for Renaissance choral music and that it was one of his favorite places in the world to perform — and his group, preeminent in its field, tours widely. A few years later, a sale and redevelopment was announced. Soon Peter Phillips will be able to purchase a condo at the former Immaculate Conception if he wants but I doubt the acoustics will be the same with the subdivisions and all.
I am reminded of the recent controversy around the renaming of Calhoun College at Yale University: different circumstances that raise similar questions. Should Yale keep the name of an infamous proponent of slavery on one of its undergraduate residences? Yale’s dean, Peter Salovey, argued that to change the name would be to obscure the past and deprive the Yale community of a chance to face the uncomfortable aspects of its own history.
Salovey’s argument might not seem relevant to Holy Trinity but it can be applied in an oblique way, as a thought experiment. Where Salovey argued that we should keep the emblems of an uncomfortable past in view so we are forced to confront that past, perhaps we too should keep the emblems of an uncomfortable present in view so we are forced to confront that present. If we are, today, a society that turns churches into condos, perhaps developments like The Lucas are doing us the service of showing us who we are. By this line of reasoning, to completely demolish the Trinity facade would be to deprive Bostonians of the chance to grapple with a difficult present topic: the colonization of sacred spaces. If that colonization is indeed underway, better that it should be clearly evidenced in a Frankensteinian streetscape where “the new” is grafted into the still visible carcass of the “the old,” so that we’ll all have to face what’s happening? I am not persuaded.