Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Church of St George Jetson

 One of GK Chesterton's better quips is that the Catholic Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.   Sadly, this is not a lesson readily appreciated by architects.  

 Exterior, Guardian Angels Cathedral, Las Vegas NV (1961-1963)

 A couple of weeks ago I was prowling around the Guardian Angels Cathedral in Las Vegas, especially interested in the fabled stained glass there depicting the casinos which helped sponsor the building project (not unlike the Chandlers' or Fishmongers' Guilds once patronized the building of medieval churches). It really is a charming window in a way, discretely tucked away in the south east window to the right of the altar behind a large fiberglass resin cast angel presumably acquired from the Design Toscano catalog, in an area cordoned off with signs advertising that entry into the sanctuary was prohibited. 

As I was photographing the window, the church guard approached me to advise me that I was not to take pictures in the sanctuary.  I explained the purpose of my visit was to photograph the church, and inquired how might I get permission to take pictures in the sanctuary?  He had no idea, as if no one had ever asked such a thing before, so I asked if I might speak to the rector of the Cathedral, and I was directed to the chancery office across the parking lot. Unfortunately, neither the rector nor the Vicar General nor the Bishop were in town to grant me permission, so the receptionist made a series of calls to this department and that, being shuffled from one office to another, until she finally found someone of authority to speak with me.

Ten minutes later, a laymen approached me and asked what I needed.  I introduced myself, explained that I was an architect and writer specializing in Catholic church design, and asked if I might take a few photos from the sanctuary area.

"No.  No photography is permitted in the cathedral."

"Errr... No photography? At all?  I've never heard of no one being allowed to photograph inside a church."

"That is our policy."

Again, I explained that I was interested in the architectural and liturgical study of the building, and that church buildings are typically photographed. From whom might I get permission?

"No one.  That is our policy."

"May I inquire as to why that is your policy?"

"That is our policy.  The purpose of the cathedral is not to be photographed". 

Realizing that his logic was as unassailable as his position was invincible, I thanked him for his time and returned to the Cathedral. The guard again approached me and asked if I got permission to photograph from the sanctuary.

"No, I didn't."

"Well, just stay out of the sanctuary and take whatever pictures you want".

Since I hold that the principle of subsidiarity is one of the bedrock teachings of the Church which speaks to how governance of temporal goods are to be ordered for the good of all society, I appreciated how those in appointed authority at a lower level and who have a competent grasp of the local specific needs of the community are able to make prudential judgments that can be obeyed without moral concern:  sort of like prosecutorial discretion or the nice policeman letting you off with a warning rather than a ticket. I thanked him and resumed my photography, assuring him that I would respect the boundaries of the sanctuary.

Here, therefore, is that forbidden image showing the casinos which supported the building of the church. (A forbidden image is one that is judged inappropriate to the faith, such as depictions of the Trinity as one body with three heads. Given the various injunctions against profane imagery in churches, from St Charles Borromeo's Instructions to Pope Pius X's Tra le Sollecitudini, this image may arguably rise to the same level of anathema as a certain statue of the Blessed Virgin wearing priestly vestments which is also discretely tucked away in a darkened side chapel of a major church somewhere in the western United States),

 Stained Glass Window, Guardian Angels Cathedral, Las Vegas NV

Guardian Angels Church was designed in the early 1960s by Paul Revere Williams, a fashionable, African American, Los Angeles-based architect who designed homes for the glitterati: Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Lon Chaney, Bert "The Cowardly Lion" Lahr, Barbara Stanwyck, Johnnie Weissmuller of "Tarzan" fame, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

The church itself was originally designed as a parish church and only later raised to a Cathedral.  The land was donated by Morris "Mr. Las Vegas" Dalitz, a Jewish businessman with rather unsavory connections to organized crime who owned the nearby Desert Inn casino. Dalitz was approached by Fr Richard Crowley, a Viatorian who was the parish priest of the recently condemned and dismantled St. Viator parish.  Fr. Corwley persuaded Moe Dalitz to support the project to serve the Catholic service workers at Dalitz's casinos.  Dalitz engaged Paul Revere Williams to design the church, having worked with him already on the Royal Nevada hotel.

  Theme Building, LAX Airport, Los Angeles, CA

Williams, incidentally, is also credited as a lead designer on the Space Aged "Theme Building" as LAX from his tenure at Pereira & Luckman. He was very much an architect of his era -- and his buildings reflect the Atomic age aesthetics of the day: Sputnik, rocket fins,  and of course the Jetsons. 

The Atomic Age! So much hope for the future of humanity! What could be a more important iconic statement of fashion than the catenary curve of high power lines crossing the nation, elliptical arcs of rocketry, or the the conventional if erroneous depiction of the orbit of the electron around the nucleus in the atom?  Surely *this* was an architecture that would speak to "modern man" in "forms relevant to his times" that the dusty old Gothic could do no more! The spirit of the age dictated the architecture by directing the sub-conscience, from the LAX theme building to the contemporaneous St Maria Goretti in Scottsdale Arizona, affectionately known as "Our Lady of the Golden Arches".

 St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church, Scottsdale AZ

The architect of Guardian Angels was a good stylist, and obviously a keen observer of fashionable architectural publications.  He followed quickly on Walter Netsch's widely published designs for the new Cadet's Chapel of the US Air Force Academy (started in 1959, completed 1962) with the repeating arrangement of Convair F-102 Delta Dagger Interceptor military jets pointing to the heavens -- which seems to be some sort of a Cold War trope for beating swords into plowshares.

Cadet's Chapel, US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs CO, 
by Walter Netsch Jr of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Chicago (1959-1962).

F-102 Delta Dagger Interceptor, by Convair, 1954-1958.

Guardian Angels is a sort of poor cousin to the grand Cadet's Chapel, much more modest in scale and scope and materials, but an interesting period piece none the less.

While stylistically being a child of its age, Guardian Angels was built right before the Second Vatican Council, and has none of the liturgical innovations such as fan shaped seating or white washed interiors that soon became the fashion.  Rather it is a simple and somewhat elegant hall church with a strong sense of rhythm, proportion, and integration of architectural form, liturgical appointments and sacred art.

The interior is a simple A-frame space, which is provided abundant light by the monumental triangular windows which depict scenes from the Stations of the Cross.  The windows are rather dark and dense, both in material and content, and admirably cut the harsh glare of the desert sun to create a luminous interior which is easy on the eyes.  

The stained glass was designed by the Los Angeles artist Isabel Piczek, and despite its severe and spartan, mechanical approach to the human figure, is actually quite high quality and imbued with pathos and strong personality, and is entirely at home in this building. The scenes are readily understandable, and great attention has been given to the composition, content, and gestures and facial expressions of the various scenes.

The rear wall mural, by the artist's sister Edith Piczek, seems oddly prophetic.  The souls in ascension with Christ at the Resurrection are strangely evocative of the harlequined acrobats flying through the air nightly at any number of the Cirque du Soliel shows which are available up and down the Strip.

The baptismal font, Guardian Angels Cathedral, Las Vegas NV

Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Guardian Angels Cathedral, Las Vegas, NV

The church is definitely a period piece, and a reasonably good piece of Atomic Age architecture.  Its sense of datedness however, raises the question of how far architects should go in trying to "speak to the age" short of that degrading slavery of being children of their age. There is enough in this building that it is recognizably a Catholic church, even if it is not a commendable model for replication.  A-frame architecture seems just too mechanical to carry the weight of something intended to speak of the transcendent, despite the allusion to the upward thrust of jet aircraft piercing the heavens in our attempt to connect with God.


  1. I followed your link from Eye of the Tiber. This is truly an interesting blog post, especially the comparison with other Atomic Age buildings. And your commentary on the permission-loop was amusing.

  2. I have been wondering if I would ever find a picture of that window since I saw it 10 years ago in vegas. But I thought is portrayed the Lord Jesus judging the city from the clouds.

  3. I too followed from Eye of the Tiber, and even after your many more pictures, my overall impression of Christ Descending into Hell still fits. What better cathedral for a city best known for gambling, sex, and suicidal despair.