• John M Feit

St. Joseph’s Art Deco Mastery

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Few building typologies have the history or endurance of the basilica. First appearing about the 2nd Century BCE, the basilica evolved from its initial, secular roots as a building housing courts and other civic functions to the archetypal building form for Christian houses of worship. Capitol Hill’s own St. Joseph’s church, at 19th Avenue and Aloha Street, is both an outstanding example of the basilica typology as well as of art deco architecture.

Typically much longer in plan than it is wide, a basilica’s form is deceptively simple: a door at one end, a central hall (the nave) with a high ceiling, flanked by two smaller halls (side aisles) with lower ceilings, and a raised platform at the end opposite the doors. Later, ecclesiastical additions included towers, stained-glass windows, and other trappings meant to inspire worshipers to the other-worldliness of the services occurring within.

St. Joseph’s design clearly relates its basilica-derived design on the exterior of the building; the nave is the most prominent form, and the side aisles, although dwarfed by the nave, are expressed in a suitably subservient role that affords them an equally clear and strong presence. The inside of the church also reflects this clarity, as well if not better than the exterior.

In the basilica, and its most famous progeny the Gothic cathedral, vaulting was exuberant and the most celebrated aspect of the building's design. In St. Joseph’s, the ceiling and its embellishing features remain a strong design element, although here they are subdued to reflect the building’s lean, art deco-inspired aesthetic and low-sloped roof. It is the lean, art deco-inspired aesthetic – not its necessarily academic credentials – that make the building one of the best on Capitol Hill.

Like its contemporary St. Mark’s Cathedral on 10th Avenue East (which is not a basilica but is an equally fantastic structure), St. Joseph's structure and enclosure are board-formed concrete. Both churches date from the late 1920s and rely on a restrained vocabulary. This restraint is due, in part, to a lack of funds as both buildings were built during the Great Depression. On St. Joseph’s, the building's simplicity is ornamented with richly detailed stone accents, of varying depths, on the top of the exterior walls. These accents also make up the prominent rose windows on both the east and west elevations and crown the top of the church's impressive spire. As can be found in many very well-executed designs, there is a consistency of approach in material, form, and detail between the building’s interior and exterior. The side aisles have the same angular geometry as does the building mass, and decorative embellishments are limited to the edges or tops of wall, floors, and ceilings, much as they are limited to the top of the exterior walls and the rose windows.

St. Joseph’s also has a deep design association to the precedent of the earliest Christian adopter of the Roman basilica, the Byzantine churches of the early middle ages. St. Joseph’s comparatively unadorned nature reflects those buildings, which were built prior to the Church’s amassing the wealth needed to build the much grander high Gothic, renaissance, and baroque basilicas. This association may seem a bit academic, except for an exciting discovery I made while photographing the interior: the mosaics found throughout the interior. St. Joseph’s mosaics are a wonderful, 20th Century interpretation of those found in early Byzantine art and architecture. This unity of art and architecture is a great lesson in complete design-thinking and thoroughness of execution between ancient precedent and modern interpretation. A lesson free for the taking right here on the Hill.

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