Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Vessel for Joyful Singing; All Saints Ashmont Nears Complete Restoration


On Sunday, December 21st at 4 p.m. the Parish of All Saints Ashmont holds its annual Service of Nine Lessons & Carols for the Christmas season, an opportunity to hear the beautiful music of the parish’s 125-year-old Choir of Men & Boys. Guest blogger Jeffrey Gonyeau, former HBI staffer, member of the Men and Boys Choir, All Saints preservation project team member and resident of the Ashmont neighborhood, updates us on the restoration of Ralph Adams Cram’s 1892 masterpiece.

The 18-month construction project at All Saints, Ashmont, in Dorchester is hurtling toward completion. The frenzy of activity by the Consigli Construction team working toward the goal of completing as much work as possible by Christmas juxtaposes elements of work as diverse as touch-up painting, light-aiming, and kneeler reupholstering in the church, with installing bathroom fixtures, laying new quarry tile and reclaimed wood flooring in the Parish House addition, and striping the reconfigured parking lot.

On the one hand, it is easy at this point in a project to get bogged down with punchlists, last-minute problems, and delays caused by uncooperative weather—not to mention the fatigue induced by 18 months of noise, dust, and disruption.

On the other hand, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of some the work now in place at All Saints. Outside, the massive, seam-face Quincy granite walls are fully repointed and cleaned; the wood window tracery has undergone heroic carpentry repairs; new slate roofs and copper accessories replace thoroughly worn materials that were letting in water; a grotesque at the tower entry has received a hand-carved replacement for his missing lower jaw.

Inside the church, restored stained glass windows by Christopher Whall, Charles Connick, and other important glassmakers shimmer; the gently-cleaned oak woodwork and carvings by Johannes Kirchmayer glow warmly; the deep-red beauty of the Lake Superior red sandstone in the nave and Lady Chapel has been revealed, stripped of its unsightly coating of paint; light fixtures restored to their original 1920s appearance gently illuminate walls freshly painted with a warm color uncovered during a historic paint analysis.

Although the Parish leadership fretted about making such a visible change to its iconic building, the small addition to the Parish House that accommodates an elevator, a re-worked stair hall, and a fully accessible entrance to this much-used portion of the building harmonizes beautifully with the historic fabric, thanks to the sensitive and skilled team at John G. Waite Associates, architects for the project. Not only do the materials and details of the addition match the quality of their context—including carefully-sourced buff brick, hand-tooled limestone trim, and leaded glass windows —but the generous proportions and natural lighting of the new interior spaces make them a pleasure to pass through.

So, as I have just demonstrated by writing far more than I intended, it is very easy to be distracted by both the chaos and beauty of a project at this point. However, while it is certainly a worthwhile endeavor to go to great lengths to preserve such a worthy building, it is important to remember that the real goal of such projects should be to preserve and protect places that are centers of activity that benefit people and their larger community.

Yes—the structure is a monument of Gothic Revival ecclesiastical architecture; begun in 1892 as the virtuosic first major work by the then 20-something architect Ralph Adams Cram, it influenced American church design throughout the 20th century and launched the prolific careers of Cram and his design partner, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. For these reasons alone, it deserves a first-rate treatment. However, these buildings are home to a thriving congregation that not only serves the spiritual needs of its parishioners, but provides space for many critical arts, educational, and social service programs for its Dorchester community.

One of the Parish’s most high-profile programs—its 125-year-old vested Choir of Men & Boys—will be featured on Sunday, December 21st, at 4pm at the annual Service of Nine Lessons & Carols, which will be a perfect opportunity to get a glimpse of the nearly-complete restoration project as well as to hear some wonderful music in the church’s improved acoustic.

Modeled on the English choral tradition, All Saints’ choir is one of only 20 such choirs left in America today. It consists of boys and teens aged 7 to 18, along with professional and volunteer adult male singers from greater Boston. Racial and ethnic diversity is a hallmark of the choir, and most of the boys and teens come from the neighborhoods directly around the church—many coming from disadvantaged families.

Aside from the first-rate musical training they receive, the boys and teens rely on the choir and the church as a safe and positive place where they can engage in healthy activities after school and on weekends; the program even provides the singers with their own indoor basketball court in the Parish House and offers a wonderful summer camp experience in upstate New York on the shore of Lake Champlain. To deepen the program’s impact, a new partnership with the Harvard Glee Club puts the singers in regular contact with young Harvard men who provide musical training and other mentoring to the boys and teens.

The Lessons & Carols Service on December 21st will provide the opportunity to see the magnificent work nearing completion at All Saints, Ashmont, and to hear some beautiful seasonal music. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a chance to support a preservation endeavor by an institution that is committed not only to preserving and maintaining its compelling and architecturally significant buildings, but to keeping them relevant as a critical center of spiritual, civic, and cultural life in its Dorchester neighborhood.

For more details about the All Saints, Ashmont, project or the Lessons & Carols Service, please visit the Parish’s newly-designed website at www.all saints.net.




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