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Just one look

St. George’s Chapel
Middletown, Rhode Island

The ideal prospect of St. George’s School Chapel is from Little Compton, looking west across the Sakonnet River at sunset. This is the Rhode Island shore, yet the estuarine landscape punctuated by the chapel’s spiky tower on the distant skyline is reminiscent of Devon or Cornwall. The silhouette could be mistaken for a 15th-century church tower in the Somerset countryside, evoking poems of A. E. Housman or Rupert Brooke (“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England”).

St. George’s is the epitome of a New England prep school. That one expects to see the English Olympians from Chariots of Fire running along the beach is exactly the atmosphere that architect Ralph Adams Cram wished the chapel to convey. Built in 1928, but looking not a day younger than 1448, St. George’s is a scholarly but lively exercise in Perpendicular Gothic — a romantic transatlantic echo of the college chapels of Oxford and Cambridge.

The chapel near Newport has been cited as a practice run for Cram’s chapel at Princeton, yet St. George’s is a near- perfect gem. As well known in his day as his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Cram is perhaps the greatest architect America ever forgot. He designed everything in a variety of styles from war memorials to skyscrapers, was the first chairman of the Boston city planning commission, and was on the cover of Time magazine in 1926. Yet Cram is best known for his churches and his Gothic ensembles at West Point and Princeton. He designed both a church and a house in Newport for the family of St. George’s donor John Nicholas Brown.

Cram was the master of the simple yet picturesque outline. Close up, however, the chapel surface is enlivened with carvings of the architect, the donor, and various athletes; one exterior wall features nautical motifs (a Viking ship and the Santa Maria, plus the battleship on which Brown served). But it is the interior that makes St. George’s one of New England’s preeminent Gothic Revival landmarks.

Walter Burnham, one of the country’s most renowned stained-glass makers, created all the windows, and the ample window-to-wall ratio allows for a lot of glorious, Chartres-like light. The proportions are tall and the plan is unusual. There is neither nave nor transept — the chapel is composed entirely of choir, in the tradition of Oxbridge chapels. Thin colonnettes reach up toward the quadripartite vaults; the entire composition is extremely spare, almost Spartan.

But in keeping with the spirit of, say, Trinity College, Cambridge, or Merton College, Oxford, the walls are carved with memorials, some in Latin. Many carry sobriquets worthy of Kipling: “A Good Man” or “A Lifetime Friendship With Each & Every Boy.” One teacher who gave three decades to St. George’s is memorialized as “Sailor. Swimmer. Photographer. Storyteller. Incurable Optimist.”