The Structure of American Style and French Proportion


The Aisne Marne cemetery chapel is one of the most important World War I monuments.

Before a 2018 ceremony marking the centennial of the battle of Belleau Wood at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. In the background, a village church can be seen. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Two months before the November 2020 presidential election, the Atlantic‘s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote a story claiming that President Donald Trump had used a rainy weather forecast as a pretext for canceling a scheduled appearance at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial. The World War I cemetery is adjacent to Belleau Wood, where U.S. Marines defeated the Germans in an infernal 20-day struggle, and 45 miles northeast of Paris. Goldberg claimed that Trump called those buried there “losers and suckers” and reacted to the possibility of rain ruining his hair. The Trumpian hairstyle could have been protected by umbrellas. That’s not the only reason to doubt the veracity of Goldberg’s scoop, which concerned an event pegged to the centennial of the November 1918 armistice that ended the Great War.

So much about politics. Trump did not get to see a magnificent commemorative landscape, all I can say is this: The Aisne-Marne cemetery chapel–designed by the great American interpreter of Gothic, Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942)–ranks among the finest World War I monuments. The cemetery’s landscape and surrounding countryside are dominated by it.

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery Chapel. Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission

Cram was the son of a New Hampshire Unitarian minister who had no financial means. He never attended college. Cram was highly intellectual and became Anglo-Catholic, with a somewhat skeptic view of the Reformation. His highly productive Boston-based practice earned him many Protestant clients. Cram built the Headquarters Building in West Point, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan, and the Chapel and Graduate College in Princeton. He also created Lovett Hall at Rice University Houston, which was originally the Administration Building. Richard King Mellon funded the magnificent East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh.

Not all Cram’s Gothic work was done. He developed his unique Romanesque style for the various buildings he designed in his office. Although the Aisne-Marne Cemetery Chapel is Romanesque as well, you won’t find another Romanesque structure like it. Erected where frontline trenches were dug after the fight for Belleau Wood, it is basically a monumental limestone tower rising more than 80 feet from its hillside terrace.

Hired by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1926, Cram and his partner Chester Godfrey experienced pushback from the ABMC and the Commission of Fine Arts, the federal design review board established in 1910, against what was considered the overly Catholic tone of their early design proposals. Cram ended up making the church choir disappear and the apse become the sanctuary. He also made the transepts that flank the nave square-shaped into benches, as well. The exquisite altar is surrounded by four wooden kneelers in the apse. Like the transept-alcoves the apse can be set by an arcuated pier, which is also embedded in the chapel’s limestone walls. Alcove ceilings have barrel vaults, while the apse has the semidome. The lofty nave’s ceiling is groin-vaulted. Beautiful bronze chandeliers hang at the intersection of the alcove and groin vaults.

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Aisne-Marne cemetery chapel apse. Credit: Catesby Leigh

Cram was concerned with the overall massing and design of his buildings. Cram had strong beliefs about religious symbolism and a clear sense of the places where ornaments would be needed. However, he trusted others to design his buildings. Its decorations are elegant and well-focused. After entering through the massive oak double-door with intricate wrought iron detail, one is instantly drawn to the Gothic-style altar. It was mainly made with off-white Italian Marble with gilt accents. The altar features half-dozen pinnacles intricately carved and rich in symbolic detail. The altar’s center panel is made of darker and more veined marble. A gilt pelican feeds its young, in an image that evokes Christ giving his disciples.

The apse also houses tablets bearing the Mosaic commandments, as 33 Jewish soldiers are buried in the cemetery. One of the fine stained glass windows in the apse shows images of St. Louis, the Crusader, above, St. Michael, the conqueror of evil, and St. Denis (patrons saint of France), below. A window in each alcove features the shields of the nations allied against Germany in the war on one side and the insignia of the army corps and divisions that fought in Aisne-Marne region in 1918 on the other. (The Marines who fought in Belleau Wood were attached to the 2nd Division.) The names of 1,060 Americans whose remains were never recovered or could not be identified are inscribed on the chapel’s walls.

Aisne-Marne cemetery chapel, rear view with landscape. Credit: Catesby Leigh

The entrance to the cemetery is a reflection of Cram’s architecture. The entrance to the cemetery is located on the opposite side of the large mall. It is flanked by a huge pier that bears the Great Seal of the United States. This arch is enclosed with a slightly lower flanking arch and a gate made of wrought iron. Although they are not symmetrical, the structures create a symmetry that embraces the main road and frame the chapel’s front. These structures are modernistic in style and reflect the focus on massing and not detail at the exterior of the tower.

Not that there is a lack of detail.

The chapel’s door has a relief that depicts an old military type, a Crusader wearing armor. It is carved in modernistic style and flanked with shields from France and the United States. Three prominently embossed carvings depicting the U.S. division and shield insignia are crowned each side of the chapel tower’s capitals. Each side has buttresses with offsets. This emphasizes the impression of emphatic verticality and reduces the appearance of horizontality. Below the belfry, arcuated openings and the tower’s top, elongated arch patterns are carved with attributes from different military branches.

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Aisne-Marne American Cemetery entrance, with memorial chapel in background. Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission

The cemetery’s landscape–mainly laid out in the early 1920s by George Gibbs, a Kentucky native who spent a considerable portion of his career with the influential Olmsted Brothers office–is superb. You will find the road to the two shopping centers in front of the chapel lined with rosebush and plane trees. The hedges are low with boxwood hedges. There is little planting between the hedges with conical boxwood trees. You will find the road at the intersection of two malls with gently curving tree-lined lanes that gird the two sections of graves. These are located between the Chapel and Belleau Wood. Nearly 2,300 Americans are buried here. An enclosed stairwell adjoined to the tower’s rear leads to the belfry, which offers 360 degree-views of the cemetery and the (now) beautiful landscape in which some 310,000 American soldiers and Marines played a crucial role in pushing the Germans relentlessly northward from the Marne during the summer of 1918. Although the stairwell is closed at the moment, paths take you up to the top of the hill in which the tower rests. This allows the visitor to enjoy the spectacular spectacle in a more informal setting. The top of the hill is home to a forest that contains the remains of Belleau Wood’s struggle. However, you will need to cross the Aisne-Marne Cemetery to get to the Marine Corps Memorial at the site.

Cram’s work at the Aisne-Marne cemetery, which was completed in 1932, includes two pleasingly domestic structures: a visitor building and, across the entrance road, the superintendent’s quarters, both finished in fieldstone ashlar with limestone trim. He designed another excellent monumental ensemble for the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, about a 20-mile drive northeast of the Aisne-Marne cemetery. It is Romanesque-inspired and responds to the site’s unique design with a different style. The semicircular, circular peristyle ends in a chapel. At the opposite end, there is a museum that features a beautifully incised, multichromatic wall map detailing the American role in the Aisne Marne area. With their beautifully battered walls (or inclined), the peristyle as well as two buildings are covered in beautiful pink sandstone and pale-grey trim. This cemetery contains more than 6,000 graves.

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There are many American monuments within the vicinity of the cemeteries, however I want to briefly mention one that is often overlooked by American tourists. This is the American Memorial Church, located next to the mairie in Chateau-Thierry, the town on the Marne which marked the southern extent of the alarming German advance in late May, 1918. Achille Chauquet (a French architect) designed the church. It was built by American Protestants, mainly members of small presbyterian denominations with deep roots in Pennsylvania and the Reformed Church of the United States. The American Memorial Church was completed in 1924 and entrusted to French Calvinists. Theodore Roosevelt’s widow donated the Bible on the communion table in memory of her son Quentin, a fighter pilot killed in action, at age 20, in July 1918. (A handsome stone fountain in the village of Chamery, situated about half a mile from the site where his Nieuport 28 crashed, serves as a memorial to Quentin. )

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Cram wasn’t impressed with the French architecture between wars, the restoration of historical landmarks aside. He wouldn’t have considered the American Memorial Church exterior which displays an unmonumental doldrums. The church’s entrance tower is flanked on each side by the parish hall and on the other the church. It is surprising to see the interior of the church. It is very much a sacramental space, not the more functionally-oriented auditorium associated with Calvinist worship. It is impressive in size and features a large nave without aisles, a wooden ceiling with trusswork support, as well as a beautiful wooden ceiling. The stained-glass windows are three-tiered and feature Christian symbols above, as well as parable scenes at the bottom. At the bottom you will find tondo portraits depicting Calvinist luminaries. The large window at the top of the narthex commemorates the Franco-American military alliance. Lafayette is front and centre.

The sanctuary is likely due to the involvement of Paul Philippe Cret (a French-born and classically-oriented designer) in the American Battle Monuments Commission’s memorial church project. For the record, Cret designed the Chamery memorial fountain as well as several other major World War I monuments throughout France. It is possible to conclude that Cram has used his Catholic influence on this design for a Protestant temple. The American Memorial Church is a place of worship, but it also stands as a remarkable testament to the bonds that have bound France with America.

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