St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, completed in 1928, was designed by Ralph Adams Cram of Boston. The contractor was Young and Jacobs of New York. Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was the most important and influential American ecclesiastical architect of the first half of the 20th century and often worked in medieval styles. He was a well-known authority on medieval architecture and the author of numerous books on the subject. He was a prominent Episcopalian and is honored, along with fellow architects John Lafarge and Richard Upjohn, on December 16th as a feast day in the Episcopal Church.
In keeping with its roots in the Church of England, Cram designed St. Paul’s after typical English churches of the medieval period. The plan is cruciform with a great bell tower over the crossing. The siting, massing and tower details show the strong influence of the 1910 Liverpool Cathedral by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The crossing towers of English churches were often meant to have spires, but few were actually constructed. St. Paul’s Tower has the corner supports to mimic the broaches for a spire that was never built, showing Cram’s intellectual rigor and sense of humor.
Medieval churches took hundreds of years to build and engineering technology and building practices and fashions changed. St. Paul’s, though built in a short period of time, cleverly blends styles from many periods. The nave is “Early English” (13th century) style. The chancel, transepts and east front are in “Decorated” (14th Century) style, and the crossing bell tower is in “Perpendicular” (15th Century) style. The choir stalls and organ screens are Tudor and Elizabethan in style (16th Century). The high Altar, with riddel posts, shows Cram keeping up with the latest English scholarship and ecclesiastical practices of his time. There was strong interest in the “Sarum Revival” and altars with riddel posts topped with angels holding candles, riddel curtains, and dossals were thought to be the true medieval altar. Sir Ninian Comper, a contemporary British architect, had a profound influence on Cram’s liturgical thinking. St. Paul’s is one of the few churches in the United States with an authentic ”English” altar as advocated by Comper.
St. Paul’s is fortunate to have this architectural treasure that is so little changed from the time it was built. The absence of major alterations make the church unique among Cram’s designs and shows the dedication and stewardship of the many parishioners who have appreciated this wonderful gift to the city of Winston-Salem.