A Procession of Sacred Green Space

Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By Michael Stern, ASLA | Photographs by Dennis Marsico

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s new Cathedral Campus

The new campus plan makes the cathedral the centerpiece of the experience.

The new campus plan makes the cathedral the centerpiece of the experience.

Sacred landscapes are perhaps the earliest example of human place making. They represent the recognition of a special place in the world—the genius loci—that is significant for the contemplation of the interaction of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds. Scholars as diverse as Mircea Eliade and Vincent Scully have written extensively about the historical and pre-historical relationship of humans and the landscapes they inhabit, and how natural elements such as mountains, forests, and seas have become generative of architectural interpretation as sacred places.

At the Wheeling, West Virginia, Cathedral Campus the challenge was smaller and more intimate, but the consistent design goal was the integration of interior and exterior places into a unified whole that would be inspirational as well as functional. The two principal exterior spaces—the Cathedral Plaza and the Marian Garden—resulted from a cross-disciplinary design and planning process with the goal of creating a unified set of places and experiences within the urban context, which create a new administrative and religious center for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The design team—composed of landscape architects, architects, urban and interior designers—worked with the client to study numerous options in the historic center of Wheeling. The team developed a scheme that combines selective demolition, adaptive reuse of historic structures, and strategic additions to establish a new religious place surrounding the historic St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

The Roman Catholic community of Wheeling—one of the earliest Western expansions of Catholicism in the US—has naturally been focused on the cathedral, constructed in 1926 as the successor structure to the original building from 1847 (which was destroyed in a fire). While it occupies a prominent corner location in central Wheeling, much of the remainder of the block was populated over time with less-worthy structures. A key opportunity emerged when the 1896 parish school next to the cathedral was closed. A captivating redevelopment plan quickly emerged. To streamline and consolidate operations, the main curia offices would move from the cramped and undistinguished 1950s-era chancery to the renovated historic school—connected by a new bridge to the existing offices above the adjacent high school—and the diocesan archives would relocate the original chancery building.

To unify all of these elements and establish a fitting entrance to the new chancery, a nondescript 1930s addition to the historic school was demolished to make way for a new addition and an enclosed porch was added to the historic rectory. At the same time, a garage structure that served the rectory was replaced with a new facility rotated 90 degrees and entered from the rear. All of these architectural moves were considered as part of a campus plan that established two significant new public garden spaces. Each of these was in a sense a “found” space, but with its own distinct character, unified into a larger composition.

The Cathedral Plaza was the greatest revelation in that regard. The simple process of removing the additions to the historic parish school created a space that provided breathing room for the cathedral and revealed a previously unseen and dramatic view of the building. Framed by the chancery and rectory building additions, the entrance to the plaza descends through a gentle staircase that passes through the transitional space of the Honey Locust Bosque trees at an intermediate level, always on axis with the central fountain.

Intended as a sensual element that leads the visitor deeper into the space, the fountain occupies the intersection of the processional and the cathedral transept. Constructed of two large stones, one for the bowl and one the base, it loosely references fonts, tables, and altars in its form, as the water wells mysteriously from an unknown source and activates the space through sound and light. A statue of St. Joseph by a local West Virginia artist, relocated from the previous space, faces back to the fountain and the dome. The plaza was planned as both a ceremonial venue that could accommodate public ceremonies, as well as private events such as weddings, so most of the area is left open as neutral, flexible space.

In contrast, the Marian Garden was conceived as much as a visual element—a veritable theater set— as it was a garden space. Using the rear wall of the garage as a backdrop, this space is enclosed by two wing walls that frame it, clad in a textured, dark gray high-performance concrete. The dense, layered plantings create a sense of a woodland grove that focuses attention on the pure white marble statue of the Virgin Mary, directly opposite the bay window of the rectory dining room. Two granite benches frame the statue and provide a place of rest and contemplation.

The two garden spaces are connected in the use of materials as well. Black Minnesota Mesabi granite is used in a variety of finishes throughout the paving, fountain, and benches to establish a unifying “ground” that contrasts with the surrounding buildings. Native woodland plants are primarily used in both gardens. The yellowwood trees in the Marian Garden bloom in a profusion of fragrant white flowers, and with the blue flowers of the periwinkle and squill groundcovers reflect the Virgin Mary’s traditional colors. The larger scaled birch trees of the Cathedral Plaza will grow to create a visual screen for the rear of the adjacent high school building, providing shade for the rhododendrons, ferns, and other woodland plants below, and focus attention back towards the cathedral.

Landscape gate design references the mountains and rivers of West Virginia.

Landscape gate design references the mountains and rivers of West Virginia.

Using a contemporary yet historically sensitive design approach, the landscape goals of the project were to establish a new sense of place and identity that could uncover dramatic new spaces and engage all members of the community in an understated, experiential way–an orchestrated spatial experience from outside to inside. Natural elements of light, water, stone, trees, and flowers make their own subtle symbolic connections to those primal spiritual landscapes of pre-history, meant to evoke an emotional response that supports the liturgical and spiritual mission of the Church. The power of this sacred landscape is cogently captured by Rev. Msgr. Frederick P. Annie, vicar general for the diocese:

“People interact with the spaces around the cathedral on many levels. During the journey from the car to the cathedral door or the entrance to our chancery, a conversation begins that invites the individual to leave behind the baggage and burdens of everyday life and prepare to enter into a deeper awareness of our spiritual selves. It is not necessary to stop and sit on a bench for a few moments of prayer, although that opportunity is present; just walking through a space that elevates our senses with authentic natural materials and artfully arranged plantings with sacred sculpture and an awareness of the natural and supernatural elements within each of us is a conversation that is amplified by the thought, skill, and talent of the sensitive designer.

“The fountain has a strong visual presence in the courtyard but also announces an audible invitation to come closer and to enjoy a turning within to an inner character reflective of the beauty found in the water feature itself. Whether one is arriving for work and is reminded by this journey that this is no ordinary workplace or approaching the cathedral to celebrate Mass there is a significant contribution made by this environment that prepares one for what happens next. Even descending a comfortably designed stairway into the plaza allows one to experience walking deeper into the mystery that lies ahead. These experiences can be very subtle and on many days individuals may not be aware of the transforming power of the space, yet on other days when light and fragrance and visual beauty combine, a true moment of grace may be achieved.”

The author is a landscape architect and a principal of Strada, a cross-disciplinary design firm with offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.