The Virgin Mary Is in the Details

The developers claim that the town of Ave Maria will be open to all, but the town’s theology is obvious in its design.

Sometimes all you have to do is look at the rendering. Words can obfuscate, but the picture is often remarkably clear. That’s certainly the case with Ave Maria, the Catholic university and adjoining town funded to the tune of $250 million by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, currently under construction near Naples, Florida.

You may have heard about Ave Maria. There was a flurry of news reports in late winter prompted by Monaghan’s long-standing claims that the university, the town, and its people would hew to traditional values: no pornography, no contraceptives. Naturally the executive director of Florida’s ACLU affiliate, Howard Simon, jumped in: “If they attempt to do what he apparently wants to do, the people of Naples and Collier County, Florida, are in for a whole series of legal and constitutional problems and a lot of litigation indefinitely into the future.”

The wave of controversy prompted backpedaling by Monaghan and his partner, Paul Marinelli, president and CEO of the Barron Collier Companies, a Florida developer. “Because the University’s leadership, in accordance with Catholic teachings, opposes the sale of contraceptives, retailers in the town have been asked to refrain from selling contraceptives,” the two explained in a joint statement. “However, it is critical to note that no restrictions will be enforced on contraceptives or any other inventory.” The statement went on to say that although Ave Maria, the university, is Catholic, Ave Maria, the town, “will be open to all,” a place where “traditional family values are held dear by people no matter what their faith, walk of life, or stage of life.”

Indeed on the Web site of Pulte Homes, one of the town’s builders, there’s the usual feel-good boilerplate often found in the prospectus of any traditional neighborhood development: “The emergence of old European world charm and modern American ingenuity awaits you! Ave Maria is an approximately 5,000-acre master planned community nestled in the heart of Southwest Florida. Reflecting the traditional European town centers, you will be delighted to discover a new life inspiring every lifestyle, every family, every dream.”

But look at the rendering ( The key image is of the town center, with a central ellipse ringed by a series of Mediterranean-style mixed-use buildings. Smack in the middle is a huge church, shaped a bit like a miter. It looks like the architects at Cannon Design, a large Buffalo, New York-area consultancy that worked on the master plan for the town, extracted architectural elements—buttresses and arches—from Gothic cathedrals and exaggerated them much as Philip Johnson once exaggerated a broken pediment. What’s disturbing is not so much the neo-Post-Modern architecture of the church, known as “the Oratory,” but its placement.

According to Cannon, “The oval shape reinforces the focal quality of the Oratory, and all major roadways serving the town radiate from this central position…” So far so good. It’s what any firm might say about any town-planning initiative, all axes and sightlines. But then you hit the final clause of the sentence and discover that there’s a bit more going on: “…underlying the centrality of faith in this unique community.”

In front of the Oratory stands a 65-foot-tall statue of Christ on the cross. “We needed a freestanding element in the elliptical plaza,” says Todd Hill, a vice president at the Atlanta office of EDAW, another planning firm that helped configure Ave Maria. “We had various iconic vertical elements marking the northwest corner of the elliptical plaza, and I think the latest permutation is the large cross.”

Right: an iconic vertical element. But when I first saw the rendering, Ave Maria struck me as another permutation of the New Urbanist phenomenon. It is configured like Seaside—only instead of a town green full of frolicking children and macramé vendors, there is a 1,100-seat church and a 65-foot cross. It is like Celebration, but in lieu of Mickey Mouse ears turning up as car-antenna ornaments and on colorful front-porch banners, there will likely be crosses.

I was initially tempted to pin this one on Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). This is no inherent religious or political outlook embedded in New Urbanism; but the eagerness of these places to reclaim values from the past—cherry-picking the style but not necessarily the mores that were embedded in it—has inevitably led us here. Ave Maria is arguably the ultimate New Urbanist place: it combines the hallmarks of neo-traditionalism—mixed-use town center, the alleys, the pedestrian-friendly layout—with a heavy dose of plain old traditionalism. If you spend enough time using traditionalism as a sales tool for a package of restrictive building codes at which developers might otherwise balk, you also wind up selling traditionalism.

But we can’t pin this one on DPZ because that’s not what’s in the rendering. Ave Maria is stranger than that. The university portion, designed by Cannon and EDAW, is an homage to Monaghan’s other god: Frank Lloyd Wright. The series of long low buildings with copper roofs “evokes the horizontality and humanism of Wright’s work,” according to Cannon. The predominantly Mediterranean flavor of the town center is just default South Florida style.

But the town plan itself, with streets radiating from a central church, is drawn directly from the Middle Ages—“Siena,” says Keith Alf, Cannon’s project manager. And that’s the truly disquieting thing: New Urbanism, for all its revanchism, is about regaining civic values from the American past. Ave Maria is about going back to a time before the United States existed.

“It does seem to be taking a medieval model of the world rather than an American postconstitutional model,” observes Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “People left Europe because there were established or dominant religions. They came here to set up a place, ultimately, that no single religion controlled. It does seem to be a reversion to the model that America escaped from.”

And even if this elliptical plaza with the immense church and tall crucifix is “located at the easternmost end of the 1,000-foot-long campus green”—as Cannon’s design statement claims—it serves as the town center, the hub around which the business district is arrayed. Yes, it’s a very charming medieval configuration, just the sort of thing that one visits Europe to experience. But here in the United States we have customarily given civic buildings—courthouse, city hall, library—pride of place. Here you can’t just put up a crucifix in the center of town, even if you really need an iconic vertical element. As the ACLU’s Gunn explains, “If we just say that it is city property or town property or government property, there could be a statue of Jesus on it, but it must be what is called an open public forum, so that any other person could go and erect their own monument or statue of Buddha or whatever.” The developers argue that Ave Maria University has put up the cross on its private campus. However, when you look at the rendering, it’s clear that what they call the end of the campus green is downtown Ave Maria.

Oh, there is one thing you can’t see in the rendering: it turns out that the whole town of Ave Maria is—no surprise—somewhat askew. According to Hill, of EDAW, the town’s grid is several degrees off a typical east-west orientation. It’s lined up with the path the sun travels on the Feast of the Annunciation. The whole town, in other words, is configured to commemorate the day the church says Jesus was conceived. Embedded deep in the town plan is that history-altering encounter between human egg and divine sperm. “The entire town grid is based on that slight angle,” Hill says. “It’s the kind of thing that drives engineers crazy.” Engineers, yes—and maybe some other kinds of people as well.

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