Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bible Road

No Country for Old Men may have gotten the Oscar, but chances are most Americans, as they cross the great landscape of this country, don't encounter drug deals gone awry and murdered corpses. More likely they've seen something like the pictures laid out in Bible Road, a book with that quality so rare: reverence. I can think of no better role model for this blog enterprise than the keen and lovingly taken photographs of Sam Fentress. Most of the shots are of emissaries (in sign form) of our North American churches, but there are some great church shots in the book as well.

Not sure I'm fully on board with Jacob's ironic review. There is a simple, pungent beauty to these signs, in the most full-orbed sense of such an abused word as beauty. Can I articulate it? Probably not, which is fine. That's what the photographs are for.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Quick, join this blog and start taking photos - before it's too late!

(Hardhat tip to Iconia.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Shadyside Presbyterian Church

Following the adage that we should write about what we know, my inaugural post will feature The Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. I am a member of this church which has been a profound blessing to me. That would make this posting a San Marco. Built in 1890, it is one of the best examples anywhere of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. With the dual inspiration of H. H. Richardson’s Trinity Church, Boston and the Allegheny County Courthouse, the design was by his office staff-successor firm Shepley Rutan & Coolidge. Two years later, the Chapel was completed.

To an extent even greater than Trinity Church, Shadyside’s square central tower organizes the church inside and out. Like many lantern churches of the time, it was conceived as a preaching auditorium, with the central pulpit on a stage above the communion table. So it is remarkable that it works so well as a processional, divided chancel church – which it became in 1938.

The amount of explicit Christian symbolism found inside and outside the church is remarkable for a church in the Reformed tradition. These begin with the enigmatic regal faces at the entrance. They continue inside at the pulpit, lectern, table and font. As late as the 1950s, new symbols were added with the Parish Hall.

Two other visual representations command attention at Shadyside Church. The stunner for most people is the fiery mosaic of the Transfigured Christ in the apse. Notable by its beauty, it is a surprise in a Presbyterian church. (One visitor on a tour insisted that Shadyside was originally occupied by Greek Orthodox congregation.) A Tiffany window, present at the church’s completion, stands out in the nave, with balance of the stained glass installed as memorials after World War I. The narthex screen and the choir screen are skillfully carved. The indirect light of the clerestory windows contributes to a worshipful atmosphere.

Asymmetry, progressive additions and charming features, such as the pastor’s study tower, contribute to a rambling, picturesque composition. The monochrome ashlar and quieter detail (typical of Richardson’s later work) further distinguish Shadyside from Trinity. Cleaned of decades of Pittsburgh’s industrial soot, Shadyside Presbyterian Church rests comfortably on its corner lot in a residential setting, maintaining sight lines often lost in urban locations.

This church is where I learned most of what I know about architecture and worship. And so, I beg forebearance when, on future posts, I ignore the old adage and write about what I don't know.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Oklahoma City Churches—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A good portion of my life was spent in Oklahoma City and the surrounding communities (the first 22 years, in fact). However, in all that time I only attended two churches—Sunnyside Baptist Church, and, once I was in college, Hazel Dell Baptist, where I was the pianist/youth pastor with Amy/church secretary/lawncare guy. I was happy to explore some of the churches in the area while home visiting family, for while I had driven by many, I had been in only a few. The sad truth of Oklahoma City is, that while there's often more than one church per block, most were built with no concept of architectural significance. Currently, there are more megachurches than I can count in the area, all of whom either have huge, cavernous spaces pointed to a stage/screen, or are converted stores (one used to be Wal-Mart), or both. But besides these new, huge structures, since Oklahoma just last year celebrated its centennial, most of the churches were built in the modernist period of architecture, or, even more likely, just in the simplest manner possible.

However, I did find some gems in the area (if you're in Oklahoma City and want to see them, I mapped them on Flickr). I haven't hit them all yet, but I got a good start. Firstly, I did have a San Marco at the church I grew up in, Sunnyside. The building fascinates me, mostly because I know the pastor who was instrumental in building it. Harry Boydstun, who was the pastor for much of my life, helped to build the current building in 1962. He was a fire and brimstone preacher, focusing so much on the law that I grew up utterly terrified of God. The building reflects his focus, for, rather than crosses in the sanctuary, there were lots of images of the Word. The only crosses were these two small ones on the communion table, which was interestingly hidden under a projector screen while I was there. The stained glass lining the nave was only abstract shapes, but the stained glass over the baptistry (which was hidden behind the projector screen) was an image of the Ten Commandments. While the church is an obvious product of the early 60s, in its defense is an interesting steeple, and, the sense of space provided by the high ceiling in the sanctuary.

I further received a Gaudi at one of the older downtown church buildings, what is now Citychurch. After wandering in the open door, one of the staff evangelists started talking to me, and then took me on a tour. Built in 1911 as the First Christian Church, the building is neoclassical, or, perhaps more correctly, Beaux-Arts, in its style (much like the bottom of the nearby Old Post Office). It was bought in the early 90s by Citychurch, a charismatic congregation, and, after sitting dormant for over 30 years, is again a thriving church. The building has a wonderful tin dome along with four smaller ones. The dome received some damage in the 1995 Murrah Building Bombing, but its interior and exterior are still original. The sanctuary itself shows the theater style that had become popular in churches, with a curved balcony around the pulpit. Most interesting in the sanctuary was the huge stained glass cross, seen from below and above, as well as in its context. The pews had been long removed from the nave, as had the large pipe organ from behind the pulpit. It did make me happy to see what was once a derelict building again a vibrant Christian community.

A Truro was mine at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral. The dean, the Very Reverend George H. Back, let me in and pointed out some notable features, but then he left me to shoot as he was off to lunch. Built in 1904, it's a Gothic church, albeit a simple one. It received even heavier damage from the 1995 bombing, but has been well-restored. It is not a large cathedral, as seen in this shot from the back of the nave. The altar area is nice, with two Tiffany windows, as well as a lovely Gothic altar. The balcony is taken up by the organ (which sounds fabulous—I worshiped here on Palm Sunday a couple of years ago). The pulpit, altar and font (as well as some columns) are all made of the same stone, which I believe Rev. Back said was Oklahoma granite. Its simplicity is appropriate for the time it was built, when Oklahoma City was barely a stop in the prairie.

The First Presbyterian Church gave me one more Truro. It fascinates me, for it was the only cruciform church I found (except for a chapel at a local Catholic school—but it was in the school's closed grounds). Built in the Gothic style, it was actually built in 1962—the same time as Sunnyside. Most notable in the church are its stained glass windows and its organ, a Mohler. The Rose window above the East transept (like most of the churches I went to, the altar is on the North) is a picture of notable women of the Bible. Further, there is a chapel attached that could be a church itself. I find this Gothic church interesting, in that it was built in only a couple of years. The stonework is not as good as others I've seen, although I couldn't quite place my finger on the reason. It felt more nostalgic than anything else. It was still a good example of a cruciform Gothic church, and unexpected in a city which was largely built after the Gothic revival.

Two Colognes were mine, at Old St. Joseph's Cathedral and the First Lutheran Church. Old St. Joseph's was the Roman Catholic Cathedral from 1903-1925. It seems like a pretty light brick Gothic. Its altar was not too ornate, although nice. The nave was made up of ribbed vaults (or, perhaps they were just painted on). First Lutheran's altar looks like its been altered through the years, with, among other things, fluorescent lights surrounding it. Its stained glass fascinated me because it looks so similar to the stained glass in Citychurch, above, and First Baptist, below—built in 1912, 1911 and 1910 respectively. The lights along the nave were trinitarian in shape, although also fluorescent. Its communion tables intrigued me, as they look like you actually sit at table to receive communion.

I also had three Chartres, at First Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, and at the new Roman Catholic Cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. And, finally, some Toulouse, at St. Francis of Assisi, Little Flower, and, not to be forgotten, Calvary Baptist Church. The next time I'm home, I hope to hit some of the other interesting churches. These were most of the older ones, but there are some truly creative architectural examples from later periods.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Scratching the Philly Surface

Princeton is 51 miles from New York, and 49 miles from Philadelphia. A rather ideal vantage point, and it will take many more trips to both cities to even begin to approach a comprehensive church photoset of either one.

My recent day in Philadelphia was paradisiacal. I grew up near near Philly and worked near it after college, hence the churches are captured over a layer of memories. On the way down I hit the shrine of the recently canonized Philadelphia Saint, Katharine Drexel, just off Rt. 95 (meeting a nun gave me the Gaudi). That was complemented by the rare design of St. Peter's Episcopal, with the wineglass pulpit on one end and the communion table on the other. I had it all to myself! I scored a Truro both there and (thanks to a friendly sexton) at Old Pine. Then came a ringing Gaudi from Mother Bethel AME, where I got a great tour and was able to see, arranged not unlike Katharine Drexel, the tomb of Richard Allen. There were many drive-bys as well. Is there a connection between Philly's Divine Lorraine and this picture from Newark?

That would have been a great day; but it continued. Then (with a little persistence) I got into the legendary St. Mark's, an Anglo-Catholic landmark, with a silver altar in the Lady Chapel donated (if I recall) by John Wanamaker of department store fame. Then came the massive Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, and a sunset by St. Franics Xavier's by the Art Museum. A solid day.

As if that wasn't enough, on a trip to Ikea last Sunday, I was able to slip into the oldest church in Pennsylvania, Old Swedes', encroached by gentrification on the north end and strip mall sprall on the the south, but the park services has done a fine job of giving it some semi-monastic protected space. The cracked tombs all along the outside was like something out of a Stanley Spencer painting, a foreshadowing of the general resurrection. The shutters on the apse is such a nice colonial touch. The inscription on the way inside heightens expectations considerably, but they weren't disappointed. Again, I had the place all to myself, balcony and all. Don't other people realize how fun this is? The original furnishings such as the ship (above) and the angels added character. This was perhaps the first church in American where an organ was used, as early as 1703. It was all just too much.