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.

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