Saturday, May 3, 2008

Churches and Their Additions

A church addition is an intrinsically happy circumstance. It means that a body of believers is responding to either growth in their numbers or to a change in their ministry. Happiness is less intrinsic to the actual built additions. This has been increasingly on my mind over several years, as Shadyside Presbyterian Church has moved from seeking God’s will to presenting construction concepts (good ones) for Building Community. Early hints of an addition led to a feature on church growth on my website.

Not surprising, then, that a business appointment close to Sewickley, PA, led me to a lunchtime revisit to some interesting churches there. It afforded the chance to observe additions, old and new to three churches of historic architectural character.

When I arrived at Grace Episcopal in Edgeworth, I encountered painters at work on the front fa├žade. This Joseph W. Kerr design of 1859 began life as Shields Presbyterian. Pittsburgh’s premier gothicist of the era produced a rectilinear block, with porch and apse appended to walls of tooled ashlar.

An early addition, the Shields family Mausoleum shows that neither materials nor details must be slavishly reproduced to have a sympathetic result. Indeed, the heavy masonry and stocky massing relate the 1893 Gothic Revival chapel to Richardsonian Romanesque, then at its apogee in Pittsburgh.

A walk to the other side of Grace reveals the quintessential mid-twentieth-century addition. I suppose that vestiges of the International style, contemporaneous ranch style homes and, perhaps, misguided stewardship led to so many flat-roofed “annexes.” At least, when they were “education wings,” they echoed the elementary schools then being put up. This 1958 structure appears to be well constructed and tips its hat (if it has one) to the church by wearing one pointed arch window. However, it verges on irony to claim that it honestly reveals its later construction.

A few block toward the commercial center of the village, I reached The Presbyterian Church. (Churches of this time seemed to like the proper definite article. I belong to The Shadyside Presbyterian Church.) J.W. Kerr designed this graceful sanctuary building in 1858. It has the same rugged, hand-tooled ashlar as Grace Episcopal, but assumes a picturesque, cruciform posture. When it was time for a parish hall in 1914, Sewickley was home to many architects. The Presbyterians were lucky to count partners Frank Rutan and Frederick Russell (alumni of H H Richardson and Longfellow, Alden & Harlow) among their members. The firm designed an effortlessly compatible Tudor Revival, to which later additions were well executed. A gothic Revival Chapel is tucked into the rambling structure. This church is embarking on a new building campaign, with excellent examples as a guide.

A lack of excellent examples is not a problem for St. Stephens Episcopal, on one of two main commercial streets in Sewickley. They did have some architectural excitement, when the sometimes volatile Ralph Adams Cram was asked to add to George East’s 1894 nearly-archeological Gothic Revival. Cram so infuriated the congregation and East that they turned to Alfred Branch Harlow. He was a church member and founding partner of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, one of Pittsburgh’s favorite firms. He carried out changes, including a suave parish hall. A chapel and classroom spaces were integrated in a comfortable Tudor-Gothic mode.

Recently, however, a major addition was completed that brings to mind a Gothic strip mall. The half arches that surround its perimeter are awkward as a colonnade and implausible as flying buttresses. What appears to be stone trim may eventually weather well. Steel pointed arches span across the colonnade-buttresses. They read from either side as angle iron, attached with hex head bolts. These are materials that I use as a machine design engineer. (This photo shows that some upper stones are already discoloring, which might be good. However, it clearly reveals - at the corners -that the stone is actually a veneer a couple of inches thick.)

It must be said that from a distance the steel arches cast upon themselves interesting shadow lines. Unfortunately, from a distance, the crowded parking lot enhances the commercial look. The stucco and steel cornice flashing are at their worst where they join their venerable old ancestor sanctuary building. Almost any church addition needs time to settle in. I’m afraid the materials of this structure will deteriorate long before sufficient settling, if ever.

These Sewickley church additions are interesting to me, because of similarities of their neighborhoods to the one where Shadyside Church lives. Comfortable, historic and stylishly varied homes surround all of them. There are several lessons offered there to those engaged in church additions.

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