Tradition/Innovation 1

Spaces for religious organizations in America were heavily influenced by the types of sacred spaces in which immigrants had worshipped in their native countries.  Houses of worship throughout the U.S., and especially in the Midwest and on the East Coast, took many of their architectural cues from European styles, such as Gothic, and church pattern books published in England, such as Gibbs' 1728 Book of Architecture and others by Christopher Wren.  These pattern books in turn were based on St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, the London church designed by Sir James Gibbs (Wren's student) and built in the 1720s.  St. Martin's was a basilica-plan church with a classical portico at one end, and a steeple placed back on the roof.  Based on this model, churches were then constructed of locally available materials.  Across the Atlantic, the English model was translated into what is now an instantly recognizable American Christian style.

This panel provides illustrations of several innovations to the "English-style church."  When the First Methodist Episcopalian Church in Alameda burned in the early 1920s, Henry H. Meyers (1867-1943) was hired to rebuild it.  He proposed an innovative use of auditorium seating, where the seats are angled toward the front of the space, as opposed to a more traditional "classroom" or "basilica" arrangement, where rows of pews or chairs face the altar directly.  The more traditional arrangement made for poorer sight lines, whereas, "...the auditorium plan became popular in the late nineteenth century for nonliturgical denominations whose focus was on preaching." 3

Also shown are two versions of a pulpit, Willis Polk's for St. Mark's Episcopal Church and Roger Lee's for the Chinese Congregational Church and Community Center, both institutions in Berkeley.  Lee's reflects as simpler modern style, and is placed nearly on the same level as the congregation.  There is thus less separation between celebrant and congregants during the sermon.  Polk's more traditional and ornate pulpit is almost certainly highter than and more removed from the congregation.

Erecting a place of worship can be a challenge to new or working-class communities. Ward Thomas' Quonset hut style for the Oakland Temple Church may be a design response to meet a particular situation.  Originally popularized during the second World War as an efficient an inexpensive method of building, the Quonset hut has been used in multiple applications since.

According to Cristina Paredes Benitez, designers are rethinking "the uses and functions of new churches and temples, and [need] to bear in mind the social changes realted with different sects."4


3) Chiat, Marilyn J. America's Religious Architecture: Sacred Places for Every Community. NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997, p.379

4) Faith: Spiritual Architecture, Cristina Paredes Benitez, ed. Barcelona: Loft Publications, 2009, p. 7