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Architecture, the Built Environment, and Religion in America

Summary and Keywords

The development of religious architecture in what is now the United States is tied closely to continuing immigration and the development both of de facto and de jure religious pluralism. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, seminomadic Native Americans built temporary structures, while those farther south erected more permanent temples, most notably those of the Aztecs in Mexico. Spanish settlers in what is now the U.S. Sunbelt built mission chapels, with those in California incorporating a mixture of styles and building techniques derived from Spanish, Moorish, and indigenous traditions. Puritans in New England and Quakers in Pennsylvania erected meeting houses, architecturally simple structures based on secular models and eschewing the notion of “sacred space.” Anglicans from Boston to Charleston imported English neo-classical models devised by Sir Christopher Wren and Sir James Gibbs in the mother country, devised to accommodate Anglican sacramental worship. Later classical styles, especially the Roman and Greek revivals, reflected the republican ethos of the New Republic and were adopted by a whole range of religious traditions including Catholics and Jews. Urbanization and enhanced immigration following the Civil War saw adaptations by Protestants, including auditoriums, institutional churches, and the Akron Plan; by Jews, who invented a new, eclectic style for synagogues and temples; by Anglicans, who revived English Gothic traditions for churches and cathedrals; and by Roman Catholics, who turned to Continental Gothic for their inspiration. Mormon temples, beginning in Salt Lake City, took on new forms after that faith spread across the nation. During the post-WWII era, the colonial revival style became popular, especially in the South, reflecting patriotic and regional values. Following the immigration reform of 1965, waves of newcomers from Asia and the Middle East brought their traditional mosques and temples, often considerably modified for worship in the diaspora. Religious architecture, like the nation at large, has reflected an ongoing process of change, adapting old forms and inventing new ones to accommodate changing demographics, settlement patterns, and the necessities of living in a pluralistic society where religion is protected but not supported by the government.

Keywords: church, meetinghouse, temple, kiva, cathedral, synagogue

Religion and Spirituality

During the past three or four decades, it has become popular to describe oneself as “spiritual but not religious.” Theologian Belden Lane has evoked this concept in spatial terms, offering the examples of a solitary bicycle ride or hike in the woods as an occasion for private reflection. Although this sort of solitary meditation is hardly new—one thinks of Thoreau in the American context. Even the transcendentally minded Henry built a hut as a fixed material reference point for the interior explorations and musings he focused on Walden Pond and its environs. For the larger span of human—not to say American—history, however, it has been more typical for people to gather for worship collectively and to fashion structures and shape the landscape to facilitate the performance of their shared rituals and the related endeavors to which the term “religion” has traditionally referred.

The Earliest North Americans

The earliest North Americas, after their epic trek across the land bridge that once connected Alaska with Siberia, gradually fanned out to populate the entire continent and its southern counterpart. Northern peoples generally remained at least seminomadic, following the paths of the game that sustained them, while those who settled in the more temperate climes of what is now the American “Sunbelt” adopted a more settled pattern of agricultural life. Those who depended on hunting did not build permanent structures but struck up new shelters with each temporary relocation. Rituals involving the reenactment of origin myths and the rites of passage from one stage of life to another were, however, universal features of indigenous peoples, even those who continually wandered.

A sharp distinction between “sacred” and “profane” space was absent from Native American building, as it was from their lives more generally (just as it may be today for the “spiritual but not religious,” who find meaning amidst the ordinary flow of life, and who are often inspired by actual or imagined Native American lore). The longhouses of the Iroquois of upstate New York, for example, served alternately as family residences, settings for public discussion, and the conduct of rituals—much as did the early meetinghouses of the New England Puritans, who sought to abolish the notion of “sacred space.” The more nomadic Plains Indians created their sacred spaces as they moved, using a cottonwood tree to establish a temporary axis mundi—symbolic “center of the world,” a means of providing orientation in the midst of an ever-shifting landscape—for their traditional sun dance.

The more settled Pueblo in the Southwest, still notable today for their apartment-like extended dwellings, created a more permanent venue for ritual in their kivas, underground chambers in which creation stories could be reenacted by kachina dancers. Ladders projecting upward provided not only access but also served as axes mundi—means of cosmic orientation—as did the four holy mountains that provided symbolic frameworks for the entire Pueblo people. Still further south, the Aztecs founded an empire that was sufficiently large, wealthy, and specialized as to enable the construction of massive temple complexes for the conduct of priestly sacrifices to the divine powers.

Mighty as the Aztec empire had been, it rapidly succumbed to the superior military technology of the Spanish, the first of the great European imperial powers in the conquest and colonization of North America. The Spanish plan of settlement included the use of religious orders, such as Dominicans and Franciscans, to evangelize the indigenous peoples prior to the establishment of the usual European model of dioceses and parishes. The predecessor to the great Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, begun in 1573, was a smaller church located deliberately on the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor of Tenotichtlán, and built from that temple’s stones, to impress upon the natives both continuity as well as the disruption and displacement engendered by the coming of the new imperial religion, Spanish Catholicism.

The Spanish and French Empires

The northern outpost of New Spain now constitutes much of the American Southwest and originally defined the far periphery of empire, maintained by soldiers and missionaries. The Franciscans, led by the now-sainted Junípero Serra, were leaders in establishing outposts of European civilization among the native peoples of California. These missions were extended along a chain of twenty-one stations a day’s journey apart, extending along El Camino Real—“the royal road”—from San Francisco in the north to San Diego in the south. Designed by friars far removed from their Spanish homeland and built by native labor, they were intended to be “total institutions” where the Indians would not only be Christianized but Europeanized as well, surrendering their wandering lifestyle for a sedentary agricultural one. Except for Santa Barbara, designed in classical style, the architecture of the missions was a blend of several different cultural influences: the Moorish (Mudejar) Muslim-influenced style imported from Iberia; the Mexican elaboration of the Spanish Baroque mode known as the Churrigueresque; and the simplifications and modifications imposed by native workmen when presented with unfamiliar and complicated modes of design and construction. Beyond California, the architecture of mission chapels ranged from the chthonic simplicity of Ranchos de Taos in New Mexico to the baroque sophistication of San José and San Miguel de Aguayo in San Antonio. (The nearby Alamo is somewhat simpler but is nevertheless styled in the Mexican Plateresque mode of the Baroque.)

The imperial footprint of the French, which extended from what is now the Canadian province of Quebec down the Mississippi to New Orleans, was considerably lighter in the now-American portion of New France. The most conspicuous reminder is St. Louis Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jackson Square—formerly known as the Place d’Armes and the Plaza de Armas—in the latter city. Surrounded by former government buildings utilized by French and Spanish administrations, the cathedral is a hybrid construction, a sort of architectural palimpsest reflecting the chain of national regimes that have dominated Louisiana as well as the styles popular between its beginnings in 1789 to its dramatic renovation of 1849–1851.

The British Empire

By far the most widespread and enduring cultural influence of the colonial era was that of the British Empire, which stretched from the Canadian Maritime provinces through the original thirteen American colonies into the West Indian sugar-planting islands. The period of early colonial settlement was also one of deep turmoil within the British Isles, a turmoil driven in part by the religious diversity that characterized North American settlement from its beginnings. Since the early 17th century, the Atlantic colonies had been divided into those—primarily in the south—which remained loyal to the Church of England and others, concentrated in New England, which had accepted the Calvinist interpretation of Protestant Christianity and remained part of the national mother church in name only. These so-called Puritans had Calvinist-inspired ideas about worship that resulted in an entirely new approach to religious building.

The architecture of the Church of England that inspired the design of Anglican churches in the colonies was the result of a revolution brought about by Sir Christopher Wren in the wake of the Great Fire of London of 1666, and continued by his successor, Sir James Gibbs. The Wren-Gibbs style, as it came to be known, was classical in inspiration. Wren introduced elements such as the multitiered steeples that crown the dozens of his churches still extant in London, as well as their innumerable American imitators, and Gibbs added to Wren’s basic design the monumental columned porch. These churches were also intended to accommodate the four “liturgical stations” of Anglican usage: the baptismal font; the communion table (referred to by some as an “altar”); the reading desk; and the pulpit, for the preaching of the Gospel in a structure that Wren had deliberately designed for its “auditory” properties. This design rapidly spread throughout the Virginia countryside, where churches were dominated by local plantation-owning grandees, into the South Carolina tidewater, and, with more competition, to the New England metropolis of Boston, where once firmer British control had been imposed following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Anglican Church vs. Puritan Meetinghouses

The first variety of Puritans to settle New England were the sectarian “Pilgrims” of 1620, who left no architectural legacy. The next wave, led by John Winthrop a decade later, remained nominal members of the Church of England but went their own way once separated from the mother country and church by the Atlantic Ocean. These Boston-based Puritans were able to create their own society quite literally from the ground up. A new architectural form they introduced was the meetinghouse, a kind of “antichurch” that reflected the needs and ideals of the new society based on divine word and law they were bent on establishing, as well as the congregational polity by which they were governed.

The Puritan meetinghouse—exemplified today in the “Old Ship Church” in Hingham, Massachusetts (built in 1681), designed to reflect the Reformed tradition’s disdain for the notion that any earthly space might be designated or experienced as “sacred.” Externally, there is little to distinguish it from a large house or commercial building. (Some of the ornament is of considerably later origin.) The essence of worship—shared by Presbyterians and others in the tradition—was the preaching and proclamation of God’s Word, embodied in the Bible and constituting the only point of contact between the realms of the sacred and the secular. Unlike the more elaborately liturgical and sacramental worship of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, however, the meetinghouse was simply intended to provide a dignified and practical physical framework for a Word-based service. Since the service consisted primarily of a sermon, an elevated central pulpit dominated these structures, with periodic communion served from a board that would be folded out and propped up for the occasion. Even a table was lacking, not to mention the proscribed altar. The Quakers of Philadelphia, possessed of an even more radical theology than the Puritans, also adopted the meetinghouse concept, albeit one whose internal arrangements were more democratically simplified through the omission even of a pulpit.

By the early 18th century, however, the name and concept of the meetinghouse persisted while the form was increasingly compromised. In 1723, Boston Anglicans erected the iconic Christ Church (the “Old North Church” of Paul Revere fame) in the Wren mode, which would be joined in 1749 by Peter Harrison’s new iteration of King’s Chapel, which boasts a Gibbsian portico. By the late 1720s congregationalist Puritans, perhaps motivated by “steeple envy,” embraced the fashionable Wren mode in their Old South Meetinghouse in what is today’s downtown Boston. Old South, now a museum along the “Freedom Trail,” appears outwardly to be a church similar in overall form to Old North. Upon closer examination, however, the original main entrance is along one of the long sides—a Puritan inversion of Anglican and Roman Catholic tradition—which opens onto the vista of an imposing elevated pulpit. This is a hybrid form indicates a major cultural shift, if not yet a profoundly theological one.

The Wren-Gibbs Style

With the creation of Old North and Old South in the 1720s, an iconic new form of religious building had been born—or, rather, imported and adapted—into the American colonies. It began to dominate the landscape from the monumental St. Phillip’s and St. Michael’s Anglican churches in Charleston to the emergent metropolis of Boston, both cities on their way to becoming cosmopolitan centers of fashion. The trend was picked up by such unlikely groups as the Baptists, who practiced an even more radical form of congregational polity, Reformed worship, and dissent against established authority than did the Puritans, or their 18th-century descendants: The First Baptist Church (1775) of Providence, Rhode Island, is a conspicuous example. Before long, the Wren-Gibbs mode had spread along lines of in-migration westward. The Congregational church featured on the cover of Life magazine on the Thanksgiving issue of 1944—an icon of American values in time of world war—was actually located in Tallmadge, Ohio, a town near Akron settled by Connecticut migrants in the “firelands” allocated to that state as compensation for British depredations during the Revolution. During the early 19th century, the term “meetinghouse” gradually dropped out of existence, and the term “church” became synonymous with buildings for Christian worship other than sectarian groups such as the Quakers and the communitarian, celibate Shakers.


The countercultural implications of the meetinghouse ideal, however, did not disappear. The British Anglican evangelist George Whitefield, who preached the “new birth” up and down the seaboard colonies beginning in the 1740s, was the herald of the “Great Awakening” revivals that forever changed the configuration of American Protestantism. Whitefield at first preached at churches of whichever denominations would invite him but, when the implications of his message began to seem too radical, he took to preaching in the open air or in whatever buildings might be available. The age-old assumption held by Anglican, Puritans, and Roman Catholics, that a minister was ordained or assigned to serve a particular congregation in a particular parish, was thus shattered, a monumental blow to the association of organized religion with geographical boundaries and political and social stability. Whitefield’s host of imitators attacked the legitimacy of the incumbents of many pulpits, and congregations and denominations split as a result. (The divisiveness engendered by controversies over the Awakening revivals still manifests itself today in the two Congregational churches that stand next to each other on the New Haven green, long after the causes of their original schism have healed.) The tradition of preaching to induce revivals of religion—the mass conversion of individuals—thereafter became a staple of evangelical Protestantism and continued through the camp meetings of Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801; through the “new measures revivalism” of Charles G. Finney in upstate New York in the 1820s; through the “sawdust trail” of Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey in Victorian cities; and even through the “crusades” of Billy Graham in massive auditoriums beginning in the 1950s. None of these mass rallies took place in churches, continuing the divorce that the meetinghouse had represented between the preaching of the Word and “sacred space.”

The counterpoint to these developments, which would also include Methodist holiness camp meetings and campgrounds, was the ongoing progression of the “church” model for worship, which implied stability and at least hinted at the possibility that worship space was, if not sacred—supernaturally charged—at least deserving of a certain dignity, respect, and permanence. Its centrality was accompanied both by a proliferation of denominations as well as a convergence of architectural styles—a sort of embodiment of the national motto of e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). Denominationalism was a distinctly American phenomenon that emerged out of the proliferation during the colonial period of a wide variety of groups sharing a Protestant identity, but they differed from one another in their particular takes on issues of theology, worship, and polity (governance)—hence names such as “Baptist,” “Congregationalist,” and “Episcopalian.” In addition to the Protestant denominational spectrum, which reflected geography, social class, race, and ethnicity, as well as more clearly religious matters, Roman Catholics and Jews were beginning to make their presence known on the national scene, while enslaved African Americans began to develop their own patterns of surreptitious hybrid worship.

Revival Styles in the New Republic

The religious architecture that emerged from this pluralism after the vogue of the Wren-Gibbs style had begun to pass after the turn of the century consisted of a series of revivals of historic styles, each of which was thought to embody important values at a time when originality was not esteemed. The new nation, many aspects of which (e.g., a written constitution) had no historical precedent, felt the need for an iconography that would express the aspirations of a democratic republic. In an age when knowledge of classical antiquity was at the core of the education of the elite, the examples of Periclean Athens and the Rome of the Republic presented themselves as paradigms for the novus ordo seclorum—“the new order of the ages”—that the United States of America was intended to embody (viz., the inscriptions on the dollar bill of today). Thomas Jefferson, one of the most polymathic Founding Fathers, adapted the Roman mode, characterized by the dome, in some of his most iconic designs, notably his home, Monticello, and the “Lawn” of the University of Virginia. Here was an authentic architecture of democracy.

The appeal of the Roman revival style is exemplified in the ecclesiastical realm in the story of the design of the first Roman Catholic cathedral—a bishop’s church—in the United States. John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore and the first cleric to hold that rank in what is now this country, was offered the services of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of premiere architects of the day, gratis. Latrobe presented Carroll with two very different designs, one Gothic and one Roman. The Gothic had deep historical resonance for Roman Catholics, and would serve to distinguish them from iconographically from most of the other Christian denominations of the era. But American Catholics were not simply rooted in the Middle Ages. They were, after all, Roman Catholics, whose historic center had always been in Rome, and who could easily identify with the Roman cultural heritage (as exemplified in the vast dome of St. Peter’s basilica). The simultaneous popularity of the Roman revival as an expression of the values of the American republic contributed significantly to his choice of that design for his cathedral, now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption (1806–1821). (A new cathedral was built in the 1950s.)

An Egyptian revival enjoyed modest popularity during this era, but it had little effect on church design; rather, it was largely confined to cemeteries, prisons, and medical schools, all somehow associated with ancient Egyptian culture. The real successor to the Roman mode as a truly national architecture was the Greek revival which, beginning in the 1820s, influenced the design of a vast array of structures, both private and public, including homes, banks, government buildings, and houses of worship. These ranged from the Swedenborgian church in Bath, Maine, to Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, and this style was particularly favored by Congregational churches in New England—the descendants of the Puritans. A particularly striking example of the Greek revival is St. Peter in Chains Roman Catholic Cathedral (1845) in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is based on the Horologion (Temple of the Winds) in Athens. The columned base is topped with a multitiered steeple in the Wren manner. The combination of these two elements, both classically derived, have very little resonance with the Roman Catholic tradition, but both help identify this large public structure as part of the fabric of a distinctively American city. (A Jewish temple and Presbyterian church form a row with St. Peter’s, all contributing conspicuously to Cincinnati’s pluralistic “churchscape.”)

Catholic Immigration

As illustrated in St. Peter’s, the coming of European Catholics—first from Ireland, then from the German states, then from Italy, Poland, and other parts of central Europe—in increasingly larger numbers beginning in the 1820s rapidly began to have an impact on the nation’s religious landscape, particularly that of its cities. Although other religious groups, such as both Anglicans, adapted the traditional model of the parish—a designated area served by only one church. As a form of spatial organization, the parish rapidly became a fundamental building block in the Roman Catholic campaign to create an organized administrative structure, mainly to serve the needs of its members but also to present a united front in face of the hostility from native-born Protestants that occasionally culminated in violence. In Europe, the parish church had served a number of quasi-governmental functions, including the keeping of sacramental records as a civic repository of births, marriages, and deaths. In the United States, where the line of demarcation between church and state was ever more strictly drawn, Catholic leadership felt compelled not only to build churches for worship but to devise an entire institutional network to provide for the cultural and material needs of its largely immigrant constituents, at the same time sheltering them from the depredations of Protestant evangelists.

Roman Catholic worship had certain requirements that differentiated it from other Christian traditions, even while the exteriors of American Catholic churches might have resembled their Protestant or Anglican counterparts in the early days of the Republic. Catholic worship space was clearly intended to be sacred space, with the major parts of the church. Narthex (vestibule), nave (seating for worshippers), and sanctuary (containing the altar and reserved for priests and others assisting in the Mass) were clearly differentiated from one another in hierarchical order. Stations of the Cross along the main walls, shrines to the Virgin Mary and other saints, a vesting room, and accommodations for other devotional and liturgical accoutrements were all aspects of Catholic worship that needed physical expression, especially as Catholics were able to afford more elaborate churches and cathedrals. Some Episcopal churches would adopt many of these features with the rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the latter 19th century.

The massive building campaign that ensued took place on both the parochial (i.e., parish-sited) and diocesan levels. In an age when health care and burial were not widely viewed as a public responsibility—or where public facilities for such functions were perceived as inadequate—religious communities were often called upon to provide cemeteries, hospitals, asylums, and orphanages as places where their members could be sheltered or at least die and be buried in sacred confines. The most extensive effort went into school building because public schools were, with some justification, suspected of being vehicles for the inculcation of a generic but distinctively Protestant ethos. The result was the emergence of a parish plant that included a church, a school (eventually K-8), a rectory to house the clergy, and a convent as a residence for the nuns (sisters) who staffed the school. This model applied many of the religious orders that were at first imported from Europe then later founded in the United States. At the diocesan level, cathedrals with accompanying offices arose in city centers, while high schools and eventually seminaries, colleges, and universities, some of which eventually grew into national institutions staffed by religious orders such as the Jesuits, made the Catholic Church a visible and tangible presence, particularly in the nation’s cities.

Although such earlier Catholic structures as the Baltimore and Cincinnati cathedrals had reflected an identification with the national democratic ethos, the shift to Gothic that took place during the mid-19th century reflected a return to medieval tradition as well as an attempt to present a public front that was distinctive, even defiant. The premier Roman Catholic architect of the era was Irish-born Patrick Keeley, who designed hundreds of Gothic revival parish churches as well as many cathedrals and institutional buildings in the mid- to late-19th century, particularly in the Northeast. Perhaps the most dramatic Catholic structure, however, was rendered by the Episcopalian James Renwick Jr., in the heart of Manhattan. Irish-born New York Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes was a leading spokesman for what he perceived to be Catholic rights, such as public aid to religiously sponsored schools, in an era of considerable ethnic tension. As a symbol of Catholic presence and power, he undertook the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which still asserts itself on Fifth Avenue in the shadow of secular competitors such as nearby Rockefeller Center. Built largely with the donations of poor Irish immigrants, the cathedral (1858–1878) is eloquent testimony to Catholic determination to make itself felt and seen as a player in the urban religious and political scene.

Eastern Orthodox and Jewish Immigrants

The great age of immigration brought with it foreigners other than Roman Catholics, whose cultural baggage included religions heretofore little in evidence on the American spectrum. Eastern Orthodox from Greece and Russia as well as other parts of the Balkans and Middle East brought with them their distinctively domed churches, round for the Greeks and onion-shaped for the Russians, once they were able to occupy structures other than storefronts or churches abandoned by earlier and now more prosperous arrivals. (This pattern had earlier been followed by Roman Catholics and other later newcomers.) Orthodox worship, with its extensive use of icons and the seclusion of the sanctuary from the pewless part of the church where the laity stood during the service also required interior configurations that were later adapted as a more distinctively American Orthodoxy emerged.

The religious among Jews of the “New Immigration,” largely Orthodox, followed the same pattern, populating the Lower East Side of Manhattan with dozens of diminutive shuls (synagogues) in styles adapted from those of medieval Christianity. (The diasporic existence of the Jewish people over many centuries worked against the development of a distinctively Jewish architectural style.) After a few generations, most of these were abandoned and taken over by new waves of ethnic immigrants, and the Americanized descendants built modern houses of worship in their suburban neighborhoods: “temples” for Reform, “synagogues” for Conservative and Orthodox.

Earlier American Jews had made architectural statements that illustrated the process of adaptation to America also made by Catholics and other groups of newcomers. The oldest Jewish house of worship in what is now the United States is the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, founded by Sephardic (Iberian) Jews and designed by architect Peter Harrison in 1763. Since these prosperous colonial Jews had no traditional architecture of their own and desired to blend in with their gentile neighbors rather than call attention to themselves, their synagogue (which is still in use as a house of worship as well as an historical site) resembles a large, elegant house more than a worship space. The interior is elaborately decorated in the neo-classical style fashionable at the time, but it includes such traditional features such as a gallery (balcony) where women sat apart from their husbands, as well as a bima (reading platform) and an Ark of the Covenant, the box in which the Torah scrolls are kept.

In the same mode of taking on protective coloration, the Jewish community of Charleston, South Carolina (a similar settlement of Sephardic traders), built in 1840 Temple Beth Elohim, a Greek revival structure that blends in well with surrounding Christian churches of various denominations. By the post-Civil War era, the Reform Jewish community, consisting mainly of the most progressive and assimilation-minded of the wave of German-speaking Jews of the earlier 19th century, had grown sufficiently numerous and self-confident to explore new possibilities of architectural expression. Cincinnati’s Temple B’nai Yeshurun (1865) (also known as the Isaac Mayer Wise or Plum Street Temple, which faces St. Peter’s Catholic Cathedral) is a fine example of what one might call “Jewish Victorian.” (Wise was the primary organizer of American Reform Judaism.) The temple’s exterior is an eclectic mixture of stylistic elements, including Gothic, Romanesque and, most strikingly, Moorish (Iberian Muslim), exemplified in its slender minaret-like towers and is evocative of the congregation’s Sephardic origins. The interior walls are covered with an intricate and colorful pattern of floral motifs, and both the American five-pointed star and the six-pointed Star of David intermingle in the designs. Other internal arrangements, such as an organ and the substitution of “family” pews for the Orthodox consignment of women and children to the gallery, further distinguished more progressive Jews from their more traditional counterparts.

Protestants in the City

In addition to Roman Catholic Continental Gothic—St. Patrick’s is modelled on the Cologne Cathedral—and “Jewish Victorian” eclecticism, various other contributions to the American cityscape arose in response to the rapid urbanization that characterized the decades between the Civil War and World War I. At one end of the scale, the Salvation Army and other gospel missions reaching out to provide material relief to the down-and-out utilized storefronts and other utilitarian structures as a base for their evangelization. The YMCA and YWCA, originally founded as evangelically oriented urban refuges for recent young in-migrants from the countryside, often built large and ornate structures to house dormitories, athletic facilities, and other amenities. A similar motivation lay behind the more mainline “institutional church,” exemplified in grand style in Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian on Michigan Avenue (1912). These were complex buildings, or groupings of buildings, that both provided substantial settings for worship as well as facilities for cooking and dining, libraries, sports (including basketball courts and bowling alleys), and classrooms for education at a variety of levels. Such churches—usually Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian, which were then considered to be “evangelical” denominations—were intended as an outreach effort to provide alternative means of recreation to the tawdrier sorts characteristic of the “secular city.” Another, rather short-lived, primarily Methodist, variation, the Akron Plan, was a scheme in which the main auditorium was surrounded by Sunday school rooms that could be opened at the proper time during the service so that children could join their parents in worship.

The Romanesque and Later Gothic Revivals

Many of the institutional and other “mainline” Protestant churches from the 1870s through the 1920s—the Great Depression and World War II largely halted new church construction—had interiors designed in auditorium style, featuring a large central pulpit to highlight the preacher, as well as space for the sometimes-professional choir. This was a Word-based service tracing back to the Puritans and others in the Reformed tradition. Transitional between this and “high” worship on the Roman Catholic model was that of “low” and “broad” church Episcopalians, the evangelical and liberal wings of that denomination, which shared a more Protestant approach to worship than their “high” church coreligionists, who preferred the designation “Anglo-Catholic.” The epitome of a broad Episcopal church of this era was Trinity at Copley Square in Boston’s newly fashionable Back Bay (1872–1877). Designed by the great H. H. Richardson in a Romanesque mode based on French and Spanish prototypes, Trinity is a massive polychromed (multi-colored) granite structure with Richardson’s characteristic grand arches. Its interior is a similarly polychromatic array of murals and stained glass, one of the first American Protestant churches to display this striking display of color and iconography. (Only biblical topics, were permitted, in good Protestant fashion.) The original was pulpit centered, providing a showplace for the great orator Phillips Brooks, one of the “princes of the pulpit” of a day in which church sermons were regularly printed in daily newspapers. Today’s Trinity has been remodeled in a more “high” fashion, but remains a monument of the fusion of architecture with the decorative liturgical arts.

The great architect of Anglo-Catholicism, and perhaps the premier American church architect of early 20th century, was Boston-based Ralph Adams Cram. With his partner Bertram Goodhue and an array of some of finest craftspeople of the day, Cram designed a broad array of churches as well as important collegiate buildings such as the Princeton Chapel and Graduate College. Cram worked primarily in the Gothic revival mode, streamlining and adapting it for the modern age but firmly embedded in what he saw as authentically medieval of design, construction, and social function. Like Richardson, Cram, Goodhue, and their artistic collaborators aimed for what composer Richard Wagner had called a “total work of art,” in which all the elements were designed to blend in one unified effect—in this case, as a staging platform for elaborate worship on the Anglo-Catholic model. Cram designed churches for a variety of settings and occasionally for other denominations, such as Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian and St. Florian’s Roman Catholic Church in Hamtramck, a Polish enclave of Detroit. Among his most splendid creations are St. Thomas (1914), catty corner from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, which features an overwhelming reredos (carvings behind the altar), and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1892), farther uptown in Morningside Heights. “St. John the Unfinished,” as it is irreverently but descriptively known, is one of the largest cathedrals in the world, and features a variety of themed chapels.

The American Civil Religion

While Boston and New York remained major venues for architectural and cultural preeminence, Washington, D.C., began to emerge during the early 20th century not only as the national capital but also as a center for monumental building. It was at once a site for urban planning, newly shaping the emergent cityscape, as well as a putative “civil religion,” a complex of sites and rituals intended to hallow the nation’s collective existence and mission. The scale, siting, and design of government buildings on and around the Mall came to include a panoply of memorials to great men and wartime sacrifice that held deep symbolic meaning bordering on the religious. In addition to those maintained by the federal government, a variety of denominations began to vie with one another in creating grand churches that would enable them to share in the reflected glory. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (1920–1959), designed in a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles by Catholic architect Charles D. Maginnis and located near the Catholic University of America, includes seventy chapels honoring the Virgin Mary (patron saint of the United States), many of which are dedicated to her various ethnic manifestations. The cathedral-sized National Presbyterian Church and Center (1969) on Nebraska Avenue, with its Chapel of the Presidents and Tower of Faith, is similarly intended as a monumental denominational presence. The prototype of this sort of church, however, is the Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Paul, better known as the (Episcopal) National Cathedral. Built between 1907 and 1990 by a series of architects, this massive Gothic cathedral rests on the one of the highest rises in the District, and was intended by its founder, Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee, as a “house of prayer for all people.” Within lies the tomb of Woodrow Wilson, and it has served as the site for several solemn national events such as the funeral of Ronald Reagan. Among its varied iconography is a stained-glass window containing a piece of moon rock.

Suburbanization and Modernism

Work ceased on the cathedral during the Second World War, and it was finally completed in 1990. (President Gerald Ford and Queen Elizabeth II were present for the dedication of the completed nave in 1976.) The flight of many Americans to the nascent suburbs also unleashed a wave of church and synagogue building, and the former urban homes of these congregations were often adapted for use by African-American and other newer in-migrants. The colonial revival, especially in the hyper-patriotic South, where it evokes the mythology of the antebellum “Old South,” remained popular; however, other congregations with the means and sophistication to do so experimented with Modernism, which rejected elaborate ornamentation and favored plain surfaces and stark geometrical forms. Occasionally signature architects, such as Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eliel Saarinen, and Mies van der Rohe, were recruited to design houses of worship. An influential architect with a more ecclesiastical focus was Edward Sövik, a Minnesota Lutheran who promoted a round design in which iconography would be minimized and the structural distinctions that had distanced clergy from laity would be eliminated, on the precedent of the earliest Christian practices.

Sövik’s liturgical and architectural philosophy meshed well with the new ecclesiology being formulated at Vatican II, which revolutionized Roman Catholic church design along these same lines. The new emphasis emanating from Rome emphasized more active congregational participation in a liturgy now conducted in the language of the parishioners rather than Latin, and worship space was now refashioned to downplay the hierarchical distinctions between clergy and laity. Older churches emphasizing hierarchy were often retrofitted to conform to newer directives. Church documents such as “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” (1978) and “Built of Living Stones” (2000) helped to lay out the theological rationale for such architectural revisionism.

The Suburban Megachurch

The suburbs also gave rise to a new genre of Protestant religious building, the megachurch, usually defined as a congregation with more than 2,000 members and its corresponding physical plant. The prototype of these ecclesiastical behemoths is Willow Creek Community Church (1977–1981) in South Barrington, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago. The design of Willow Creek was prompted by survey research which showed that its suburban clientele was not interested in traditional religious iconography, and preferred a more familiar secular feel evocative of the shopping mall or the conference hotel. The result is a sprawl of buildings reminiscent of the older urban institutional church that combines a massive auditorium equipped with elaborate sound systems and contemporary instrumentation with extensive facilities for education and recreation (including coffee and fast food) as well as vast parking space. Other “new paradigm” churches in which a central campus presided over by a charismatic preacher—e.g., Saddleback and Vineyard—would make its name and branded materials available to scattered offshoots, on the model more of a franchise than a denomination. The megachurch phenomenon has also become popular among African Americans, many of whose pastors espouse the “Prosperity Gospel,” which promises worldly success to those who claim it in the name of Jesus.

The Mormons

Another “growth industry” in recent years has been the acceptance of that distinctively American religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as LDS or Mormons) by most Americans as part of the religious mainstream, especially since the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. Mormonism arose with its prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York in the 1820s and, after a long series of peregrinations and persecutions, found a home in the Great Salt Lake basin of Utah. The Mormon enterprise, under the leadership of Smith’s successor Brigham Young, was based on the reclaiming of the desert for agriculture and its systematic settlement according to Young’s masterful planning. At the heart of Mormon country is Salt Lake City, whose Temple Square is anchored by two distinctive structures, the Temple and the Tabernacle. The latter is an auditorium in which the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs. The Temple (1893), the archetype for dozens of others around the nation and world, provides physical facilities for the esoteric rites devised by Smith for initiation and life passages. The Salt Lake Temple is massive and fortress-like and resembles a Gothic cathedral in general configuration though not in detail.

Newer temples, such as that on the beltway that encircles Washington, D.C., are more modern in design, but they serve the same ritual functions and are monumental in scale and commanding in siting. Still more recent temples such as those in Columbia, South Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Spokane, Washington, are more modest in scale than many of their predecessors and more aimed at routine “temple-work” than at dominating the landscape. Myriad LDS meetinghouses (also known as chapels), usually follow a standardized design and are distributed throughout the country to provide for worship at the local level.

Immigration Reform and Asian Religions

The final demographic shift that has deep impact on American religious life and its built environment is the Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which opened the United States to immigration from parts of the world from which it had previously been highly restricted. Many of these newcomers, who has been selected mainly for their technical expertise, brought with them their traditional Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam from the Middle East and South, East, and Southeast Asia, and many rapidly became established as well-educated and high-income professionals. Many earlier immigrants had practiced adaptive strategies, such as the Buddhist Churches of America, which built a network of hybrid houses of worship that borrowed their names and many features, such as pews and organs, from their Christian neighbors. These newer-comers often started out in private homes, then began to build mosques and temples as population base and income permitted. These gave rise to new institutions that had been unknown and unnecessary in their countries of origin, much as had been the case with earlier Catholics and Jews. The Islamic Center, for example, provides not only ample space for daily and weekly worship but also includes educational and recreational facilities where an American pan-Islamic identity can be created and perpetuated, and this objective transcends the local idiosyncrasies of the dozens of countries of origins from which the members have come. American Hindu temples also differ from their Indian prototypes in having to serve immigrants from differing parts of the vast subcontinent—and thus often including a variety of deities in separate shrines—as well as providing for religious and cultural education and reimagining traditions in a context in which no support is forthcoming from the government. Jains and Sikhs face the same necessity of adaptation.

Review of the Literature

The systematic study of religious architecture in North America began with the work of the late James F. White, a liturgical scholar at Southern Methodist University and then at Notre Dame. His work was built upon by Peter W. Williams of Miami University, who added material on non-Christian religions and expanded the context to include attention to geography and social history. (His Houses of God contains extensive bibliographical references up until the time of its publication.) In more specialized studies, Native American building has been explored by Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton; the Puritan meetinghouse by Peter Benes; the Federal period by Gretchen Buggeln; colonial Anglicanism by Dell Upton and Louis Nelson; Judaism by Karla Goldman and David Kaufman; Christian Science by Paul Ivey; other aspects of Anglicanism by James White and Peter Williams; 19th-century Evangelicalism by Jeanne Halgren Kilde; architectural Modernism and post-WWII design by Gretchen Buggeln, Jay Price, and Mark Torgerson; Hinduism by Joann Punzo Waghorne; and Islam by Omar Khalidi. Theoretical works, anthologies, and broader contextual studies are provided by Chidester and Linenthal, Richard Kieckhefer, Harold Turner, Louis Nelson, and various contributors to the Lippy and Williams encyclopedia.

Further Reading

Benes, Peter. Meetinghouses of Early New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.Find this resource:

    Buggeln, Gretchen T. Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut’s Churches, 1790–1840. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003.Find this resource:

      Buggeln, Gretchen T. The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.Find this resource:

        Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

          Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

            Ivey, Paul Eli. Prayers in Stone: Christian Science Architecture in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.Find this resource:

              Kaufman, David. Shul with a Pool: The “Synagogue-Center” in American Jewish History. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.Find this resource:

                Khalidi, Omar. “Import, Adapt, Innovate: Mosque Design in the United States,” Saudi Aramco World 52.6 (2001): 24–33.Find this resource:

                  Kieckhefer, Richard. Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                    Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                      Lippy, Charles H., and Peter W. Williams, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion in America, 4 volumes. Washington, DC: CQ Press; 2010. Articles on religious architecture.Find this resource:

                        Nabokov, Peter, and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

                          Nelson, Louis. The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                            Nelson, Louis, ed. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                              Price, Jay M. Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                                Torgerson, Mark. The Architecture of Immanence. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.Find this resource:

                                  Turner, Harold W. From Temple to Meeting House. The Hague, Paris, New York: Mouton, 1979.Find this resource:

                                    Upton, Dell. Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.Find this resource:

                                      Waghorne, Joanne Punzo. Diaspora of the Gods: Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-Class World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                                        White, James F. Protestant Worship and Church Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.Find this resource:

                                          White, James F. The Cambridge Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962.Find this resource:

                                            Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                                              Williams, Peter W. Religion, Art and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.Find this resource: