Historic Houses of Worship in Peril: Conserving Their Place in American Life

By Thomas Edward Frank

This excerpt from Historic Houses of Worship in Peril: Conserving Their Place in American Life is an introduction to our virtual conference, “Religion, Property Law, and the Crisis of Houses of Worship.” View selected videos and browse all essays here.

The Public Place of Historic Houses of Worship

“It’s like losing an old friend who, over the years, hosted us as guests.” [The Reverend Joe Rigali at the closing of St. George Catholic Church after 120 years, Cincinnati magazine August 1993.]

Religious buildings, their spaces and programs, their very presence, have long been essential elements of the sense of place that grounds community life in America. The sense of place is an elusive but unmistakable quality. It is evoked in the way the natural landscape (hills and valleys, soil and streams, vegetation and climate) shape and interact with human uses (settlements and industry, farming and logging), making a life and inhabiting the land as a human community. In any town or city I visit, my first question is always, “Why is this here? Why did human beings settle in this particular place?”

And in North Adams this is certainly because of the Hoosic River and the surrounding valley, a relatively flat bowl surrounded by steep and heavily wooded hills and mountains. Here the natural elements had become a resource for human habitation that began many centuries ago with Native American civiliza­tion. Migrants of European heritage have acceler­ated human settlement and activity now for almost 250 years-a blip in geological time, but a relatively long stretch in the context of European settlement. In that period, North Adams has ebbed and flowed as an industrial and cultural site influenced greatly by economic forces from outside its valley.

If, as Wallace Stegner suggested, the sense of place accrues over time like a “coral reef” (themselves now endangered, one might add), houses of worship through their years of use come to embody conti­nuity with generations who have gone before in this locale. The sense of place is embedded in the land on which they are erected; in the siting of buildings and the spaces between them and their surroundings; in vistas of steeples, towers, columns, and doorways; in the wood, slate, stone, and brick of which they are constructed. It is generated by the flows and interactions of people who have used, passed by, or come to count on the built landscape for markers of where they are in the world.

Houses of worship contribute to a sense of place well beyond the religious intentions of the congre­gations that build them. In intangible ways that are expressed in varied religious and civic language, they sustain collective memory and heritage. Reli­gious groups intent on their own practices and fellow­ship often do not seem to understand or realize that the surrounding community also experiences their buildings, and not necessarily in terms of their doc­trine and practice. Houses of worship are among the most monumental buildings in a town or neighbor­hood. While many non-member residents have been inside for rituals, many others know the building only as a landmark, as an element of accustomed vistas, or as a symbol of community character.

“North Adams was a place” reminisced a long­time journalist in his interview with Joe Manning. “It was like coming into a door on the Hadley Over­pass [Route 8 from the south]. Then you were in a room that was created by the mountains, and the room had furniture which was the church steeples,” another reporter told Manning of a return visit after moving away.

“North Adams is the one place in the world that I feel comfortable in . . . I looked around, and I thought, ‘Looking at this place, there’s no way to decide what era I’m in. I hope we never lose this.’ . . . There’s a haunting quality of melan­choly that still lingers here. If we let go of the past, the city will wind up being just another place. I hope they try to preserve buildings rather than destroy them.”

Thus religious buildings have had a more pub­lic role than members of their congregations have often acknowledged. In many cases, certainly in the 19th century, their builders explicitly intended such a role. Construction of a house of worship using a monumental architectural style made a public argu­ment about the role of religion in a community. As capitalist business ventures advanced through a burgeoning industrial economy, religious groups viewed their buildings as rhetorical assertions, expressed through architecture and design, that monetary gain was balanced by moral purposes. The steeples soared to a level equal to or above the factory chimneys. They announced that material or consumer values did not hold exclusive domain here, that spiritual and moral values ultimately guided the people who lived in this community. Industry was in the service of building a society of safe and healthy homes and an educated people. A North Adams observer in 1909 ascribed the prom­inence of their beautiful religious buildings to “the high degree of mental and moral development among the citizens.” The well-being of the church and the city were inseparable. Houses of worship were essential to a thriving civic life.

At the dedication of the North Adams Congre­gational Church in 1865, for example, the Rever­end Addison Ballard in his address took note of the mills, agricultural fairground, and nearby campus of Williams College. He stated that this “happily­ completed building” for worship was that by which all other buildings were “crowned and glorified,” the “keystone in the arch” of the built landscape. “With­out this” Ballard said, “agriculture, manufactures, commerce, finance, art and education would make of man only a more intelligent, highly cultivated animal … we have come rejoicingly to this house and to all that higher good for which it stands.”

When the North Adams Congregationalists cele­brated their 75th anniversary in 1902, former pastor Theodore Munger highlighted “the part taken by the churches in the town in providing it with institutions” by organizing and raising funds for a library and a hospital. “Few communities have been more thor­oughly dominated by the churches,” he asserted. “If I were to name the chief characteristic of this church in all its history,” Munger continued, “it would be a deep interest and quick responsiveness in all mat­ters pertaining to the welfare of the community . . . [a] sense of responsibility for the general well-being of the town.”

Similarly, the primary benefactor of St. John’s (now All Saints) Episcopal Church and the mov­ing force behind the erection of its new architect­-designed building in 1868 was Mrs. Elizabeth Tinker Sibley. A native of North Adams, Mrs. Sibley lived most of her life in Rochester, New York, where her husband, Hiram Sibley, was head of the newly consolidated Western Union telegraph company. Mrs. Sibley balanced her husband’s commercial acquisitions with philanthropy in support of many causes around Rochester, but also to her home town parish of St. John’s, “for the benefit of individuals and institutions” in a rapidly growing industrial and commercial society.

The question now is whether the public role of church buildings can be recast with imagination that connects past and future. North Adams residents, new and old, hold their houses of worship dear whether or not they participate in them in any way. One day I was standing across the street tak­ing a photo of the fine 1929 Craftsman Gothic (now former) United Methodist Church when a middle­ aged “white” man with a briefcase strode by on his way downtown. “They used to have pinnacles on that tower, you know,” he announced after a brief good morning, “They had to take them down because the tower is too weak now.” Who was this passerby? Not a church member, but a resident for whom these grand structures of brick and stone are landmarks to keep track of as their future becomes more uncertain.

Religious buildings are among the more signifi­cant public structures that constitute what Christo­pher Alexander termed the “pattern language” of a street or district. The shape of buildings, their sit­ing close to or back from the street, their mass and height, the voids and vistas they create through their relationship with other buildings, as well as the flow of pedestrian or motorized traffic through the streets around them, are all elements in creating a distinct pattern language. The pattern becomes a taken for ­granted order of sensations as people pass regularly along; and it becomes a language as it represents and replicates the spatial and kinetic relationships of businesses, schools, theaters, government build­ings, houses of worship, residences, and many other kinds of structures. The pattern language may be similar to other places-the clustering of monumen­tal houses of worship in or near a town center, for example, or the flow of streets to a central square of a courthouse or town common — yet the pattern is also uniquely expressed in each place following the distinctly local dynamics of land and economic and social development.

So it is that the monumental buildings of 19th cen­tury North Adams became nodes of physical and visual flow as people moved through the streets. At the time most of them were built, Main Street was one of few broad boulevards in town, culminating up the hill from the Hoosic River in the open space of Monument Square (with the requisite Union soldier statue erected on a pedestal in the center). Surround­ing Main Street and the Square was a tightly packed warren of streets with few structures over three to five stories in height — except for the towering steeples of religious practice. Taken together with the natural setting in a river valley within a bowl of surrounding mountains, the structures and kinetics of the built landscape gave the city its intangible character.

Preservationists around the world have debated ways to articulate “intangibility.” Hungarian archi­tect Andras Roman captured it as human inhab­itation and presence within a natural and built environment, which over time in a particular place generates a distinct character greater than the sum of the tangible components. Food, festivals, ceremo­nies, handicrafts, schools, religious assemblies, and gathering places all contribute to this character. But as Portuguese architect Joao Campos argued, intan­gibility is really “the domain of the inexplicable” that is not easily named or verified — yet no historic streetscape is without it. Individual monuments can stand alone without human habitation, becom­ing artifacts of the human past; museums can cre­ate boundaries to try to accumulate and contain the artifacts of time — or all times — within a built space. But an inhabited place like a city sustains a common intangible character, a genius loci or spirit of place that evolves and changes constantly over time but always with an abiding continuity of past and present.

Intangibility is deeply affected by any loss. When “urban renewal” funded by Federal Government grants swept through the city in the 1960s and ’70s, many of the human-scale streets of downtown North Adams were demolished, leaving some of the houses of worship standing isolated from the pattern in which they originally made sense. The pattern lan­guage of downtown was totally disrupted.

As Lou Cuyler, longtime writer for the North Adams Transcript, suggested to Joe Manning:

Suppose in the urban renewal project, instead of just cutting a swath and putting up modern buildings, they had been much more selective. Suppose there had been a good master plan for the city, and that they had recognized that this room called. North Adams had to be refur­nished, but you didn’t want to lose the ambiance of the room. Suppose they had gotten rid of some of the old furniture, but they had spruced up the other old furniture. Instead of going toward the big anchor store, suppose they had believed in the whole concept enough to per­suade banks that small was better. Instead, what they did was take that room, that wonderful room, and throw out all the old furniture and put in modern furniture. It didn’t work. That’s what happened in North Adams.

A pattern language is subtle, often experienced as an intangible feeling, but it is expressed in explicitly concrete ways in the actual built streetscapes and their relationship with each other.

For many inhabitants the destruction was devas­tating to their world of assumptions and memories. The path from home to church, once a sequence of familiar shops, cafes, hotels, and after-work hangouts, was now a blank and forbidding expanse of empty asphalt and faceless chain stores. The congregation could still be a haven of memories. Yet participants were beginning to recognize that a more metaphori­cal “pattern language” in which home, family, school, recreation, and church fit snugly into a flow of rela­tionships and activities was also being disrupted by social change. The intangible ties that bound the var­ied social flows of the community were loosening like the streets around them.♦

Thomas Edward Frank is University Professor Emeritus of Wake Forest University. He is author of several books and numerous articles on American Protestant denominational history and leadership challenges, and for the last twenty years has been active in the growing movement to save historic houses of worship for continuing community service and public space.

Recommended Citation

Frank, Thomas Edward. “Historical Houses of Worship In Peril: Conserving Their Place in American Life.” Canopy Forum, April 18, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/04/18/historical-houses-of-worship-in-peril-conserving-their-place-in-american-life/.