What do preservationists need to know about churches

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Thomas Edward Frank

University Professor

Wake Forest University


Why anyone writes a book about a seemingly intractable problem for which there are no ready solutions can only be attributed to an irrational passion. Certainly that is so in this case. Thousands of monumental houses of worship stand partially or wholly vacant, for sale, or on the verge of demolition across the land, and hundreds of communities struggle to find any feasible use for these imposing and symbolic structures. All the economic and social reasons for this phenomenon have been adumbrated by numerous authors and pundits: urban sprawl, rampant consumerism, the drift of collective religious practices away from the cultural center, the astonishing explosion of media and internet information, the decline in social activity and civic involvement in many communities – all have been put forward as forces that lie behind the vacating of older religious buildings.

No one really knows how to mitigate this startling trend, and certainly no individual or organization is in a position to address nationally the material problem of what to do with a burgeoning number of empty or underutilized houses of worship. This book will describe a number of promising approaches that town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, can make a difference. Above all I write to advocate and open a way toward a new imagination for the public role of these buildings. But what really drives the discussion here is my lifelong love of old houses of worship.

When I was growing up, my family attended church in a great stone building called Grace Methodist (now United Methodist) Church in St. Louis, Missouri. I was forever in awe of this structure, which its massive red wooden entry doors, soaring plaster arches, and sweeping dark wooden pews seating perhaps 600 or more participants. The curve of the pews directed attention toward a center pulpit, the reflecting curve of choir pews, a 3500-pipe organ chamber, and the ethereal figures of angels depicted in a plaster frieze high above the platform. The late morning light (the 11:00 a.m. service was the one to attend) would sparkle through the brilliant reds and blues of a southerly facing stained glass rose window. Evening services would bring me into the warm yellow hues of afternoon sun glowing through a 30-foot tall Gothic stained glass window of biblical figures in the west wall.

While I had my share of moving experiences in this place, inspired by music or elevated by preaching, my enduring wonder has always been about the building itself. What made it work as a sacred space? Who designed it and with what in mind? What does it mean to the people who come here? Do other people remember this space, the scene of life events and friendships and public rhetoric, as vividly as I do? How does this building frame people’s imagination about this community, this city, this land?

The wonder did not diminish in the slightest as I would slip into my secret stairway when few people were around. Sunday afternoon just before youth group was a good time. Almost nobody knew about these stairs; climbing steeply around narrow bends, they took me past the door of the pastor’s study and along a passage with an unmarked locked entry to the organ chamber. A jog right and then left connected the passage with what felt almost like a catwalk along the rear of the modernist chapel inserted in this 1910 building in the ‘50s. Here was another door, usually open, leading to steps down into the chapel balcony.

But I would be hard pressed to say whether I preferred those upstairs wanderings to the dank and musty basement. Down some steep stairs lighted by a bare bulb, I could find myself in the depths of the boiler room – especially thrilling in winter when the burners would roar to life and the dials on various meters would start to dance. And along the walls in these basement rooms I could find old furniture, light fixtures, files, the detritus of earlier generations that apparently no one had the courage to throw away.

To me, everything in this building of Grace told a story. I didn’t know most of these stories, but I knew they were there in the stones, the plaster, the boiler pipes, and even in the cast-offs. The mystery of unknown narratives drew me to their material manifestation like a moth to a flame. I just wanted to be in their presence.

Recently I toured another house of worship, Shiloh Baptist Church in Philadelphia, with friends and colleagues from Partners for Sacred Places. I had the privilege of serving for several years as chair of the board of directors of this national non-profit that offers advocacy, training, and resources for historic houses of worship. At several points I heard the group calling out my name from a distance. I had wandered off to look at the handsome wooden lockers of the 1920s gym, still standing open as if the athletes had just left. I was spellbound by the elegant stone fireplace surround and sliding pocket doors of what had once been a church parlor. I was determined to get a mental map in my head so I could grasp how we got from a third floor assembly room with whole walls of broken plaster to the creaking balcony looking over a grand nave with 1000 seats. I was trying to hear the stories. I was trying to understand how this building worked.

Today there are many thousands of houses of worship like Shiloh Baptist and Grace Methodist striving to stay open and to serve their communities. Many thousands of other buildings now stand vacant. While a good number have found new uses, many now confront their communities with a troubling issue of blight.

But the issue is greater than blight. Historic houses of worship tell stories of human aspirations and values, of cultural persistence and change, of aesthetic expression and elevation of the human spirit. They are focal points of community narrative, landmarks in neighborhood sense of place. What happens to them is not only – or, for the empty ones, even primarily – a matter of faith or religious practice, whatever form that may take. What becomes of them is inseparable from what comes of our sense of wonder: who were the people who built them? To what did they aspire? For what kind of society did they hope?

And is there a way to sustain and direct these buildings now toward the aspirations and values, the culture and the sense of place, of today’s communities? To do so will require a fresh imagination, and to stir such imaginings is the purpose of this book.

  1. Introduction

No building type of historical, social, or architectural interest has been more prominent in the built landscape of the United States than churches and synagogues. Houses of worship stand on town squares, intersections of metropolitan arteries, rural hilltops, and freeway interchanges in every region of the country. Church buildings have been thoroughly absorbed into the cultural imagination. Steeples, rooflines, windows, porticoes, and courtyards appear as elements of town logos, symbols of peace and consolation on postcards and greeting cards, notable sites in promotions and tours of historic districts and cultural heritage areas, and settings for family and public events commemorated in photographs, historical booklets, and websites.

Houses of worship are also one of the most taken-for-granted tangible and spatial realities of American society. Their very omnipresence masks critical questions of their purchase on the cultural imagination. These questions are surfacing more urgently because of the emerging crisis of historic religious buildings. Many houses of worship are in peril, their future as intact buildings and sites at risk. Most are over fifty years old and many date from the avid church-building era of 1870 to 1930. Many have survived from the settlement periods of American colonies or in towns and cities of the early 19th century trans-Appalachian West. Thousands of these buildings – perhaps tens of thousands – are occupied by congregations that lack the human or financial resources to maintain or restore their facilities. Many are vacant or listed on the real estate market (for some sense of the national scale of this, see church listings in www.loopnet.com.) Thousands have been rehabilitated for use as commercial or residential space. Untold numbers have already been demolished and are lost forever.

Historic houses of worship are the built evidence of the religious trends and changes that mark 21st century American society. Many continue to house thriving congregations, often making major contributions to the social capital of their communities. Many have been refurbished and continue to extend the religious, ethnic, and cultural traditions they represent into a new millennium.

Many other historic houses of worship, though, belong to diminishing congregations, vivid symbols of how religious affiliation and participation patterns are changing today. These patterns have been studied and analyzed extensively, but no one can predict with certainty how the next decades will unfold. Four markers of these patterns that have been most influential for religious buildings would seem to be these:

  • The decline in birthrate among religious adherents of those groups that were the most prolific church-builders of earlier generations, particularly Protestant groups with roots in England and Europe (especially Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans). Many researchers argue that as much as 80% of the decline in adherence in these traditions can be attributed to smaller families and fewer children among the membership. Church buildings constructed before 1960 usually have far more classroom, assembly, and recreational space than a current congregation needs.

  • .Absorption of immigrant groups into the larger population through intermarriage and cultural change. While “new immigrant” groups conduct worship and education in native tongues (such as Korean or Spanish) and many meet in older religious buildings, immigrant groups of earlier generations no longer seek to maintain ethnic or regional identities through congregational or parish life. This factor accounts for much of the massive closures of Catholic parish churches across the United States.

  • Suburbanization and population shifts. In chapter six I relate the story of congregations in St. Louis, Missouri, continually moving westward over nearly 200 years from the original city center into new urban housing developments and finally to expanding suburbs with a new built landscape and street pattern. In one form or another this story has been told in every metropolitan region of the U.S. These movements have had numerous effects, among them the dispersal of population cohorts that supported particular congregations, and the sluggishness of established denominational organizations to develop strategies for continuing their presence in older urban neighborhoods while also expanding their presence in new suburbs. Moreover, much suburban growth is attributable to the influx of population from smaller towns and countryside. Many small towns and rural crossroads have seen their Main Streets boarded up, with a corresponding loss of adherents in country and small town churches. A simpler way to put it is that established religious denominations found many of their 19th century buildings finely sited in just the wrong places to serve a mobile 20th century constituency.

  • A fourth marker of the changing landscape for historic houses of worship is the apparent shift in forms of association that characterizes American society. A number of scholars have noted the decline in membership and participation of face-to-face associational life, from civic clubs to fraternal orders to political parties to community organizations. Some studies show that actual attendance in religious services is substantially lower than opinion polls report, and that the highly publicized growth of extremely large congregations masks the continued shrinkage in participation in congregational life across most denominations. While Americans are more networked, linked, and friended than ever through the Internet, what form of embodied association they will seek in the future is unknown. We do not know yet what difference the absorption of people’s time into media will make to the structure of community life, but religious association stands at the center of this question.

Given these and other markers of change, significant rethinking and reimagining of the place of historic religious buildings in American culture is more pressing with each passing year. While any number of possible strategies are evolving that may help local communities manage and find new uses for these buildings, what is really crucial now is finding a fresh way to understand their place and role in American society and culture. Historic houses of worship have played a significant role in building American communities. The challenge today is to reimagine their place as public spaces and community gathering points for future generations.

In the following three chapters I explore three dimensions of the place of houses of worship in American culture: religious buildings as sites of memory, as locus of communal pilgrimage and identity, and as critical elements in the sense of place of American communities. In chapter five I examine religious buildings as contested spaces, particularly as sites of tension between cultural heritage and the real estate market. In chapter six I interpret historic houses of worship as fluid ventures in architecture and design. I conclude in chapter seven by proposing scenarios for the future of historic houses of worship and the implications for American culture that each possibility projects.

Case Studies of Peril and Promise

North Adams has traveled the long road back from dying mill town to one of the region’s significant cultural destinations.” Appalachian Trail Journeys, 2008

Set against a New England backdrop of buxom hills flecked with steeples, [the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has] an undeniable charm.” Escapes section, New York Times, 2008
North Adams, Mass.: A Manufacturing Town for Art” NPR broadcast story (August 20, 2012)
I conduct this exploration through case studies of the place and fate of religious buildings in North America – cases that could be multiplied many times over in settlements across the land. The case to which I refer most frequently is the city of North Adams, Massachusetts. This is the lesser known old industrial town adjacent to the much more publicized Williamstown that tags itself “The Village Beautiful,” home of Williams College, the Broadway warm-up summer stage of the Williamstown Theater Festival, the Clark Art Institute, and dozens of high-end second homes and developments.

As I drive west on Route 2 in western Massachusetts – a road marketed since early in the automobile era as the Mohawk Trail – I wend my way up the Deerfield River into the wooded hills above Charlemont. The road then climbs with the Cold River higher up into the Berkshire towns of Savoy and the unlikely-named Florida, until I reach an outlook from the Western Summit. If I pull across into the parking area, I will have a first grand vista across the Hoosac Valley and the city of North Adams. The view becomes more vivid as I descend a steep grade into a curve known to generations of tourists as the Hairpin Turn, and a realization dawns that the most prominent architectural feature of the city skyline is the steeples of its churches.

By the time I have dropped rapidly down the hills into town and arrive on Center Street and turn over to Main, the steeples are towering 150 feet over my head. No other building in North Adams, even with the city’s history of bustling industries and commerce, reaches that height. No less than five houses of worship with tall spires stand within a block of Monument Square at the city center.

North Adams is best known in recent years as the home of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art – recognized by its brand logo MASSMoCA. The story of the museum is often cited as an exemplar of the potential of the “creative economy” to remake older American industrial settlements by infusing old mill and factory buildings with a new generation of artists, craftspeople, and designers. MassMOCA is only one initiative among several efforts in North Adams to rehabilitate vacant mill buildings into live/work lofts for creative types. Several hundred new residents have moved to town to practice their crafts and many small galleries have sprung up in vacant storefronts of the 19th century streetscape.

Yet strikingly enough, the city of North Adams continues to view its monumental houses of worship as its distinct signature. The town branding slogan is “City of Steeples,” the baseball team in the summer collegiate league is named the SteepleCats, and a major mall is the Steeple City Plaza. Joe Manning, an independent writer who conducted extensive interviews of residents and has published two books on the history and changes of North Adams that include many historic and contemporary skyline photographs, has catalyzed this slogan in part with his book entitled Steeples. (See also Joe Manning’s website, www.morningsonmaplestreet.com)

Indeed the city’s church steeples are unquestionably its most prominent landmarks. The five houses of worship with steeples – Baptist, Congregational, Episcopal, and two (former) Roman Catholic church buildings – are joined by four other substantial religious buildings with lower towers, including a (former) United Methodist Church being renovated into an art gallery, the consolidated Roman Catholic parish, a (former) synagogue now a college auditorium, and the (former) Unitarian Universalist Church now an art gallery. The nine historic houses of worship are all within six blocks of each other. Only four are in active use by a congregation. The other five are either vacant or have been kept intact while converted to other uses. It’s hard to imagine North Adams without these landmarks. Together with the massive 19th century mill buildings, the Hoosac Tunnel that in a remarkable engineering feat brought the railroad through the mountains from Boston, and the graceful forested peaks that surround the valley, the churches are an irreplaceable feature of the city’s landscape.

North Adams is a microcosm of American religious history and its material expression in buildings. How a city of 15,000 residents came to have such a built religious landscape is a rich and complex story of economic development, immigration, civic improvement, and cultural aspiration. Its houses of worship exemplify the multiple layers of memory and imagination that cluster around religious buildings and their surroundings.

But what should happen now to historic religious buildings like these? North Adams offers a window into questions that shake many communities around the U.S. – and other nations as well. Whose problem is it when congregations can no longer support such aging landmarks? Does responsibility lie with the congregation or denomination? What role does the neighborhood, town, or city have in saving and finding living uses for such a distinctive element of the local landscape?

  1. Religious buildings as sites of memory

This unique property consisting of a 3800 sq. ft. church plus a 12 room 3600 sq. ft. home awaits your ideas for a new use.” (Real estate flyer, Hinsdale, New Hampshire)
Houses of worship over time and the passage of generations become sites of memory for members and constituents of their congregations, for people who have only occasionally attended events there, and for the public who may know the building only as a visual marker of the built landscape. As French historian Pierre Nora has argued, sites of memory (lieux de mémoire) are sites in three senses: material, symbolic, and functional. Certainly buildings are, first, a material, physical presence. Their shape, height, and mass, in relationship with surrounding buildings, become part of the remembered visual landscape of a street. The materials with which they are constructed and decorated, often taken from nearby quarries, clay pits, and forests, recall the composition of the natural terrain.

Houses of worship are so ubiquitous in North America that one is hard-pressed to notice them, that is, to take note of their significance. No one knows how many congregations exist in the United States; a good estimate is between 320,000 and 350,000 including all religious faiths. All share in varying ways in what sociologist of religion Stephen Warner has called “de facto congregationalism.” Religious groups of whatever stripe and polity inevitably function as local voluntary associations, governing themselves through boards and councils, and developing varied activities of worship, education, and service. Almost all congregations gather indoors, seeking shelter in a structure. Some move about among homes or rented spaces. But a common mark of generic or “de facto” congregationalism is the aspiration to build, own, and operate a building.

An astonishing number and variety of religious buildings, then, perhaps a quarter million or more, punctuate the American landscape. Many make a prominent statement with the sheer physicality of their presence in the land. Their scale, design, building materials, and sites declare that “we are here” – “we” have a place on the street. This is for some congregations the most public statement they ordinarily make. By erecting a building that can’t be missed, they claim their place in the community.

Five of the nine prominent downtown houses of worship in North Adams, for example, were erected in the period between 1865 and 1888, and one additional building of that period (the Methodist Episcopal Church) stood for over fifty years before burning down in 1927. All six of these original 19th century structures sported steeples of 150 feet or more. The structures were designed by architects, not by local builders (the common practice in earlier decades), though several of them were modeled on published building plans for churches of a grand scale. They were constructed with stone foundations and brick walls, with slate or tile roofs. Their architects chose either the elevated spirit of Gothic style or the more fortress-like stolidity of the Romanesque – either was then in fashion as a form for expressing the permanence and centrality of houses of worship.

Other than the one destroyed by fire, these buildings remain largely intact today with few changes in their naves other than decorations such as stained glass windows. Most sport at least one Tiffany or other high design window; top-of-the-line pipe organs such as Moeller and Aeolian-Skinner are found in each. Their prominence in the built landscape can be kept in perspective by remembering that they were built before the skyscraper or high-rise era. At the time North Adams had few buildings of any type more than three stories in height.

The grandeur and stability of these houses of worship, now around 150 years old, is remarkable. Each has made a firm statement that the congregation has a place in the land. I have often heard comments about such buildings that their ostentatious design and decoration mark the dominance of the rich in North America. To be sure, their construction would not have been possible without the fortunes earned from new industries and technologies of the 19th century. The less fortunate congregations that occupy them today bear the burden of buildings that may have been overbuilt for the size of the worshipping congregation and excessively decorated even for the time. In that sense the materiality of these structures could be associated with the growing consumerism of 19th century American culture that only accelerated in the 20th.

But clearly this is not how their contemporaries viewed them. The remarks of Thomas Griffin at the closing of the Methodists’ older building and the opening of their fine 1873 Gothic house of worship were most revealing in this regard. “We rejoice that our mission has been to the poor,” declared Griffin. “It has been the great glory of our denomination, that while few ‘mighty’ or wealthy men have, as such, entered her communion, she has lifted thousands of the sons and daughters of penury to affluence and social position . . . This great commission to ‘preach the gospel to the poor,’ is held in mind by the projectors of our future temple [the new church]. Its commodiousness insures the fulfillment of the Lord’s avowal. ‘The poor have the gospel preached unto them,’ and though we anticipate an advance in architectural grace . . . we look for the abiding of that spirit of humility and power, which has hitherto been the secret of our success.”

Religious buildings of this type were for everyone, in other words. They were built for everyday people, declaring and securing materially the place in society of anyone who attended there. Such fine houses of worship required the resources of the rich; the Methodists had relied on industrialist Harvey Arnold for two-thirds of their building costs. Nonetheless, such grand churches physically embodied the open access to land, materials, and opportunity for expression so essential to Americans’ understanding of democratic society.

That religious buildings become, secondly, symbolic sites seems almost a truism. But they are symbolic not only because, in their shape and decoration, they incorporate depictions, signs, or expressions of the faith tradition in which they were built. Their symbolic presence widens and deepens through their use over time. It is generated by the flows of people whose feet have worn away the surface of the granite steps; by rituals marking the life passages of birth, marriage, or death in a sacred space; by the interaction of people of multiple generations and backgrounds who make a life in a place together. A building that has endured for generations and resonates with the voices of children, with footsteps of people seeking food, shelter, or companionship, with banter and discussion and forceful speech that marks public meetings, comes to represent essential elements and practices of communal and public life.

The symbolic resonance of houses of worship is embedded in specific spaces and objects. A few years before it was closed, St. Francis moved a Pieta statue from a small chapel near a side door to a new position against the wall of the nave. A long-time parishioner pointed out to me one Sunday how the hands of the Christ-figure were darker and shinier than the rest of the sculpture. The nuns, he said, would walk from their convent across the intersection through the side door into the sanctuary, touching the wounds of Christ as they passed by. The oils of their fingers had gradually darkened the stone.

The symbolic resonance of houses of worship echoes well beyond their interior spaces, beyond even stately architecture or grand building materials. People often care about religious buildings whether or not they have any specific memories of them, perhaps because they associate them with something transcendent or lasting – values that sustain a good society, or ritual markers that give meaning and order to the human life cycle. In this way, while many other kinds of historic buildings such as county courthouses, public schools, or railroad stations also face threats of demolition and loss, houses of worship often draw a particular and distinct public attention and sentiment.

Vacant houses of worship shake this symbolic resonance. The old Notre Dame building in North Adams has drawn me back several times. It is empty, with plastic inserts where stained glass windows used to glow, all interior décor and objects of religious significance removed, and even the cross taken down from the steeple. A strict interpretation of Catholic canon law requires such removals, but vastly diminishes the character and thus the value of such a building in the real estate market. Canon law even makes a valiant effort to shelter traditions and doctrines; a former church is not to be used for purposes incompatible with church teachings (no abortion clinics, for example). So the bishop puts deed restrictions in the sale. But how much force such restrictions can have over a succession of owners is unknown. “It’s just sad,” said a very somber city official with whom I visited about Notre Dame. “When I think of the weddings and events I attended there . . . I just can hardly stand to look at the building.”

The functions of buildings, their third dimension as sites of memory, change over time. From the day of their opening, their design may or may not accord with their actual use. Houses of worship may be used more intensively in some periods than in others. Their rooms may be altered to accommodate new activities. Their space and style may become increasingly dysfunctional as needs and desires change.

Nora raises the critical question of whether sites of memory, under the pressure of modernism, have morphed into mere history: representations of continuity with a past that is no longer accessible except as nostalgic artifact. The milieux de mémoire in which a building made sense, embedded in the daily life of a living community, has dissipated under conditions of modernity. As communities have changed, their networks of daily relationships stretched and pulled through the forces of urbanization and consumerism, so have the physical structures that symbolize them. This leaves historic sites, Nora argues, to become parodies of themselves; the people who observe them have little organic connection with them or continuity of shared memory with the people who created them.

Indeed, when a neo-Gothic house of worship like the United Methodist Church of North Adams with a sanctuary seating 600 people, crossed into the new millenium hosting a regular worshipping congregation of 30, with dozens of activity rooms in the education wing and undercroft closed and unheated, one had to wonder if the practices that generated the physical structure were in any way sufficient to sustain it as a living site. The remnant of this congregation finally had to face giving up any functions in the building, surrendering the symbolic focus of Methodism in continuous gathering in North Adams for 175 years, and selling of the property on the real estate market. As the congregation takes away its individual and collective memories of the building, what will be the continuing sense of this site as a lieux de memoire for the community?

  1. Religious buildings as locus of ethnic cultural identity

Unique and rare opportunity! Two story building currently being used as a church . . . Many possibilities!” (Real estate flyer, Saugus, Massachusetts)
Many houses of worship were built by immigrant communities. These buildings today present a physical record of the pilgrimage of peoples from homelands around the world to the new land of the United States. Many bear in their names a resonance with the language, culture, and heritage of the people who originally built them. They were sites for the remembering and continuing of a home culture, sustained through festivals, rites, clothing, language, food, and family.

As immigrant communities have dispersed across the land and population, the use of their historic houses of worship by succeeding generations has become a paramount issue. Many such buildings have been sold to other religious groups. Many are occupied by remnants of the original population. Many are closed or have been adapted for other uses.

The range of houses of worship in North Adams is a vivid cross-section of 19th century immigration. North Adams was a major industrial city with factories making print cloth, shoes, and electrical parts, located in a pivotal spot at the west end of the Hoosac Tunnel on the railroad from Boston to Albany and westward. The churches represented French Canadian, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, and Anglo populations, including entire village populations that migrated across the Atlantic to work in the mills. Roman Catholic “national” parishes sprang up one after another, reflecting successive waves of laborers. No sooner had St. Francis of Assisi’s house of worship been erected and begun serving mainly the Irish immigrant population in 1869, than the French-speaking parish of Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur was organized, completing its equally fine house of worship in French High Gothic style in 1888. A few years later, the Italians built their own parish church of St. Anthony of Padua, subsequently replacing it with an Art Deco modernist structure in 1958.

These church buildings embodied an aspiration to house and shelter the continuing culture of the people who worshipped there. In language and décor, in festivals and folkways, they offered participants a continuing connection with their homelands. As one Catholic resident told oral historian Michael Hoberman in 2001, “your social network was all church-related, and so you went there for all of your sustenance, whether it was religious, spiritual, cultural or social . . . it was like you didn’t feel like you were going to church if you went to another church other than your own church. And that was really part of that old culture thing from the Old Country.”

The long-time director of a local non-profit social service agency, a Jew active in a synagogue in another town, remembered the churches being the basis of community. He “identified kids by which church or synagogue they came from,” and everybody talked about how the churches “were competitive with each other” through sports. A Catholic lay woman recalled a bishop in the 1980s trying to convert the parishes from “national” or ethnic to geographic. She and her husband had been attending Notre Dame because it was closest to them, but quickly moved their registration to St. Francis so they would not be forced to register and attend – and thus be identified with – the French parish. The intensity of loyalty to these parishes continues today. Before St. Francis was closed, a couple in their 30s told me after Mass that they had had to go to another town to get married; her family was from Notre Dame – now closed – and they were not about to see their daughter get married in the Italian or Irish parish of North Adams.

The immigrant experience in North America has been much explored around the theme of conflicted identity – how cultural identity was preserved or integrated with other cultures in North America, how it was passed from the first generation to the second to the third (or not), and how identities are constructed or reconstructed, patched or quilted together, today. The built landscape of religion has embodied this identity struggle as houses of worship were erected for each ethnic or cultural group. The buildings were a physical statement of presence in the larger community, marking a stake in the land and a place in the emerging streetscape of a neighborhood.

Even the buildings housed multiple statements in tension with each other, however. An immigrant congregation was inevitably double-minded, as if they were saying, “We are here in America to stay, while we also have constructed a place that shelters and preserves our cultural homeland;” or, “We belong to this community as a distinct immigrant group bearing language and customs from elsewhere, while we also have erected a landmark building to indicate our desire to stay and participate in this society.” So the parishes bore a dual purpose: on one side as havens for immigrants with a common heritage and shelters for the continuity of language and culture; and on the other as place holders for enabling their participants to enter into the life of the larger community. They were stewards of what French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs termed the “collective memory” of their constituents. They were at the same time advocates of a broader collective memory being created by the collision and collaboration of many different ethnic heritages in the formation of the local society and culture of the town.

The question then becomes whether today’s participants can or should draw on communal ethnic heritage for their faith practices. Or would this, as Nora suggests, be a superficial manipulation, an artifice of cultural memory disconnected from the genuine experience of previous generations? In 2009 the diocese reorganized and merged all the Catholic parishes, with all Masses and activities conducted in the newest of the Roman Catholic buildings, St. Anthony of Padua (the 1958 building for the Italian parish). The diocese declared an entirely new name for this consolidated parish, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, intended to appeal to all groups (or at least be neutral to them) with an image of self-giving service. New signs were erected immediately to present to the public this new name. But can a diocese just announce the renovation of collective memory and the institution of new folkways, especially when the houses of worship vacated by the other parishes continue to stand in reproof of what might have been?

Parishioners questioned the new name, partly in jest and partly in protest, strikingly on ethnic grounds. “I don’t think North Adams has ever had more than two Hungarians in our whole history,” one loyal and active lay member told me with a wry smile. But she goes to Mass anyway, gazing on a central platform that now holds the ornate wooden Gothic pulpit chairs from St. Francis, the elegantly etched gold candlesticks from Notre Dame, and the trim, angular 1950s Modernist marble pulpit and altar rails of St. Anthony. The furniture bears the story of broken narratives and a jumble of pieces from which a new narrative could spin.

  1. The public place of religious buildings

Seeking $30 million to renovate, church finds help in neighbors” New York Times, 2007
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. If, as Wallace Stegner suggested, the sense of place accrues over time like a “coral reef,” houses of worship through their years of use come to embody continuity with generations who have gone before. 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, doorways; in the 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 long-time journalist in his interview with Joe Manning. “It was like coming into a door on the Hadley Overpass [the major highway 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 realized or 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 statement about the role of religion in a community. As capitalist business ventures advanced through a burgeoning industrial economy, religious groups viewed their buildings as architectural assertions that monetary gain was balanced by moral purposes. The steeples soared to a level 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 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 through philanthropy in support of many causes, but particularly to 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, newer and longer-time, 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 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 were landmarks to keep track of as their future becomes more uncertain.

Today’s North Adams is a shape-shifting shadow of the 19th century city. The major industries have moved to other cities or other countries. The built landscape of the city today eerily serves a population that is 40% smaller than it was in 1910. Participation in the churches continues to shrink. Of the nine houses of worship within six blocks of Monument Square downtown, three have been converted to other uses – one as a college auditorium and music department office, two as independent art and performance spaces. The French and Irish Roman Catholic buildings are padlocked. The Congregationalists are vigorously seeking other organizational partners to lease or share their facilities, and in 2008 sold Theodore Munger’s 1888 parsonage in an effort to hang on.

The growing trend toward abandonment and sale has raised a whole new range of questions about the public role of houses of worship. In terms set out by cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove, the landmark religious buildings once represented the “dominant” landscape of social/ethnic groups empowered to make a place in a growing city. Their monumentality was inseparable from the industrial growth of their city, connected by rail to the global markets of an emerging corporate economy. Today they are increasingly markers of the “residual” landscape of an earlier society. They are physical evidence of an older social order.

What is to be done in a town like North Adams? One approach would be to try to ride the crest of the “turn toward the local” that marks at least various forms of resistance to a globalized economy and possibly indicates an emerging way of life. Perhaps houses of worship could become elements in what Cosgrove termed the “emerging” landscape of a place, by being absorbed into the same shift of thinking that has people trying to buy only food grown within 100 miles of home, or (re-)establishing farms and small businesses that can make a local economy thrive. A turn to the local would be somewhat ironic if one views the historic church buildings as physical expressions of a growing 19th century global economy. But such remnants have often been remade and reoriented to the local in human societies.

The most visionary possibility for a city that is remaking itself as a center for the arts is to adapt available religious buildings for creative uses, as art schools and studios and performance spaces. This sustains their character as public gathering spaces, even if some jarring juxtapositions result. The former synagogue, for example, was constructed in 1962 with a menorah of contrasting color built into an external masonry wall facing the major thoroughfare – an artifact of the residual landscape – while the state college that now owns it (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) uses it for lectures and concerts. The artist Eric Rudd, who has already set up a large-scale exhibit in the former Unitarian Universalist building – a handsome Prairie style structure built in 1893 of Roman brick with stylish porticos and dormers – suggested in an interview that actually the prospect of three or four vacant buildings was better than just one, that a whole compound of buildings adapted for use of arts and crafts could be created more easily from multiple structures. Indeed in 2013 he has the former United Methodist building for just such adaptive use.

Such a large-scale renovation and reuse would stir a troubled conflict very much present in North Adams, however, between the long-time residents who worked in the factories or managed the operating companies and who today largely populate the declining membership of the churches, and the newer creative economy residents who buy the live-work lofts in the old mills and open galleries in vacant storefronts downtown. Many efforts are underway to bridge these populations; MassMOCA puts on numerous events for the local public; new residents have been welcomed into many neighborhoods especially as they fix up the 19th century houses. But the churches have not yet found a way to connect with newcomers even through the arts, which would seem to be their natural partner. Without such relationships now, the passing of a beloved building from one use to another, from one collective memory to a new cultural legacy, may seem a form of alienation more than a model of partnership. These tensions, though, express a much longer heritage of contestation that enfolds religious buildings.

  1. Houses of worship as contested spaces

More church closings – and anguish – in region”headline in Philadelphia Inquirer (June 4, 2013) [accessed at Philly.com]
No material object captures the aspiration to stability and continuity of a religious tradition more than a house of worship. In a 2002 review essay of books exploring “Sacred Space in North America,” historian Peter Williams challenged recent “hermeneutics of suspicion” that have predominated in some interpretations of sacred spaces and sites. David Chidester and Edward Linenthal, for example, argue that sacred space has three attributes: ritual activity, a focus on central human questions, and its “inevitably contested” character as varied stakeholders vie for the power to define (or deny) the identity and force of its sacrality. Williams replies that the interpretive frame of “contestation” is not helpful for those Americans who “regard the spaces at which they attend weekly worship to be part of the ordinary patterns of their lives rather than the objects or symbols of conflicts with their neighbors.” (607) How could spaces of such ritual and regularity, continuous across time and across the shared life of fellow believers, be helpfully viewed as contested?

I would argue to the contrary here, that the frame of contestation and sublimated or explicit conflict is a most illuminating way to interpret and understand the dynamics of religious buildings. Congregations have always fussed and fumed over their buildings – how much to spend on them, how to manage and govern them, whether to expand them, to sell or to keep plugging along in the same facilities. Houses of worship are contested spaces from the time they are erected throughout their years of use. The contending forces within and around their walls normally engage in creative struggle as they strive to embody their religious traditions through the wood, brick, and stone that shelter and embody their practices. When these contending forces are thrown out of balance, however, particularly when closure, sale, or demolition threatens the preservation of the building and the sense of continuity that its constituencies attach to the site, conflict over religious buildings breaks out from sublimated postures into heated and wounding struggles over identity and meaning.

Houses of worship are so ubiquitous in North America that one is hard-pressed to grasp the taken-for-granted world of freedom for religious expression in which their omnipresence makes sense. One of the unexamined assumptions undergirding the proliferation of religious buildings was simply that there was room for everyone, that land was available, that space could be found in the built landscape. By contrast with the congestion and rigid social order of their homelands, American immigrants hoped and expected that they would find an open place here for religious expression. When this deeply embedded assumption of space proves not to be true today, for example, where land is scarce or zoning regulations prevent religious or public uses in certain neighborhoods, religious groups complain that their constitutional right to “free exercise” of religion, that is, to build or expand their facilities for that “exercise,” is being violated.

Similarly every congregation has assumed equal access to the marketplace of building materials – wood, stone, brick, glass – from which to construct a building. Few congregations ever questioned this market; if a congregation could raise the money, then it would buy the needed materials. The fact that these materials were becoming scarce over a hundred years ago, that, for example, the wooden beams used for floor joists or rafters came from the last of such trees to be found in North America, did not slow congregations from competing in the building marketplace.

Religious expression itself, of course, also functioned as a marketplace. Each congregation as it built was also declaring that if “we” have a right to build here, so do others. Implicitly each congregation’s physical presence recognized the presence of others. Every group that could muster the resources and get title to a piece of land and push its building plan past the city planning department and building inspectors had a common right to put up a public structure for its own form of worship. And then let the friendly competition begin, a competition that expresses itself in everything from the aggressiveness of church league basketball to strategizing and marketing to attract more members.

Most debate about houses of worship within denominations or the congregations themselves focuses on this competition for members and money. The typical Protestant discussion is grounded in market assumptions about the self-sufficiency of local churches. If a congregation can’t raise enough money to maintain their historic church building, it’s their fault and their problem – obviously they don’t have enough members giving money or enough “stewardship” among the members they have. And if they don’t have enough members, obviously they have failed to attract new people. They are not “successful” in the local religious marketplace. If the local church property is held in trust for a denomination, then judicatory officials, conferences, or other regional bodies may act to terminate the congregation and close the building – an act usually regarded as a sign of decline and failure for the denomination in the religion market.

The typical Roman Catholic discussion begins equally from the market assumption of scarce resources. A local church building is primarily a site for Mass, which it is the responsibility of the diocese to provide. If there are not enough parishioners to contribute to building maintenance, then as steward (and holder of deeds) of all the property in the diocese the bishop may decide to close that building and arrange for the remaining parishioners to join the Mass in another place. Parish councils can contest the bishop’s decision based on their duties under canon law, but if they can’t produce contributing parishioners they are not likely to prevail.

A significant assumption undergirding the marketplace framework is the status of religious buildings as private property. To be sure, houses of worship are erected on public streets and almost all put up a permanent sign somewhere on the lot announcing their name, usually their denominational affiliation, often the schedule of services, and sometimes the pastor’s name. Such signage is much less common in Europe or Britain, where national churches predominate and everyone just knows what they are. But in America, congregations announce their particular identity and practice to the public, implicitly stating that they are public gathering places where – at least theoretically – anyone may visit.

At the same time, though, houses of worship are private property, none owned or supported by any government anywhere in the U.S. for nearly 200 years now. The internal affairs of congregations are private. Like other property owners, they can make decisions about their property without public consultation (within the bounds of local ordinances). This paradox of public space configured by private ownership is endemic to the market in American religious buildings, and one of the unspoken but persistent conflicts embedded in them.

Decisions to close church buildings and put them up for sale expose all the market assumptions about the church. Denominations and congregations appear to be saying that what they do with their buildings is solely their decision – “we own them, they serve our mission, when we’re done we can sell them to any buyer we choose.” Church buildings, that is, in the end are real estate. They are peculiar buildings of interest mainly to specialized buyers, but finally they are private properties with market value.

Such assumptions have limited usefulness in North Adams today, or many other urban neighborhoods, cities and towns across the U.S. There is no real estate market in North Adams for seven monumental houses of worship within a few blocks of each other. The United Methodist property was valued for insurance purposes at $1.1 million. But such numbers mean little to prospective buyers. The eventual contract price for the Methodists’ prized house of memory was $125,000 – less than most single-family houses in the vicinity.

As the situation of historic churches becomes more urgent across the U.S., clearly the time has come to challenge these prevalent real estate assumptions. We need to think differently, and with fresh imagination, about our built heritage. This is an element in a larger need to find new ways to calculate the values and costs of sustaining (or failing to sustain) our cultural heritage. Only then can church constituencies, preservationists, and citizens find the language to converse with each other and work together creatively to save these significant places.

Market assumptions would call for the city center churches of North Adams to consolidate or close, with their buildings put up for sale. Some would eventually be demolished and replaced with commercial or residential buildings. In fact, if church buildings across the U.S. that stand vacant today were gradually to be torn down, it would only be consistent with the pattern of transience and disposability that has typified American society in every era. Many of the stylish neo-Gothic or Romanesque church buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries themselves replaced older houses of worship, many of which were routinely demolished.

What distinguishes the contemporary situation is not only the sheer number of fine structures that are at risk, but the costs of not saving them. Congregations understandably talk a lot about the costs of keeping historic buildings open, and indeed, the price tag for heating, tuck pointing, putting on a new roof, and making an old building accessible can seem out of reach. The North Adams United Methodists discovered in a building audit that they faced over $1.2 million in repairs, and they held winter worship in their small chapel to reduce heating oil expenses of over $500 per Sunday. Many congregations like theirs can marshal the resources only for emergencies. All other maintenance is deferred – the costs are simply too much to manage.

But what about the costs of not saving historic houses of worship? Some of these costs are tangible. Most church buildings are made of local materials. The skin of the building is often limestone, granite, coquina, or other unique stone from nearby quarries. The framing and floors are often oak, maple, or pine from surrounding woods. These materials are for the most part irreplaceable. White pine in the North and heart pine in the South simply no longer exist. In North Adams, the (former) United Methodist building alone has a wood plank ceiling and wooden rafters in the sanctuary, wood wainscoting throughout the sanctuary as well as two dining rooms and hallways, and wood windows in its classroom wing. Masters of crafts in marble, plaster, glass, wood and stone such as found in the high-design Episcopal Church are few and far between. Moreover, incalculable energy fueled by wood, coal, or oil went into the manufacture of materials and decorations and construction of the building. To shovel much of that into a landfill in today’s world of diminished natural resources is unconscionably wasteful.

Other costs are more intangible. Denominations and congregations make public statements with their buildings, declaring with grand sanctuaries and tall steeples that they are planted in the built landscape to uplift and serve the community. Ironies abound when they now declare that their buildings are just private property and that they have the same prerogative as any property owner to dispose of a building without public consultation. A Roman Catholic bishop or a United Methodist annual (regional) conference can close a church at a rural crossroads or an urban intersection without consulting other parishes, conferences, neighborhood groups that meet in the building, or public officials working toward revitalization of the community in which the building is located. But a decision to close, sell, or demolish a church building comes at devastating cost to the larger community.

Thus a little-discussed but persistent way in which houses of worship are contested spaces is embodied in their community context, the built landscape and the people that inhabit it. Greater exploration and constructive resolution of the conflict between religious groups and local communities will require a much richer and more critical perspective on houses of worship within the built environment. From this perspective may issue increasingly creative solutions for the preservation and use of these buildings for the whole community.

Clues to a new way of thinking are embedded, ironically, in the North Adams town “brand.” The church buildings belong to the whole community; they are an asset to the whole “City of Steeples.” Their future must be managed, not foremost around assumptions of private property on the real estate market, but around their significance to the social and cultural life of the city. Approaches to saving these buildings for continued use will be found in exploring the many ways they contribute – through their spaces, their activities, their beauty – to the social good of the community.

A persistent question of vision and imagination troubles any such solutions, though. Much of the economic and social capital of North Adams evaporated with the last exodus of larger companies and jobs in the 1980s. As a member of First Congregational Church viewed it, the middle and upper-middle class of professionals and managers – the people most likely to be active in “community service” by serving on boards of directors, church councils, and fund-raising activities – had largely moved away.

The blunt and plain-speaking former mayor of North Adams decried in his interview with me what he considered the resulting lack of “leadership” among religious groups. “I have to put together a strategy for them,” the mayor declared. “I wrote a letter [about Notre Dame] to the diocese – it took over a year to get a response.” Then much to his professed surprise, representatives of other denominations began to come to the mayor’s office. “I never thought the Protestants would be here to see me,” he said. “I thought they had large endowments.”

Church buildings are “the history of this community.” He demurred, “It’s not a religious point of view . . . it’s aesthetics . . . [losing the buildings would] change the character of downtown . . . [it’s a matter of] saving our history.” So he was working with a local bank to create a temporary fund so that the city can buy and hold vacated houses of worship until a buyer can be found who can rehabilitate them for new uses.

Both the city and the churches lack sufficient economic and social power, though. As Joe Manning told me, “People are so used to things failing.” A decade ago St. Francis sold the building across the intersection that had housed the order of nuns who taught in the parochial school, St. Joseph’s, now closed and converted to senior housing. The convent was purchased by the Brooks Pharmacy chain, which demolished the building to construct a new drugstore. Brooks subsequently sold to the Rite-Aid chain, which naturally has drawn the interest of CVS Pharmacies in buying the now-vacant St. Francis church building. In the mayor’s opinion, the church sold the convent too cheap to the pharmacy corporation. But “nobody listens to the church” these days, in his view. The churches are “not respected right now” because a large corporation, for example, sees nobody who will deal forcefully at a negotiating table. Many citizens of North Adams are fighting any possible demolition of St. Francis – arguably the most prominent of the steeples rising over the main intersection of Route 2 at the city center. But the diocese is silent. So can a city with so few resources resist such future overtures, or persuade the diocese to resist them?

As the chair of the local historical commission told me, “We have made stands as far as ‘this is Steeple City’ . . . we want facilities used, not demolished. We don’t have an awful lot of clout. If a congregation comes to us, we will certainly support them in trying to find a use for it. We can’t do an awful lot, we just keep trying. We write letters to the editor, we go to meetings . . . Massachusetts Historic Commission lists the budget for local commissions – ours is only $500 while others in state are $50,000 or more.”

So can religious buildings become part of the “emerging” landscape of a place? Can their physical presence and their resonance with collective memory be an asset in creating a functional and creative landscape for the next generation? Or will they function only as a diminished artifact, an imitative self-parody as a site of memory, in Nora’s terms? These questions challenge religious groups to reconsider their decisions to walk away from their historic buildings – decisions made in the framework of the marketplace of private property – without considering the impact on the built landscape and sense of place of the community; and they challenge everyone to reimagine these buildings as a public asset. As a member of St. Francis parish put it to me, “It’s terrible to just throw away our history – that’s what we do in America, tear it down and build something new.” The way we handle our growing stock of historic religious buildings in America will say a lot about the kinds of communities we want to have, and a great deal about the practices of the traditions that put up the buildings.

Thomas Edward Frank

University Professor

Wake Forest University



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