If you don't already know of one, there's a good chance you'll be seeing an abandoned church sometime soon. Last year, I noted that experts in historic preservation convened a conference in New York to begin examining this growing phenomenon. Many older cities, experiencing population declines, have become painfully aware of the loss of their major landmarks. As congregations either move away or close down, older, often gorgeously adorned edifices are being lost to the wrecking ball.
But this isn’t just a rustbelt issue. With major shifts in population demographics, many communities here in Texas are experiencing church closures. In my blogpost about the church preservation conference, I mentioned how important it is to find new, appropriate, and creative uses to preserve these special structures. So I was particularly impressed by photos of an exciting church reuse, of all places, in Morocco, Africa.
The old basilica church, Sacre-Coeur Cathedral in Casablanca, has, at least temporarily, been given an amazing new use by light artist Miguel Chevalier. The interactive installation spreads a magical carpet of light on the floor of what once was the central nave. Visitors are invited to engage with the changing patterns of colored pixels, swirls and grids. Though decidedly not a liturgical activity, it appears from the video below that people are genuinely engaged with the space. The soaring vertical room is re-energized by the playground of colors and textures covering the floor.
Miguel CHEVALIER Tapis magiques 2014 Casablanca (Version courte) from Claude Mossessian on Vimeo.
According to one travel site, the cathedral has been in disuse for many years, a remnant from the days when Morocco was a colony of France. The church was constructed in a modernist style, mostly of cast concrete by French architect Paul Tournon in 1930. Though stripped of its liturgical elements, the shape and volume of the space mark this as an unmistakable worship environment.
Spots of color from the large walls of stained glass appear to be the only distinctively church-related element that remains. The windows, however, work surprisingly well with the colored light installation. One important aspect of a successful church re-use has to be compatibility with the original church design. The sensitivity of the artist, Miguel Chevalier, is in evidence as the church volume, the stained glass, and the light show all work together beautifully.
The art world, at least, as taken notice. The website, Designboom has a nice writeup. But don’t think that lights alone will successfully salvage every old church. As I’ve mentioned many times, re-using an old church is never easy. When someone's work is as successful and beautiful as Chevalier's, it is worth taking notice.
Before you demolish any building, remember, the decision is final. Whatever value, history or opportunity for reuse that might have been possible will be gone forever! Our firm has long been associated with historic preservation and creative re-use of older buildings, so it may seem surprising that this blogpost is about tearing buildings down. I served for seven years on Austin’s Historic Landmarks Commission, and our firm has won awards for our preservation and renovation projects. We’ve salvaged and rescued buildings that other professionals had declared a total loss, or beyond repair. However, there are times when we are asked, “is demolition ok?” Sometimes the answer is, “yes.”
But, before our firm will make a recommendation to tear down any existing building, we make a concerted effort to consider alternatives. Once those have been exhausted, the tough decision to demolish must be faced. Here’s a checklist of six essential questions that any owner should consider before deciding it is demolition time.
Can the existing structure be modified or moved to accommodate your current needs?
Renovations, additions or even small adjustments can, in many cases, completely change an existing space. Compared to new construction, this strategy can save money and conserve resources.
In one project, changing the location of several walls was all it took to convert a floor of empty dentists offices into a terrific space for new church offices. For another congregation, we expanded the fellowship hall instead of having to build new. This was done by tearing down walls to incorporate some adjacent storage rooms.
These simple expansions and renovations made old or unused spaces completely functional; as good or better than new construction. It required us to take a fresh look at these spaces and work creatively to turn what existed into a successful program.
This wood-framed house was saved by moving it to a new location where it was given a complete restoration.
Can you adapt or modify the structure for new uses?
On several occasions, we’ve worked on converting an old fellowship hall or sanctuary into offices and classrooms. For one project in particular, the congregation was determined to build a new sanctuary and tear their old building down. With some planning, we determined that the old structure was placed perfectly to serve as an administration wing. It connected to the new foyer and was close to the parking lot. If we had torn the building down, we would certainly have needed to put the same square footage of new construction in the same location.
So, be sure you aren’t throwing away a good opportunity by tearing down, when an existing building could be re-used effectively for something else.
This existing building was not adaptable to new uses. Note the temporary ramp and the window unit for air-conditioning. A new, vastly improved office and classroom wing was built to replace it.
Is it possible (and practical) to fix structural problems?
With modifications, repairs, or reinforcement many problems can be addressed. A creative collaboration with a structural engineer can sometimes make the difference.
When pieces of the columns on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tower fell off, the Diocese was concerned, and asked us to look into various options to fix or remove the cupola. After several site visits, and a follow up meeting with a structural engineer, it was determined that wood framing inside the cupola was in good condition and just needed some reinforcement. The columns, though badly damaged, were non-structural. Previous patches and repairs were actually increasing their deterioration.
We recommended a comprehensive repair program that reinforced the structure, fixed the columns, and addressed number of other deficiencies, including major roof problems. The cost, compared to a total rebuild of the cupola, was pretty reasonable and not a lot more than demolishing and capping the old tower. The project was recognized by the Association of General Contractors with an award for quality construction in preserving history.
This two-story building had major structural problems. Note the large cracks in the brick wall and near the windows. This was one case where the problems were beyond reasonable repair and the building was demolished.
Does the building have historic or cultural value?
Always check with your local historic agency to see if your building is recognized or designated with historic landmark status. There could be significant regulations limiting or prohibiting an owner’s ability to modify or demolish their building. A thorough understanding of the building’s historic merit may help in determining what options, if any, are available.
But even without historic designation, there are many ways that an older building can have historic value. For many of our church clients, an old sanctuary is associated with decades of weddings, funerals or baptisms. Individuals feel a strong bond with these places and recall seminal moments of conversion, celebration, or grief. Making even small changes can evoke overwhelming responses. Without careful planning, and a truly pastoral approach, and these responses will generally not be positive.
Historic buildings often have problems due to deferred maintenance. One of Heimsath Architects’ partners, Sandy Stone, offers a great resource for maintaining historic properties. She calls it “the care and feeding of your historic building.” Check it out and see proper care can help keep historic buildings in top shape for many years.
Are there entitlements or permitting advantages that will be forfeited?
Once the existing structure is removed, governing agencies may not honor previous privileges or non-conforming aspects of the existing structure.
Several years ago, a neighbor of ours wanted to update their old garage. Their contractor demolished the existing garage, but they were red-tagged when they started framing new walls on the same foundation. It turns out that the old slab was too close to the property lines to meet the current codes.
Through the simple act of removing the old structure, the contractor had forfeited their “non-conforming” status. I helped them with several rounds of hearings in order to get the required variances just to build back on the exact same footprint!
There are a surprising number of ways that old structures can have value based on changes or updates in development codes. And it’s not just the building that may be impacted. Be aware that many site development, parking, or landscaping requirements may be triggered by new construction, but may be exempted for a renovation of an existing building.
Will you spend more for new construction?
Have you factored in the total cost of demolishing the structure? These include the costs for permits, utility disconnects, and hazardous materials testing and remediation. Add these into the cost for new construction, and the numbers may prove that new construction is more expensive.
Of course, the opposite may sometimes be true; to build new or replace an old building may cost less. At times we’ve gone ahead and priced new construction as an alternative just to establish that the older building is sufficiently valuable to justify the additional cost. Sometimes people are willing to pay a premium to restore or preserve a certain building, but generally there is a limit. Especially with historic properties, some of our clients have been willing to invest more to preserve the past.
This historic church was too small for the growing congregation. A respectful addition was a better alternative to abandoning the old church and building new.
After considering all six of these question, if you can answer, “NO,” then it may be best to tear down an old building. There are times that the wrong building in the in the wrong place just has to go. But at least consider good stewardship when you opt for demolition. Some elements, like windows, doors or ornamental details can be re-used or recycled. Some lumberyards specialize in turning old timbers into flooring or finish lumber. There’s a market for salvaged bricks and stones. Old cement can be ground up and re-used in new concrete.
Remember that an old building is something passed on from a previous generation. As a present-day steward of this asset, it's up to you to determine what is best.
How did an unrealized design concept for an urban cathedral eventually give rise to a desert chapel? Some architectural ideas take a long time to develop, but this one really took some interesting twists and turns. This fall, I visited the Never Built: Los Angeles show at the A+D Architecture & Design museum in Los Angeles. I was surprised to discover an early, though vastly different, antecedent to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. This intimate chapel is a major icon of modernist architecture and spiritual design, but evidence suggests it started with an idea for a soaring skyscraper. It took several decades, but this architectural idea eventually did get built, and in a very different form. The tower was planned for Los Angeles, but the idea eventually came to fruition in the deserts of Arizona!
According to a wonderful piece on the Gateway to Sedona website, the story began in 1930 when, in New York City, a young heiress saw one of the newly built skyscrapers and envisioned the façade with a soaring cross superimposed upon it. Marguerite Staude was a devout Catholic raised in California. She commissioned Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, to realize her vision with a design for a new Cathedral Tower in Los Angeles.
Evocative sketches for the 50-story tower were on display at the A+D exhibit, along with a much less expressive model constructed from lego blocks. The architect’s roughed-out drawings show a Greek-cross plan of a 4-sided tower. Each of the identical facades is formed to feature the massive cross that runs the entire height of the building. Though a site was never selected for the project, the gargantuan size of these crosses would have been hard to miss. For comparison, Houston’s celebrated Transco Tower (now the Williams Tower) is 64 stories. One of Philip Johnson’s late career designs, its iconic image can be seen for miles.
The exhibit notes offers a short explanation that the Archbishop of the LA Diocese rejected the offer and the project was abandoned. No mention is made of any other projects or relationships. Frankly, discovering the connection with the Holy Cross Chapel took some additional research and came as a complete surprise.
According to the LA Times 1988 obituary, Marguerite Staude went on to become an artist and sculptor in her own right. She was also recognized as a patron for the arts. The obituary mentioned the Holy Cross Chapel, but said nothing of the Cathedral design. One look at the Chapel exterior makes it clear that the idea of a dominant cross-form superimposed over a building facade are related. Having the same patron makes the connection even more direct.
But the links between the two projects are more than circumstantial as the idea nearly took form in Europe. A conversation with Anat Geva, professor of architecture at Texas A&M and an authority on sacred architecture, confirmed the next twist in this story. After getting rejected in LA, Marguerite commissioned Lloyd Wright to develop her vision for a congregation of nuns in Hungary. Plans were underway when World War II brought the program to a halt. In the years after the war, Marguerite decided to focus on her adopted state of Arizona, so the monastery project, like the tower, was abandoned.
Sometimes, the historic trail takes a false turn. As I dutifully checked the Wikipedia page on the Holy Cross Chapel, the history noted that Lloyd Wright’s father, Frank Lloyd Wright, was the one Marguerite turned to when she tried to build in Hungary. But the conversation with Professor Geva put this notion to rest. “I lectured on the Chapel just recently. Lloyd Wright, did both the previous designs, and Stuade really wanted him to do the Chapel.”
Apparently, Lloyd Wright wasn’t interested in the Arizona chapel project when Marguerite approached him in the 1950’s. So the work of fulfilling her life-long vision was imparted to the San Francisco firm of Anshen and Allen, where project architects Richard Hein and August Strotz finally developed a concrete reality for Marguerite’s long-held vision. The selection of the site was also quite a story. Eventually, with the help of Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Chapel was built on National Park land in the Coconino National Forrest.
This time, the local Catholic Diocese accepted her project. A nearby parish continues to maintain and administer the Holy Cross Chapel and holds some worship services there. The chapel is non-denominational and has become a popular pilgrimage site for tourists and seekers of all denominations.
The Chapel is designed with a precise, distinctively modernist exterior that is juxtaposed against weathered rocks of the canyon wall. But it is the singular, concrete cross that dominates. The cross rises between two rock formations, as though a force from heaven planted it there.
The Never Built: Los Angeles show did remind me of an early lesson from my days in architecture school. I recall hearing at least one critic say, “that’s a good idea, but not for this program. Why not save it for the next project?” From even the few sketches of the Cathedral Tower, it is clear that the concept may have been a bold idea, but it didn’t make sense for a Cathedral. There was no indication of a worship space, and the Diocese would have little or no use for what must have been 50 floors of offices.
Eventually, decades later, the Diocese of Los Angeles did build a new cathedral, the Cathedral of the Angels. It has a warm and beautifully proportioned interior worship space, and a modest wing for the Diocesean offices (not nearly a tower's worth of offices). I did notice one element on the exterior façade, a simple panel of stone with a superimposed cross, that does reminded me of Holy Cross Chapel. I can only speculate, but perhaps Rafeal Moneo was influenced, if somewhat indirectly, by the image of the Holy Cross Chapel when he designed the exterior of the Cathedral of the Angels. Perhap’s Margurite Staub’s vision did have an influence on the LA Cathedral after all.
How do you create a spiritual place? Ben Heimsath writes about his own convictions for a successful design process in his recent article in Faith&Form magazine. Download the article now.
The national journal, Faith & Form, published Ben Heimsath's article "A Shared Process of Creation." He wrote about the architectural design process as a collaborative venture. A design created in a truly shared process has the potential to express a unique sense of spirituality. The journal does not post on-line, so the editor has given us permission to copy the published article for download.
A shortened version of the article is reformatted for the current blogpost.
A SHARED PROCESS OF CREATION
Can we determine whether a new or renovated environment built for prayer is going to convey a sense of spirituality? I believe we can if a congregation has a highly engaged process whereby this fundamental goal is shared equally by the architects and the community. In more than 30 years of work with faith groups, our firm has developed a process for design and project implementation based on our belief that groups can find spirituality as they share in the creative design process.
This highly interactive process includes the collaborative session that we call a Design Retreat Workshop. We utilize many established community design principles whereby people are actively engaged in the design process. Held in a neutral setting, the Design Retreat Workshop includes components of both a leadership forum and a problem-solving charette. However, unlike these traditional formats, the event is compressed into one day, and the architects and congregation leaders participate equally in generating design ideas. The goal for the session is simple: everyone present must feel that the group, in the end, has developed one solution that is the "best." A major advantage of this early engagement of the congregation leaders is that the creative interaction continues throughout the rest of the building process. Many significant contributions come from ideas generated or refined from the Design Retreat Workshop.
Journalist James Surowiecki wrote "The Wisdom of Crowds" to explore the extensive economic and sociological research documenting numerous ways that groups of people, large and small, outperform even the most talented individuals in predicting and problem solving. Surowiecki however, offers little insight into the reason this happens. When individuals gather together and find a connection or common purpose, the experience can become so tangible that it may be felt or expressed as an actual presence in the group. In the course of many of our Design Retreat Workshops, this energy has been called many things; the “Holy Spirit,” “God’s Presence,” or a similar expression appropriate to the various religious traditions that have participated. These creative design experiences seem to embody the genius of communal worship. Each experience is remarkably similar, regardless of what it is called.
Unity Church of the Hills
A case study of the Unity Church of the Hills in Austin, Texas, illustrates the process with the creation of a successful spirit-filled environment. This project involved the relocation of the church to a new, undeveloped site. The process for Unity's design and implementation typifies our approach to working with congregations and provides an opportunity for commentary.
In 1999 two-dozen congregation leaders assembled at a local restaurant reserved for the Design Retreat Workshop. Structured discussions focused on what made the two-and-a-half-year-old ministry special. Participants assessed information from a previous small group tour of the existing facilities that helped to generate priorities for the new 14-acre site. The morning exchanges helped to identity the spirit that members felt within the congregation. While many groups describe this spirit through stories of their history, the Unity Church group stressed the connections members already had made with the undeveloped property. One participant shared his revelation when he saw the seller's name, Guthrie O'Donnell, abbreviated as "G O'D" on the subdivision documents. Nearly everyone described a feeling of peacefulness under the canopy of trees even though buildings surrounded the property on all sides.
In the afternoon session, the architects explained that the group should consider itself the authors of the final design. The architects noted that they would be refining the concept, but the basic plan would emerge from this retreat. The Unity participants were separated into brainstorming groups and asked to work with one of the architects to imagine as many solutions as possible. As the brainstorming wrapped up, 11 sketches adorned the walls.
Two preferred plans located buildings in the same clearing near the center of the site. They both featured circular plans for the sanctuary. The architects explained that the circle is associated with sacred geometries, and that Renaissance builders saw the circle as a perfect form. The ministers noted that the circle is a powerful symbol in the Unity theology. One plan showed a large entry arch over the narrow drive connecting to the main commercial street. The other featured a masonry wall that parted to emphasize the transition from the parking area to the interior of the site.
The architects suggested ways to merge the two solutions. The entry arch and the parted stone wall could both be used to create a path symbolic of the spiritual journey towards worship. The building placement and the circular sanctuary shown on both plans could become an octagonal plan.
The session ended with an affirmation by each participant that the group had developed an inspired design for the property. The ministers, in their closing prayer, cited Unity teaching in describing the powerful goodness of God that had been present in the day's proceedings. The plan sketch from the Design Retreat Workshop closely resembles the completed building, featuring an octagonal sanctuary that stands on the site today.
The collaborative process continued to produce fruitful results. Only four trees were removed to accommodate the parking, drives, and building. The entry arch concept violated numerous codes, but variances were approved unanimously by city agencies.
Sharing the Spirit
Most architects are not trained to share the design process with groups. They often see creativity as an individual effort that is only compromised by outside participation. This approach can cause strained relationships particularly when the client is a church or spiritual community. This unwillingness to share seems particularly incongruous, considering how many architects equate the creative spark with divinity, even suggesting the process of design creativity as a metaphor for understanding God.
Theologically, most contemporary denominations don't believe their buildings contain God. Rather, they share some form of the belief that God is present when "two or more are gathered in God's name." As the Unity process illustrates, something special also happens when people gather to design in God's name. The sense of spirituality so greatly appreciated by the congregation today has its roots in the spirituality experienced by its members as they engaged in the process of creating it.
Read the entire article as published in Faith & Form - download it now.
Construction has begun on the newest elementary school in Austin, and most of the work is indoors. The new school is an adaptive reuse of an empty commercial building, an innovative solution for the Austin Independent School District. For the past year, Heimsath Architects, in joint venture with Architecture Plus, has been working on the conversion of an old manufacturing facility as the best location for a new school to relieve crowding in surrounding facilities.
When completed, the school will be the largest elementary in AISD. The yet unnamed campus will have classrooms on two floors, a new gym and new cafetorium all within the walls of the existing structure. A portion of the expansive roof will be left in place as a shade cover for an outdoor play area.
The adaptive reuse school presents many green building advantages. Compared to a total demolition, the amount of material waste on the site has been minimal. The program has been designed with skylights in the tall ceilings that will bring natural light into every instructional space. A major investment in new roof-top solar panels will generate a substantial percentage of the school’s energy needs. With these, and other innovative green building elements, the District is applying for a LEED gold certification.
The architects have been working closely with the District, and with Flintco Construction. One of our local television reporters recently toured the construction site and produced a fine report on the early progress of turning a warehouse into a school.
Too often people assume that demolition is the only answer when you have an older building. Though this project didn't include a historic property, many of the same issues confront adaptive re-use projects. We confront some of the major myths that perpetuate the idea that working with an older building isn't as good as new construction. Download this great resource now.
What draws American architects to Europe, generation after generation?
This question came to mind as we were leaving Madrid for Chicago, a long flight home after travel in Spain and Portugal. Maryann and I celebrated our 57th wedding anniversary with a tour around the coast of Spain and France. We’ve been able to see much of Europe over many trips, but this was our first visit to Granada, Seville, Lisbon, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, Madrid and Toledo.
We’ve loved our past visits to Spain. Our most recent trip introduced us to Barcelona. However, decades earlier, we spent a year in Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship, so we know much more about Italy. We’d been looking forward to this tour, a boat trip around the Spanish coast, as a chance to expand our understanding of the culture, and of course, the architecture.
In the 19th century the Grand Tour was essential education for American architects. For several generations, the study European architecture brought first-hand knowledge of great architectural monuments – inspirations for the classical designs eagerly desired by American patrons and practitioners. This era gave way to the modern movement. And while there are a number of modernist icons worth a visit, the typical itinerary for American architects continues to favor the old grand monuments. Why then do architects keep going back when supposedly the design world has moved on?
One answer may be in the relative young age of our monumental buildings. The incredible Toledo Cathedral, the third largest religious structure after St Peters in Rome and Westminster Abbey in London, was completed in 1492. The Toledo Cathedral took 300 years to complete - the aspiration of generations of sponsors, architects, stone-masons and craftsmen.
For an architect, the skill and commitment required to produce such a structure is overpowering to consider. Each stone was quarried, moved, hoisted in place with technologies in practice before Columbus even left Spain for the New World.
In the hours I spent painting a watercolor of the Toledo Cathedral, I noted the distinct features the evidenced various periods of design. For example the tower began with a square footprint reflecting Moorish architecture of the time. The top was added later - with Gothic and Baroque ornamentation.
This is fascinating for an architect.
Studying historic structures is recognizing the scale and proportion of each element, working together to create a whole. In doing the watercolor of the Cathedral I noted that the two arched openings at the top of the rectangular tower are reflected by three rows of pilasters cascading down the tower above a solid base. And the various periods are reflected at the entry. The Gothic portico is superimposed in front of an earlier higher volume behind.
Our plane home was halfway across the Atlantic when more of the pull of Europe came to mind. I have always been interested in curvilinear forms. Looking around on the 747 and it is an interior filled with curved wonder. I made a connection; the freedom to work with non-linear shapes isn’t entirely new. Days earlier, I had just finished watercolors of two curvilinear buildings in Europe.
In Madrid we discovered San Miguel, a Counter Reformation Jesuit church with its curved façade, as if the church were bursting out onto the street. This design uses one-dimensional curves, that is the curves are generated by a single axis.
The other curvilinear building was a new one, Frank Gerry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I painted a scene from above. The Guggenheim is curvilinear but designed using double curvatures, that is, curves generated by multiple axes. In the U S I could see Frank Gerry buildings but could not compare them with facades designed in a different age and aesthetic.
As we landed in Chicago, I relished the thought that I was back in only one day, not the weeks of sailing it took 19th century architects to cross the Atlantic. I was home full of creative ideas, happy to share some of my watercolors with the next generation interested in architecture.
How did I miss the eulogy for church steeples? Apparently, in 2011, a reporter from US News and World Report noticed lots of disappearing steeples, and penned an article to mark the trend. While there’s no question that some congregations have difficulty maintaining older buildings, our experience is that steeples, and similar structures, are increasingly important for churches and places of worship.
I noticed recently while driving along the outer loop in San Antonio, that several churches have built massive steeples and are using them like billboards to get noticed. I believe this is just one of many ways the traditional steeple is evolving and adapting to modern culture. This photo is Concordia Lutheran Church, San Antonio (Fisher Heck Architects).
A sampling of some of our recent project illustrates that the steeple is far from dead. It’s being restored or recreated, on older buildings. For new projects, the desire for a soaring vertical structure is still strong. And these sky-reaching, spiritual-connected forms aren’t just for churches.
So why do people think the church steeple is threatened? There is a well-reported trend of churches struggling to keep up their historic buildings. Steeples are one part of the church building where maintenance is easily deferred or overlooked. So it’s no surprise to see churches with heart-wrenching losses on the local, even national news.
Several of our church clients have made the restoration of their historic steeples a high priority. I blogged last month about Our Lady of Guadalupe’s just completed steeple project. Here’s an updated photo of the front elevation.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church Steeple Restoration, Austin, Texas
For another client, the University United Methodist Church, the steeple was the featured element of a major preservation program. This landmark church, a distinctive southwest adaptation of Richardsonian architecture, conducted a full exterior restoration program in 2010. The tower, with its tile roof, crafted limestone walls, and ornamental wood details, should now last well into the next century.
University United Methodist Church – Steeple Surrounded By Scaffolding
Designing a new steeple that fits the many styles and forms of contemporary churches is a difficult but exciting challenge. Too many new churches simply go to a catalogue or supplier to buy a pre-designed steeple with little regard to scale or style. While these roof ornaments can signal the presence of a church, they do little to indicate the seriousness or importance of the steeple as an integral part of the worship environment or its design.
For the First Baptist Church in Dripping Springs, the Muns Company worked with us to adapt one of their pre-manufactured steeples to fit our design for an updated hill-country church. The congregation re-built a new and bigger building after a tragic fire destroyed their sanctuary. One of the few things saved was the original church bell. The steeple design features the bell hanging proudly within the structure.
First Baptist Church, Dripping Springs New Sanctuary
St Albert of Trapani presented a different challenge. We designed a major expansion of their original sanctuary, built originally in the 1960’s in a modernist style. The old building didn’t have much of a presence on the main street, so for the redesign, congregation members suggested a steeple. Modernist architecture is characterized by bold, simple forms. The new steeple is a freestanding wall-type structure with a cut-away that features a simple cross.
St. Albert of Trapani Catholic Church, Houston
A soaring architectural form that marks a worship space isn’t limited to church design. The new Austin Hindu Temple project gave us a chance to work with the traditional architects and artisans who specialize in the highly ornamented temples prescribed for the Hindu faith. The main entry to the temple is the traditional Rajagopuram, or grand entry tower. Priests and worshippers leave their shoes outside and may even wash themselves before proceeding through the portal. We completed the requirements for the structure and layout of the building, based on the requirements of the Sthapathi the architectural expert from India. His craftsmen, or Shilpis, will be working for the next several years in completing the sacred ornamentation. A similar structure in California shows the intricate quality of this construction.
Rajagoporum of the Malibu Hindu Temple in California (Architect Unknown)
Are you responsible for a building program? Deciding what to do, and what’s important is never easy, but a good Master Plan can help. Download these 10 Essential Elements to a Successful Master Plan and see how you can get a good start.
In the past decade, there have been increasing instances of church closure. So what happens when a church is no longer needed? When a congregation moves, or a denomination consolidates, something must be done with the old places. Other congregations, or sympathetic groups may purchase and re-use the structures. However, without a program or strategy for transition, many of these buildings face demolition, or are re-purposed in ways that cause lingering hurt or sadness for the surrounding community.
A recent conference in Albany, New York brought together preservationists, developers and public officials to focus on the unique challenges of preserving closed churches. In an article about the conference, the Albany Times Union quotes our colleague, Tuomi Forrest, of the Partners for Sacred Places. “We are on a cusp of accelerated closures and mergers." The number of vacant religious buildings is on the rise and will continue to grow.
The day-long conference featured panels and presentations with ideas for adapting these structures and examples of successful conversions. There are some good examples of churches converted to condos or apartments. One of my favorite is a project from the 1980’s by Boston architect Graham Gund. He successfully transformed the remains of a church that burned into a condominium project called “Church Court.”
Several years ago, I visited a church in Vermont that was turned into a pharmacy. That visit, and visits to several churches that are for sale, have started me thinking about the re-use of sacred spaces.
Heimsath Architects has addressed this issue on several occasions with congregations renovating, replacing, or re-purposed their old worship spaces. Sensitivity to the unique issues in each community has been fundamental to making each case a success.
In the case of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, we facilitated a process of discernment with participation of the entire congregation. After considering all alternatives, the large majority agreed that the old chapel should be torn down in order to build a new worship space on the same site. The old chapel was not historic, however, we felt the need for extra sensitivity to this issue. The materials and proportions of our new church design recall the original church.
But when a congregation leaves an otherwise useful building, it becomes a special challenge to find ways to preserve and/or adapted the structure to new uses. A large number of vintage churches are architectural or community landmarks. The Times Union article also notes an unsuccessful attempt to convert a closed church into a brewery. That brought back an old memory from my childhood in downtown Houston, Texas. A nightclub opened in an old church in the Montrose area. Re-named “the Sanctuary,” the establishment closed quickly, and the church was summarily torn down.
What happens when a place of sacred worship no longer serves its purpose is a fascinating question. Some religious traditions suggest that a place, once sanctified, can never be abandoned or secularized. Other faith traditions have rituals or activities associated with “de-sanctifying” a space.
The conference, sponsored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, is just a start in addressing this complicated challenge. The big issues of community sentiment and tradition need to be addressed with exceptional care. One conference attendee mentioned how deeply communities were beset by grief at the prospect of church closure. This just shows again how a place of worship has connections to its neighborhood, its town, and to its congregation that makes it unlike any other building.
Do you need resources for your older church? We’ve collected some of our best practices for reviving and keeping historic buildings, including churches, in good shape. Download “The Care and Feeding of Your Historic Building.”
The church steeple restoration at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Austin is nearly complete. The project consisted of replacing most of the exterior materials on the original tower and restoring the original trim profiles.
The church called upon Heimsath Architect’s expertise when a portion of a column fell to the ground. Originally constructed in the 1950’s, the church tower had been patched and repaired over the years, but recently showed signs of significant deterioration. A large bee colony had made its home in three of the columns, filling them with honeycomb.
The architects conducted a conditions assessment study and worked with structural engineers to evaluate the extent of the problems. A structural analysis determined that interior supports were still sound. A local bee keeper was called in to give the colony a more suitable home. The restoration program was then focused on rebuilding the exterior with new columns, roofing materials and wood details.
The condition of the tower had deteriorated significantly. Well-intentioned patches and repairs had covered or compromised the wood trim profiles.
The original copper roofing proved to be in good shape, but the drip edges were not diverting rainwater properly. By resetting the drip edges and re-soldering seams, the copper dome and other roof elements remained intact. The contractor ultimately removed 400 pounds of honeycomb from the tower!
The new wood details and profiles show the quality of the steeple's cupola and are an important part of the overall design.
The congregation included the church steeple restoration as part of a larger program for the historic church building. The completed work includes, roof repairs, brick repointing, stained glass window restoration and protection, wood trim replacement, exterior repainting, and an upgrade of the a/c distribution system. The contractor, Braun and Butler, scheduled the work so the church could continue to use the space during construction.
Expand your practical knowledge of historic preservation. Sandy Stone, preseravtion architect, explains how to keep these buildings in top shape. Click the link below:
In the early stages of a church design, when we begin working with congregation members, someone inevitably will say “I want this to look like a church.” In most instances, the person has a strong image in mind, often based on the church where they grew up. The person may also be expressing displeasure with the current building, which, by implication, does not look like a church.
But what should a church look like? When a congregation builds, there may be hundreds of images and ideas, but ultimately, only one can be built. What appeals to one person may be wrong for another. If it were easy to resolve these issues, we’d have church forms as simple and un-subtle as the Big Duck. This building leaves no question about its purpose.
The Big Duck on Long Island is a National Historic Landmark. Originally built by a duck farmer to sell his products, its purpose is immediately obvious.
The church design process is much more difficult than that of other building types. Most people have a hard time putting into words the intensity and deep feelings associated with their faith. These are often connected to places or events that are particularly important. How to relate to those feelings and connections is an on-going challenge in the process of creating an environment for faith.
There are no formulas or specifications for making a worshipful environment. However, there are many traditions associated with different religions or denominations. These traditions come from many cultures, and a variety of historical periods. In the United States, builders and architects have freely combined traditions from all sorts of religious, cultural or historic periods.
Woodlawn Baptist Church members wanted a strong image for their new sanctuary addition but also wanted to relate to the existing modernist building.
Merely copying or re-creating an old form doesn’t guarantee a successful spiritual experience. In some cases a poor rendition or reference to a traditional form feels out of place or becomes a distraction. And new technologies or building practices provide a host of new opportunities and challenges. For example, the traditional Italian basilica didn’t deal with modern lighting, acoustics, video recording, or projection.
But starting a design from modern structures and technology offers its own challenges. It can be tempting for an architect to place visually impressive elements in their designs. But a dramatic design may or may not be appropriate for a community of believers. Many new buildings are visually impressive, (galleries, offices, or shopping centers) but they have nothing to do with spirituality.
Careful consideration of each ministry is essential. At a fundamental level, the design needs to accommodate the rituals and rites of a given faith. There may be certain ways that these rites are accommodated in some traditions, but the designers shouldn’t limit itself to just one form. See our previous blog post series on the many ways to accommodate the rituals of baptism.
The design of a church cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” program. The design team should be closely communicating with the congregation and its leaders. They should expect inspiration to come from both traditional and modern ideas. The church design ultimately should be tailor-fit for each community.
Unity Church of the Hills developed a strong image for their 14 acre site. The welcoming entry is surrounded by a canopy of existing trees.
I presented a paper at the ACS (Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality) conference several years ago. I equated the process of design with the spiritual journey experienced in other ministry endeavors. The paper included a case study of our work with Unity Church of the Hills in planning for their new site. The church has been settled in their new location for over a decade, and has just recently worked with us to complete a Phase 2 program. Recalling the steps we took in the early planning stages, we used a similar process the second time that also evoked a sense of spirituality from all who participated.
So what should a church design look like? It might look like almost anything. But above all, it should look like the spiritual home of the group of believers who shaped and formed it.
Need information about designing a church? Learn how a master plan can be an essential first step.