Sunday, April 25, 2010

Buildings Befitting Beliefs

When I look at worship structures, I see beliefs translated into bricks and mortar. In Judeo-Christian structures, as in all architecture, form follows function; context is crucial, and meaning lies behind decorative details.

Although Jewish synagogues serve as schools and places of assembly, primarily, they are places where worshipers pray and hear the Torah read; so logically, the main meeting room is designed around the Ark, where the Hebrew Torah scrolls are kept. The above photo is of Lancaster's Temple Shaarai Shomayim in 1931.

Consider the cuneiform or cross-shaped footprint of many Catholic cathedrals. Inside, at the intersection of the cross, sits the communion table pointing to the centrality of the Eucharist in this religious tradition. Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City illustrates this point.

After the Reformation, Protestants churches were simplified; the altar, icons, and stained glass windows were replaced by communion table, pulpit, and light filled rooms.(I credit Milner's website for the first three photos and the last photo of Westminster.)

Westminster Presbyterian Church's newest sanctuary is an archetypal Protestant church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The congregational meeting house style fits especially well in the county, reflecting early Pennsylvania Friend’s meeting houses and nodding toward the simplicity so eloquently lived out in the surrounding Amish and Mennonite communities.

The sanctuary was designed by John Milner architectural firm of Chadds Ford which "specializes in the restoration and adaptation of historic buildings and the design of new buildings...which reflect the rich architectural traditions of the past." Their projects have been featured in Architectural Record, Traditional Building, and The Chicago Tribune.

One concentration of Milner's group is ecclesiastical design. According to the firm's website, "Since the earliest days of settlement, religious institutions have been a critical and integral component of communities in our evolving nation.“ A principal in Milner's firm, Mary Werner DeNadai, designed Westminster's congregational meeting house form replicating churches in Puritan New England. (You might enjoy seeing other examples of their work at:

Ironically, although historic in style, the layout with congregants facing each other and the pulpit are cutting-edge in church design today.

In recent years, seeker-friendly services dictated enormous auditoriums conducive to worship bands and dramatic presentations with church buildings often indistinguishable from offices, schools, or theaters. Now, this trend is starting to shift, in both Catholic and Protestant architecture.

Patrick and Anderson Partners in Architecture located in Easton, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia critique that "the recent history of Catholic church architecture which often prioritizes...novelty above the continuity of tradition and human fellowship above the glory of God and the sacrament of communion." In contrast, their designs "strive to reestablish the priority of God in his own house, and to deeply engage the whole person..."

A similar theme is heard in Protestant quarters, according to Paul Luntsford, president of PLA Design, a performing arts and worship space design firm. "We are...seeing a flurry of very successful mid-size churches where connection is the highest value," he notes. "Though there will continue to be churches that successfully connect through production, I think we are going to see...more emphasis on connecting 'people to people' and less 'stage to people.' This surge has already begun." (Go to for full article.)

Intentionally, Westminster's parishioners face the pulpit and each other. According to the church bulletin, their worship is "rooted in the Scripture...and committed to one another." From my observation, other construction details were chosen with equal care. The original sanctuary with its high spire points toward what is central in Presbyterian worship: God himself. Furthermore, the new meeting house frames the original sanctuary much as a church on a New England village green focused on worship as central in the community.

Inside Westminster, you notice the pulpit raised above the pews and a sounding board above the pulpit to amplify the pastor's voice, symbolic of the high esteem church doctrine places on the teaching of Scripture, just as the Ark in a Jewish temple honors the Torah.

Finally, as in Catholic churches, communion plays a central role in Protestant worship. On the table at the front of Westminster's sanctuary sits a pitcher, a chalice, and plate symbolizing The Lord's Supper. A bowl references the celebration of the sacrament of baptism.

For me, it is interesting when I enter a place of worship to think about what the architecture is emphasizing. More personally, I am challenged to think about how my choices, my words, and my demeanor reflect who I worship.


  1. What a beautiful new sanctuary. I love the soft color palatte of whites and taupes. It feels so fresh and clean, simple yet classic. You certainly have researched well, and I learned alot reading your post.

  2. Excellent blog entry mama! Very educational, insightful, and informative.

  3. Maurie-

    Thank you so very much for your comment! It is so exciting to get a comment from a non-family member!! Your blog is full of great information, so detailed. I will certainly enjoy reading your posts.


  4. Hello Maurie, Thanks for visiting my place. It think churches contain the best and most accessible architecture. But few outside the congregation ever see them: Breathtaking stained glass in nearly every one. Great organs sit idle except for a few hours a week.

    Interesting to read about trends in church design. On a recent historical/preservation tour: they explained how they might renovate a 1940's church for modern needs: Lower the choir, remove some pews to all better movement, angle the pews to face a bit more inward.