Sacred Architecture from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Article on Cleveland’s Sacred Architecture written by Timothy Barrett

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ARCHITECTURE, SACRED – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

ARCHITECTURE, SACRED. Of the hundreds of sacred structures in Cleveland, there are several of national importance. ST. JOHN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH (ded. 1838) is one of the earliest examples extant in the nation of the Gothic Revival style. Ethnic influence is readily identifiable in the 13 onion domes atop ST. THEODOSIUS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL. Architecturally, PILGRIM CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH (ded. 1894) expresses the late-19th-century American Protestant church’s concern for social reform and functional efficiency. Unusual engineering is noted in the concrete dome of PARK SYNAGOGUE (ded. 1950 aka ANSHE EMETH (PARK SYNAGOGUE)) by internationally known architect Eric Mendelsohn. Not to be overlooked are some of the outstanding furnishings that lend a distinctive quality to local sacred buildings. Noteworthy is the imported wooden statuary by 19th-century German sculptor Josef Dressel, installed during the early 1890s in the Church of St. Stephen (ded. 1876). The Von Beckrath tracker-action pipe organ installed in 1956-57 at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (ded. 1873) is one of the first Baroque Revival organs built in this country. Fine examples of the stained glass of Louis C. Tiffany and noted Cleveland artist Toland Wright are to be found throughout Greater Cleveland (see CHURCH OF THE COVENANT, Presbyterian, ded. 1911).

Most early Cleveland churches were of a boxlike rectangular plan lacking columns, center aisles, chancels, or anything that might impede the sight or sound of the preacher or reader. Stylistically, most of these meeting-hall structures were commensurate with Cleveland’s young population and were modest expressions of the reserved Federal and Greek Revival styles. The few churches that were constructed in the Gothic form in this country during the first half of the 19th century were by either Roman Catholic or the ritualistically attuned Protestant Episcopal congregations. Since the early settlers of Cleveland were primarily of English lineage, the first Gothic Revival edifices here were by Episcopal builders; e.g., Trinity Church (ded. 1840) and Grace Church (ded. 1848). The first Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of the Lakes (ST. MARY’S ON-THE-FLATS, ded. 1840), displayed pointed windows, but the building itself was of the popular Greek Revival style.

By mid-century, the country had tired of the classic austerity of the Greek Revival idiom and turned to romanticized picturesque forms of other, more exotic past styles. Despite the innate exotic characteristics of the pointed or ogee arch, the use of the Gothic form remained limited primarily to Roman Catholic and Episcopal structures. Another architectural form became fashionable that used all the popular “medieval” vocabulary but was fenestrated with round arches. The Romanesque Revival, as it is sometimes called, presented a romantic but, politically neutral edifice and became popular for all denominations from the late 1840s to the early 1870s; e.g., Second Presbyterian Church (blt. 1850-52), Old Stone Church (ded. 1855), Plymouth Congregational/First Baptist Church (erected 1853), St. Mary’s of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church (ded. 1865), ST. MALACHI CHURCH (ded. 1871), and the German Reform Church (cornerstone 1868). Since a specific Jewish sacred architectural form historically never evolved on its own, it was common for the design of a synagogue to reflect the fashion of its time and locale. During Oct. 1845, the CLEVELAND HERALD announced that the first local synagogue (ANSHE CHESED, whose cornerstone was laid that year) was “to be built in nearly the same style as the Baptist Church.” When it was completed in 1846, it reflected the then-popular Romanesque Revival style.

After the Civil War, symbolism was slowly and sparingly reintroduced into American Protestant sacred buildings. The simplified symbolism that arose in the Protestant churches was usually confined to focal points such as the sanctuary, stained glass, and furnishings, and was as much decorative as it was symbolic. It was this reinterpretation of symbolism, including the lancet arch, that finally made the Gothic Revival an acceptable sacred style for all religious sects. The Gothic Revival idiom would remain popular for sacred buildings for the remainder of the 19th century and throughout most of the 20th. A few 19th-century examples include Franklin Ave. Methodist Church (ded. 1870),FRANKLIN CIRCLE CHRISTIAN CHURCH (DISCIPLES OF CHRIST) (ded. 1883), and Zion Evangelical & Reformed Church (ded. 1885). Running concurrently with the rise of Gothic form during the 1870s was the Richardsonian Romanesque, named after the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston. With its round, arched, massive designs, Richardsonian Romanesque was openly adopted by most Protestant American churches, since it was promoted as an American form designed by an American architect. National interest in American-produced entities was also evident in the preference for the American-invented stained glass (by John La Farge and Louis C. Tiffany) used in the Protestant sects over the traditional, more translucent cathedral glass that remained a staple in ritually oriented churches.

The Richardsonian Romanesque style was often coupled with another American phenomenon, the “Akron Plan.” Developed in 1868 by Louis Miller for the First Methodist Church of Akron, the Akron Plan served the Protestant desire for a space where all could see and hear. It was designed as a Sunday school space contiguous with the sanctuary or auditorium. The Sunday school included a circumscribing balcony, with the floors of both levels pitched to give an uninterrupted view of the speaker. Sliding walls were placed so that portions of the gallery or space under the galleries could be closed off from the general auditorium. There are some sterling, local examples of the Akron Plan, such as Bolton Presbyterian Church (ded. 1894), EUCLID AVE. CHRISTIAN CHURCH (ded. 1908), and NORTH PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (ded. 1887). North is unusual in that the sanctuary and Sunday school are combined in the same space.

America’s pragmatic attitude is also evident in these Richardsonian/Akron Plan structures, which housed many functions under 1 roof, including the auditorium, the Sunday school, social rooms for education and recreation, libraries, and swimming pools. A pertinent factor in these multifunctional buildings is that these extra-religious services were opened to the entire public regardless of religious affiliation. The Reform Jews were part of this movement, as is evidenced in the Richardsonian Romanesque-inspired second synagogue for Tifereth Israel (occupied 1894). They also addressed social needs by opening several services of this functionally diverse building to the public. Of course, ritually oriented denominations were interested in social needs, but because of cultural differences, they were inclined to remain ethnically exclusive. The efficient Akron Plan church was as foreign to them as the English language, and they continued to build their religious centers with separate buildings, each serving a different function.

Usually, only 1 or 2 styles dominated American architecture at any given time during the 19th century, but by the last quarter of that century and for the next 50 years, antiquarian eclecticism, as exemplified by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, ruled the day. America freely borrowed and mixed several styles from many antiquarian European and Classic Colonial American forms. People of English lineage tended to emulate English sacred monuments; e.g., AMASA STONE CHAPEL (ded. 1911) is strongly akin to St. Cuthbert, Somerset, England (ca. 1430). The so-called military tower of TRINITY CATHEDRAL (ded. 1907) bears a resemblance to the tower from the crossing of Wells Cathedral, England (13th century). Both Church of the Covenant (ded. 1911) and St. Peter Episcopal Church (ded. 1930) are said to be modeled after simple English and Scottish country churches. Interesting variations appeared, including First Methodist Church (1905), where the traditional Latin Cross floor plan is truncated and capped by an overscaled, squat Gothic tower, in an apparent attempt to present a more academically Gothic exterior while retaining the open central interior plan typical of a late-19th-century Protestant church. EPWORTH-EUCLID UNITED METHODIST CHURCH (ded. 1928) is an unusual combination of English and French Gothic, mixed with elements of the Art Deco period.

Prototypes such as the Roman Pantheon represent, among other things, an image of stability. Local sacred edifices influenced by this monument include First Church Christ Scientist (ded. 1931), Second Church Christ Scientist (ded. 1916, until the 1980s the 77th, St. Play House), Fifth Church Christ Scientist (ded. 1926), and B’NAI JESHURUN (ded. 1905–SHILOH BAPTIST CHURCH in 1993). At the turn of the century, there was a trend by older congregations to choose a prototype that reflected their religious or national origins. Several Roman Catholic churches followed this pattern. The exterior of the Church of St. James (ded. 1935) was based on Cefalu Cathedral, and its interior on Monreale Cathedral, both from Sicily. St. Agnes Church (ded. 1916, demolished 1976) had a facade patterned after that of St. Gilles-du-Gard (ca. 1140), a Romanesque structure in the south of France. The facade of St. Colman Church (ded. 1918) is reminiscent of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral see of the bishop of Rome. Historical American forms also became popular. The American Colonial Georgian church form with its white-columned pedimented portico and slender spire or ogee-hooded cupola grew in use to rival the Gothic style as the leading form for sacred structures throughout the 20th century; e.g., Plymouth Congregational Church (ded. 1923) andARCHWOOD UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST (ded. 1928).

Jewish structures of this period were also eclectic. Since many of the earliest-known synagogues were eastern in architectural form, 20th-century Jewish congregations often borrowed some of these ancient concepts. An early local example of this trend was seen in the eastern horseshoe arches designed throughout the facade of the Anshe Chesed Congregation (aka Scovill Temple, ded. 1887, now demolished). More than any other form, the dome, supposedly eastern in origin, became a favorite theme dominating many early 20th-century synagogues; e.g., the next Anshe Chesed Congregation site (aka the Euclid Ave. Temple, ded. 1912), B’NAI JESHURUN (aka the Temple on the Heights, ded. 1926), and the third structure of TIFERETH ISRAEL (aka the Temple, ded. 1924). Although the dome was commonly used, it was never solely identified as a Jewish architectural form. During the same period, other non-eastern idioms were incorporated; e.g., Anshe Emeth Synagogue (ded. 1904) is in the Gothic form, and OHEB ZEDEK Synagogue (ded. 1905) is Romanesque in form.

This eclectic environment was a timely setting for the development of a transplanted ethnic architectural expression. Several of the Central and Southern European groups who began arriving in large numbers during the 1880s were, by the 20th century, financially ready to build permanent churches. The exotic, nationally identifiable onion domes of the Russian, Rusin, Syrian, and Ukrainian churches did not seem as culturally foreign to the eclectic tastes of 20th-century America. Consequently, among the many ethnic peoples who settled in Cleveland, this group of sacred structures is perhaps the closest example of authentic 1st-generation ethnic architecture: St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, (ded. 1911), St. Valdimar Ukrainian Orthodox Church (ded. 1924), and Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church (ded. 1910).

The Depression and World War II precluded the construction of many new sacred structures during the 1930s and 1940s. It was not until the suburban development of the early 1950s that new houses of worship sprang up in response to the expansion of urban centers such as Cleveland. The conservative approach dominated sacred building through the mid-1960s. It was basically a continuation of some of the eclectic attitudes of 19th- and 20th-century America, which retained architectural religious motifs both universally and nationally symbolic. The American Colonial Georgian style became the most popular expression of the conservative movement; e.g., Parma South Presbyterian Church (ded. 1950), St. Martin Episcopal Church (ded. 1956), and Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian (ded. 1964). During the 1950s and early 1960s, many descendants of Southern and Central European immigrants moved to the suburbs, but they maintained an unusually long allegiance to their first houses of worship in the inner city. As that changed and they began to build in the suburbs, many of the new Byzantine and Orthodox churches retained the traditional onion-dome form. In some cases, the chief difference between the churches built during the early 20th century by the 1st-generation immigrants and those built by their 3rd-generation offspring is the use of contemporary building materials; e.g., St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church (ded. 1985) and St. Sava Eastern Orthodox Church (ded. 1982).

The opposite fashion is sometimes referred to as the modern movement. It began shortly after the turn of the century and was articulated by schools of design such as the Bauhaus. The austere designs of the modern movement were first seen in commercial and domestic structures, and did not find their way into sacred architecture until after World War II. The first truly modern and perhaps the most significant sacred structure built in Greater Cleveland is Park Synagogue (ded. 1950), built by renowned architect Eric Mendelsohn. Its lines are simple and details minimal, yet religious symbolism was not sacrificed. Here again the composition is dominated by a dome, bearing eastern connotations and symbolizing the protective heavens of God. At Park Synagogue, Mendelsohn has spiritually circumscribed the congregation within a symbol of heaven, a conceptual function of the dome, with earth seen in the changing seasons through the building’s glass walls.

Other designs favored reducing symbolism to simplified emblems affixed to streamlined basilica or box forms. These sacred structures suggest a greater kinship to secular post-World War II modern buildings in their adherence to the modern postulate “Form follows function.” Such a religious edifice became more a secular assembly hall, sometimes accompanied by a campanile or bell tower form; e.g., the Roman Catholic Church of the Gesu (ded. 1958), St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic, Church (ded. 1957), and BETH ISRAEL-WEST TEMPLE (ded. 1954). As utilitarian vernacular forms evolved to house the suburban middle class (the Cape Cod, bungalow, and ranch styles), a vernacular sacred form has also appeared. It is usually based on a rectangular or basilica plan enclosed by a gabled roof. The pitch of the roof ranges from nearly flat, like that of the ranch-style homes that surround it, to extremely steep, the A-frame becoming a muted echo of the lancet arch of the Gothic style.

By the mid-1960s, with the occurrence of such events as the 2nd Vatican Council in Rome and a movement toward ecumenical cooperation between some religious sects, a strong focus on congregational participation developed. In order to bring the congregation closer to the ceremony, a circular or round seating configuration gained favor. This arrangement dictated that the exterior shell be based on a central plan, in contrast to the common rectangular plan. Of course, a central plan had been used by many Protestant and Jewish houses of worship since the 19th century. As a result, whether in a square or round format, the central plan dominates many designs for the newest sacred structures. Many of the more recent (1970s-90s) sacred structures present a boldly abstract exterior design. When religious symbolism is retained, its presence is usually illusive, lending a more secular appearance to the sacred structure, e.g., B’nai Jeshurun (Pepper Pike, ded. 1980) and St. Pascal Baylon Roman Catholic Church (ded. 1971). Even though Greater Cleveland did not produce any nationally recognized innovations in sacred architecture, its importance can be seen in the diversity of houses of worship built by more than 46 different nationalities in Cleveland.

Timothy Barrett

Barrett, Timothy H., et al. Sacred Landmarks: A Selected Exhibit of Existing Ecclesiastical Structures in Cuyahoga County(1979).

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