Tuesday Selection: A New I Speak Vintage Column

A recent post from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sarah Heffern is the first in a series about preserving religious buildings.

As you may be able to tell from the article, this is a very broad topic that varies from building to building. Sarah does well at breaking up the topic into ten digestible questions and answers.

I Speak Vintage is starting a new series, running on Tuesdays, that engages with blog posts related to building preservation, appearing online some time in the past week. We have noticed that PreservationNation Blog has been posting quite frequently lately with some really great articles. Lucky for us, their new 10-part series started this week and it deals with a topic that our new blogger knows quite a bit about.

There is a certain sect of preservationists who believe that religious buildings display the highest integrity of any style of architecture. Gothic churches have flying buttresses, dramatic pointed arches over each window and door, and ribbed vaults on the interior.

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris
Trinity Church in Boston allowed H.H. Richardson to stretch his Richardson Romanesque style to the fullest.

Trinity Church, Boston (2008)

Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to Modernism with Unity Temple, a masterpiece with very little ornamentation, cubic forms and clean lines.

Unity Temple

Unity Temple

In addition to aesthetics, each religious structure has a unique history of the folks who raised the money to have it built, and every successive population surrounding it since. The economy of a place changes – think Detroit, a city whose population shrunk from 1.8 Million down to 700,000, between 1950 and 2012. Fewer Detroiters means fewer congregants or parishioners. Fewer attendees means fewer contributions and smaller budgets. Smaller budgets for religious structures often means trying to keep the heating bill down in the winter and small to no budget for yearly maintenance. This is the sad truth of too many religious structures in the United States, which his why this series from the National Trust has grabbed the attention of I Speak Vintage.

The first example that popped into my head while reading through the Trust’s article was Unity Temple, the great early modern structure by Frank Lloyd Wright. Completed in 1909, the Unitarian Universalist edifice was built out of poured-in-place concrete left exposed to the elements and without expansion joints. The building has more than a dozen flat roofs and two large skylights. Not unlike other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, Unity Temple has had its share of struggles over the years. The infamous (at least to the congregation) “bucket brigade” of the 1950s and 60s would rush into the building during torrential downpours to place buckets under the many leaks. A structural analysis and master plan for the restoration of Unity Temple, completed in 2008, estimated a full restoration at $25 million dollars. A restoration foundation was founded in 1973, whose sole purpose was to raise funds that would support the structure. Being a world class building and a National Historic Landmark – a distinction given to only the most important historic buildings in the United States – you would think that the building would have supporters across the world. The truth is, it does, it just hasn’t been able to draw enough money out of its supporters to undergo a large restoration.

Unity Temple should be slotted at the top of the list of historic religious structures in the United States that need to be rescued. It has a healthy congregation, is situated in an affluent and highly-artistic near-west suburb of Chicago among other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that draw tens of thousands of tourist and their dollars to the area. If this building is having a hard time coming up with a large enough chunk of money to even get started on restoring the building, how will other, less significant religious structures accomplish full restorations. There are many factors that contribute to the viability of a large building. Houses of worship are often large and their sensitivities to programming further complicate usage issues. Hopefully this series from PreservationNation will shed some light on the creative ways that religious structures are being reused while preserving their historic character.

Before we go we would like to share a great resource for historic religious structures – Partners for Sacred Places. Based out of Philly with offices in Chicago and Texas, this organization is wide-reaching and works to help religious buildings with all levels of occupancy and use. After all, that is the thing the is the best for these beautiful buildings – using them!

We hope that you enjoy the new weekly posts. Please feel free to leave comments and share our post among your communities.  We would love to hear from you.

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