Sunday, January 10, 2016

CNY Modernism: Post World War II Modern Religious Buildings in Syracuse

Syracuse, NY. Prince of Peace Baptist church (former First United Methodist Church of Syracuse). , archs. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
Syracuse, NY., Our Lady of Pompeii convent. Cole and Cappuccilli, archs. (1960). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

CNY Modernism:  Post World War II Modern Religious Buildings in Syracuse
by Samuel D. Gruber

Reading Jay M. Price's recent book, Temples of a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America (Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), I was struck by his statement that “research and scholarship on postwar vernacular architecture have tended to be secular in focus, with great interest in gas stations, drive-ins, motels, and diners. Postwar religious buildings never quite had the popular support that other structures from the era enjoyed. Even at the time, they were controversial, and that lack of appreciation has probably contributed to a lack of appreciation of these structures in recent years.”

Price states that despite their ubiquity, we still know little about the thousands of post-World War II-era  churches that fill our cities and suburbs. They are among the least documented and  studied of any major group of American architecture. This may be understandable when the buildings are modest vernacular structures, but the neglect also holds true for more distinctive architect-designed buildings.
So let me draw attention to one of Syracuse's unsung cultural resources: the large assemblage of striking modern religious building erected across the city in the decades following World War II, before suburbanization radically altered urban demographics. This was a period when older (white) congregations were replacing outdated buildings, but they were still rebuilding within the city limits where, for the most part, their congregants still lived. Their older buildings were often sold to independent Black Protestant congregations.

Church commissions in the 1950s and 1960s allowed local architects, such as Anthony Cappuccilli and Gordon Schopfer, to be more adventurous in their use of the modern architectural vocabulary and new materials than in some other more mundane commercial commissions. Though budgets were often small, the results were often impressive.

Syracuse, NY. Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. Gordon Schopfer, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

The post-World War II years saw a building boom by religious communities in Central New York. Part of this was due to pent-up demand – there had been an almost complete stop to the building of churches in 1930, once the effects of the Great Depression became clear. Big projects that were underway came to a standstill.

For example, on the Westside, while the Lafayette Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church at Lafayette and Midland Avenues, designed by SU architecture professor and noted ecclesiastical designer Frederick Lear, broke ground in 1927 with the Parish House and Community Center and was eventually completed, the English Lutheran Church of Atonement at 1926 Midland Avenue, also designed in a Collegiate Gothic style by Frederick R. Lear, never got beyond its Parish House and Community Center, begun in 1927 and finished in 1928. Instead of building on to the old building in  the post-War era, the congregation began an entirely new modern church complex on  West Glen Avenue in the early 1960s. The sanctuary, designed by Edgarton & Edgarton, is worth a look. While it retains a traditional apsed-hall plan, it is a more bold and raw modern interpretation than big Catholic churches of the time.

Syracuse, NY. Former English Lutheran Church of Atonement (1926 Midland Avenue), Frederick R. Lear, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2012.

Syracuse, NY. Lutheran Church of Atonement. Edgarton & Edgarton, archs (1962). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2012.
Some urban churches and synagogues stayed put and added on to their older sanctuaries. In 1930, Plymouth Congregational Church added a wing in the then popular Colonial Revival style to their older Victorian sanctuary. In the post-World War II period congregations often added more modern wings to their earlier buildings. for example, Temple Society of Concord, dedicated in 1911, added a new religious school building in 1960 designed by Edward G. Roock. Since the addition was to the rear of the historic Classical style sanctuary, it did not compete stylistically.
At the former Elmwood Presbyterian Church (recently sold to Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church and now the Harvest Christian Center), however, a new modern wing was attached immediately next to the stripped-down Gothic style building designed by Melvin King and erected in 1917. Though similar materials were used in the addition – yellow brick and beige concrete or cut stone – the two wings visually compete to the detriment of each design.

Syracuse, NY. Former Elmwood Presbyterian Church. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014 

In 2014, my colleague Bruce Harvey I carried out a survey of religious properties in the City of Syracuse sponsored by the city and funded by Certified local Government grant from the state. We looked at over 120 structures including churches, synagogue, school and convents that were purpose built by and for religious congregations and communities. The earliest in the city are from the mid-19th century and we carried the work up until 1964, since fifty-year-old buildings are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

I admit that I was surprised to find so many attractive and often imaginative churches in the city. Previously, I'd only paid attention to those few designed by nationally celebrated architects such as May Memorial church (designed by Pietro Belluschi) and Temple Adath Yeshurun (designed by Percival Goodman).

There is no single modernist path taken by church architects, though those working for the Roman Catholic church tended to adopt of more conservative style - combining traditional basilical forms with pre-WWII Art Deco related massing and decorative programs, but with the use material, too.

But even for the Catholic Diocese, which was the most active builder of modern churches, there could be a mix - as on the Northside, where Cole and Cappuccilli designed a  complex of buildings for Our Lady of Pompeii include the a stripped down modern version of a medieval basilica for the church, but strikingly modern assemblages for the church rectory, and the nearby school and convent.  Indeed, the Convent of Our Lady pf Pompeii should be ranked among the very best modern buildings in Syracuse.

In this post I'd like to give just a visual introduction to some of these religious buildings, and then in later posts I'll write about individual structures and architects at greater length.

In Eastwood, plans for an expansive Roman Catholic school and Church of the Blessed Sacrament were put on hold. The school, designed by Paul Hueber, was built in 1930, but the church was not erected until 1950, one of the first religious buildings erected in the city after the War. In form it recalls many churches of the interwar-period where medieval forms were stripped down to their basic geometry and decoration tended to be applied as flat relief.  A similar combination of old and new forms were common  interwar commercial architecture, which I elsewhere dubbed "Goth-Deco."
Syracuse, NY.  Church of the Blessed Sacrament. Paul Hueber, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
Syracuse, NY.  Church of the Blessed Sacrament. Paul Hueber, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

In the 1950s, the Catholic Diocese was the biggest builder of churches in the city, where new housing was filling open land in the last big residential building boom experienced in Syracuse. The church was also building schools, convents, care facilities and the campuses of Regina Salve Seminary and LeMoyne College.

Our Lady of Pompeii on the Northside became the religious center of the city’s large Italian immigrant population. The old church begin in 1924, which shared space with a school (cornerstone), was replaced with a new large church and rectory, begun 1951 (cornerstone), a large school expansion, and an architecturally striking convent, all designed by Cole and Cappuccilli. Together, this large program of church building created a striking modern insertion into an old and traditional neighborhood.

Syracuse, NY. Our Lady of Pompeii. Cole and Cappuccilli, archs. (1952-57).  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

Transfiguration Church, serving mostly the Polish-Catholic community, was built on Teall. Ave. from 1955-58. It is another exceptional example the Church’s melding of traditional forms with new style details. The tower carries into the 1950s something of the modern style of the 1930s.

Syracuse, NY Transfiguration Church. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014 

On the Southside the development of the Roman Catholic church and campus of St. James began in the early 1930s, when St. James Hall was completed. But most structures, including the church, were not built until the late 1950s, designed by Frank W. Brodrick. The general style for the church and the adjacent school, blends Romanesque medieval elements with a austere modern aesthetic.
 Syracuse, NY. St. James. Frank Brodrick, arch. (1959-60). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

Our Lady of Solace on Salt Springs Road was built in the mid-1950s, designed by Pederson & Hueber. An essentially tradition gable-front hall plan church with side tower, the open space interior is notable for its stained glass window program created by the Henry Keck Studio. The relief panels flanking the entrance may be the work of great Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, who was teaching at Syracuse University at the time, and left for Notre Dame in 1955.  The attractive former Catholic school (Our Lady of Solace) across the street was apparently designed by Maurice Finnegan (Allen Kosoff source). 

Syracuse, NY. Former  Our Lady of Solace, Salt Springs Road. Pederson & Hueber, archs. (1950s), Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014.

Syracuse, NY. Former  Our Lady of Solace, tower entrance.  Pederson & Hueber, archs. (1950s), Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014.
Syracuse, NY. Former  Our Lady of Solace, Salt Springs Road. Stained glass by Henry Keck Studio, 1955, Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014.
Syracuse, NY. Former  Our Lady of Solace, Salt Springs Road. entrance relief possibly by Ivan Mestrovic, Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014.

A turn toward more toward more expressive modernism took place in the early 1960s when after a January 1957 devastating fire destroyed the First United Methodist Church of Syracuse (designed by Archimedes Russell and built on a prime site downtown on East Jefferson street in 1904, just across from where the new courthouse would be completed in 1906), the congregation decided to rebuild on the site, and in 1961 a new church designed by Clark Clark Millis & Gilson of Syracuse was dedicated. The area of the church was being considered for the new civic Center, and the architect decided on a “contemporary design, without being radical.”
“The result is a modern building that rounds the corner at the intersection of Jefferson and State Streets. It is organized around a small atrium that separates the rounded oblong sanctuary of the church from the church school. ..The exterior is faced with pink granite, buff brick, and limestone. A decorative band running around the structure symbolizes Christian community. Stained-glass windows are framed in bronze.” [Hardin, Syracuse Landmarks, p 94]

Syracuse, NY. Prince of Peace Baptist church (former First United Methodist Church of Syracuse). , archs. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

Syracuse, NY. Prince of Peace Baptist church (former First United Methodist Church of Syracuse), archs. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
This building  was one of the first of several striking non-recliner expressive modern design in the area, including St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Camillus (1957) and Temple Adath Yeshuran (see below) on Kimber road on the city's eastern edge and and
Gordon Schopfer was one of the most innovative modernists in the Central New York, and his work included residences and a few small houses of worship. In the mid-1950s he designed the Young Israel Synagogue on East Genesee Street, as a small structure of distinct and multiple parts, each pertaining to specific function. The variety of shapes was further accentuated by the use a different surface treatments. When built this must have been one of the most forward-looking Jewish Orthodox synagogues in the country, though unfortunately the building has been much changed for its present non-religious use.

 Syracuse, NY. Congregation Young Israel, East Genesee and Allen Streets. Design. Gordon Schopfer, arch. Image from Empire State Architect,1955.

Syracuse, NY. Congregation Young Israel, as built, 1957. Gordon Schopfer, arch. Photo: From a minyan to a Community, p. 234.

On the Northside, off Grant Avenue near Shop City, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church was also designed by Schopfer and built between 1958 and 1961, and survives in good condition. It is a fine example of mid-century modernism, combining rationalist elements derived from the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, with more expressive features familiar in the designs of Columbia University architect and planner Percival Goodman.A more unusual design is for Schopfer's own congregation, the Reformed Church of Syracuse on Teall Avenue, where the unusual steeple is meant to recall an church.

Syracuse, NY. Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. Gordon Schopfer, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014
Syracuse, NY. Reformed Church of Syracuse, Teall Ave. Gordon Schopfer, arch (1964). Photo: Samuel Gruber 2014

Goodman himself was engaged to design the new Temple Adath Yeshuran on Kimber Road in the 1960s, and created one of the region’s most expressive designs for a house of worship. This is one of Goodman’s last synagogue designs (of over 50) executed between 1945 and 1970.

Syracuse, NY. Temple Adath Yeshuran, Kimber Rd. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.

Syracuse, NY. Temple Adath Yeshuran, Kimber Rd. Percival Goodman, arch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.

About the same time the celebrated modernism Pietro Belluschi designed the new May Memorial Church on East Genesee Street (with Hueber Hares Glavin). 

Syracuse, NY. May Memorial Church. Pietro Belluschi, arch. (1964-65). photo: Samuel Gruber 2014.

In the late 1960s Hueber Hares Glavin designed several area churches that continued these expressive qualities including St. Daniels Church (1968), Our Lady of Lourdes (1969) and the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville (1969). 


“South Side to Have Two New Churches: Ground Already Broken for One, Another Contract Let,” Syracuse Herald (July 21, 1927) [pdf]; 

“New Lutheran Church to be Dedicated Sunday,” Post-Standard (Sept. 14, 1928) 

“Ground Broken on Site for St. James Church,” Catholic Sun (Sept. 17, 1959).

Ione Tracy, “Four Years of Faith and Hard Work Pay Off,” Syracuse Post Standard (March 3, 1957); 

“Men Volunteer for Pompei Parish Drive,” Catholic Sun (April 23, 1959); 

“Pompei Parish Convent Has Ideal location,” Catholic Sun (Oct 13, 1960);

“Transfiguration to be Dedicated on October 28,” Catholic Sun (August 30, 1956).

“Bishop to Consecrate First Methodist Church,” Syracuse Post Standard (September 23, 1961)
“The New Synagogue for Young Israel of Syracuse,” Empire State Architect, Vol. XV:V (Sept/Oct 1955), 41.