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Civil Religion

In his seminal 1967 essay, sociologist Robert Bellah argued that the United States had “an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion,” which existed “alongside of” and was “rather clearly differentiated from the churches.” Also known as civic piety, religious nationalism, public religion, and the common faith, civil religion provides a religious sanction for the political order and a divine justification of and support for civic society and a nation’s practices. It is the “state’s use of consensus religious sentiments, concepts, and symbols for its own purposes.” “As a system of established rituals, symbols, values, norms, and allegiances,” civil religion functions as a social glue to bind people together and “give them an overarching sense of spiritual unity.”  — Gary Scott Smith, Civil Religion in America.

We of a certain age can remember television in the 1950s — our Age of Innocence — especially the Mickey Mouse Club that produced a weekly cycle of shows in various formats. “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” was one of them, the exploits of a teenage odd couple set in a dude ranch. I don’t recall the particular premise of one episode but a vignette involved some European teenager. He or she expressed metaphorical willingness to die for a home city; whether it was Venice or Prague or Paris matters not. Putting it into an American context (admittedly in the ’50s), either Spin or Marty then wondered aloud that he’d sacrifice his life for the U.S.A., “…but Gary, Indiana?!”

Our sense of sacredness in public space has varying intensity and frames of reference. I’m not about to die for Fargo, North Dakota, for example. But my sense of “civil religion” acknowledges the sacredness a few places: Dealey Plaza and the infamous “Grassy Knoll” in Dallas; “Ground Zero” in New York City; Washington, DC is peppered with several (the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials). I went to Mount Vernon once and it meant practically nothing to my sense of American-ness. But these are the opinions of a seventy-year-old. Would any of my list be shared with twenty-somethings? Or for that matter, is the battlefield at Gettysburg on the list of any who are alive today? This notion of civil religion, a shared spiritual perspective, would be difficult to identify or, perhaps, even justify in the 21st century America of Donald Trump.

I’ve almost finished reading Joan Breton Connelly’s 2014 study The Parthenon Enigma: a New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It,  and am coming away with a radically altered sense of how we sacralize public space.


Connelly’s understanding of the Parthenon goes well beyond the status of a monument to the Age of Perikles. She makes a convincing case that the Parthenon and adjacent Erechtheion and their full complement of sculpture and other ornament constitute a mytho-memorialization of Athens’ origin as a city-state in the larger Hellenic culture and a pædogogic tool for the inculcation of civic virtue in Athenians of all ages and every caste. I can think of no building or landscape in America today that fulfills the same noble role. If the idea of civil religion would have been understood by 5th century BCE Athenians, it pales by comparison.

In the encounter portrayed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the artist Phidias conducts a preview tour of the sculptural frieze that surrounded the inner sanctuaries to an audience who would have immediately apprehended it as a lesson in patriotism and civic responsibility linking them directly to the city’s foundation myth and a reminder of their oath of citizenship. Had I made a grade or high school field trip to Washington, DC, I would have taken from it nothing resembling the Periklean experience, nor would our understanding of democracy have been conceivable to them.

Spin and Marty are another matter altogether.

“Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1868)

A replica of the frieze (the original was carted off to London two hundred years ago) on the architrave behind the doric columns. The paint has long since worn away.

A replica of the frieze (the original was carted off to London two hundred years ago) on the architrave glimpsed between the doric columns. The paint has long since worn away.

Might some faint parallel have existed in Agincourt at some point in its one-hundred-and sixty-four year civic life? On the city’s golden anniversary in 1907, no city Founder was alive. And their memory had not yet faded into the mist of myth. But I’d like to think that the Founders’ Fountain installed in the center of Broad Street — at the zero-zero point of the original urban grid — might have had similar motivation.


Ghosts of Christmas Past (#19): Seamus Tierney

Ghosts of Christmas Past #19:

James Edward (a.k.a. Seamus) Tierney

James Edward Tierney was born on his parents’ farm beyond Fahnstock in 1933, a Depression Baby who learned the hard way to do more with less. Hindsight shows us how his family’s Meatless Fridays and Coal-less Tuesdays prepared Jim for a career in theatre, which, under normal circumstances is among the last places to seek your fortune. Hindsight tells us that money was the least of Jim Tierney’s goals.

It is unlikely that Jim Tierney participated in any dramatics at the small school in Fahnstock; plays at the rural Presbyterian church — Sunday School exercises put on for the adults — are about the only exposure to theatre Jim may have had before the age of fifteen. But there is also the possibility he may have been among the last to witness some of Reinhold Kölb’s puppet performances in the Commons during the early 1940s: part therapy, part morality plays for the “clients” at his private retreat. It’s tempting to speculate.

He enrolled at the Normal School in 1951 with no declared major, dabbled in art and theatre, but left after two years for a stint in the Korean Conflict and returned for a string of retail jobs on Broad Street. During those years, Tierney took minor roles in local theatre productions; Shakespeare seems to have been his preference. Then in June 1961, he founded the Prairie Playhouse, a company that rented space in the Auditorium, and scheduled a “season” that raised the bar for small town theatrics.

Tierney's set design for Moliere's "Tartuffe"

Tierney’s set design for Moliere’s “Tartuffe”

Never afraid to stir the pot, the Prairie Playhouse staged several plays that either dealt with current events — “Advise and Consent” for example, that had just ended a successful run on Broadway — or recast an old warhorse with new relevance — Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” to which the Bishop of Sioux City took special offence. “A Thurber Carnival” was sandwiched between them to provide something non-political—a rarity for someone who believed the arts were made to poke and prod. By Christmas that year, the people of Agincourt had seen that quality entertainment was possible without a long, long drive to (but especially back from) Omaha or Des Moines.

Most of us accepted that the Prairie Playhouse existed but few knew how it survived; Paul was always paid with Peter’s Pence, we now know. If you had run into James at Cermak’s, you’d have seen a spartan selection in his shopping cart: broccoli, pears, oatmeal, butter brickle ice cream, and Dr Pepper. The Playhouse survived on discrete contributions from “silent partners” whose names never appeared in program credits. We may never know. What we do have is a litany of regional premiers, an honor roll of local talent like Marielle Leer who graduated to careers of note, a legacy of elevated expectations.


Me and Thee, Oh Lord

frank v irish.jpg

I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.― GERTRUDE STEIN

Each moment begins pretty much like any other; it was preceded by one and will be followed by another. Each represents an opportunity which can be embraced or allowed to pass.

As an ersatz historian, I should be more interested in periodization than I am. Units of time — hours, days, months, centuries, aeons — are arbitrary, so I cannot claim that what I’m about to write has much to do with either New Year’s Resolutions or birthdays; its appearance in mid-January is coincidence, albeit a happy one, for I have begun to write a book. Holding your breath won’t help; simply suspecting that some of my friends might give a shit will suffice.

For the time being, the book’s specific subject matters to me alone. The book, like each of my three blogs, will involve two related topics: architecture and religion. And since the title will include the word “architecture,” it seems appropriate to say a few words about the religious perspective that will frame the text.

The foundation of my religiosity was laid in the 1950s and 1960s. Though I do not remember her — my mother abandoned the family in 1953 when I was eight years old — Marge was a Congo, that is, a Congregationalist and I suspect she may have taken me to the Congregational church in Argo, near where we lived. I have no recollection of those Sunday visits but after her departure our neighbors the Millers took me with their daughter Andrea.

In those days, the mid-1950s, the Congregational denomination was an outpost of New England conservatism and restraint. I remember hard pews, the singing of hymns less memorable than elevator music, and a good deal of calisthenics, sitting, standing, kneeling. In hindsight the pews were occupied by little old ladies in drab dresses, white gloves, and veiled pillbox hats. Imagine a room filled with Mamie Eisenhowers.


Sunday School consisted of one activity — again my memory is hazy — locating Bible verses called out by the Sunday School leader. And the sole remaining benefit of that exercise is my ability to name all the books of the Old and New testaments in order. I didn’t stick around long enough to learn the actual content of The Book, however, because the Millers moved to LaGrange and I was left on Sunday’s to my own devices.

Where, you may ask, were my father and grandmother as guardians of my spiritual welfare? Roy worked at the family business seven days a week, but he was an atheist who almost never spoke of God, save for the occasional smashing of a thumb or dropping of a hammer. My grandmother Clara was a Roman Catholic, but she had married outside the Church, to an alcoholic wife-beater who was himself a disbeliever. He had died in 1951, so I only learned these things about him when I was much, much older and able to understand my grandmother’s reticence.

At about age fifteen I succumbed to a bout of peer pressure and went to church with some classmates. But by this time, the old Congregational church had merged and become the United Church of Christ. And those stoic Mamie Eisenhowers were now inclined to interrupt the sermon, blurting exhortations to “Praise the Lord!” and “Amen, brother/sister.” The congregation seemed taken over by Elmer Gantry; a decided turn for the creepy. I stopped going altogether and have never regretted the choice.

Norman, Oklahoma

It was always assumed I’d go to university, the first in my exceptionally small family to do so. Working in the high school library, a copy of “Ford Times” passed through my hands, an unassuming monthly for owners of Ford vehicles. This one included an article on Bruce Goff, an Oklahoma architect, who had chaired the architecture program at the University of Oklahoma. If you don’t know Goff, you should; if you do, I don’t have to explain why OU received my only application—another choice I have never regretted.

Arriving for the fall semester 1963, I moved into Kingfisher Hall of the Woodrow Wilson Residential Center — a relic from WWII that had been part of a Naval air station — and roomed with a guy from El Paso. Most of the guys I knew in our wing were Roman Catholics, so I often went with them to Newman Center for Saturday afternoon “hangover” Mass. Besides being a university parish, Vatican II was underway and Fathers Ross and Swett had already liberalized the service: “Take, eat of my Nabisco vanilla wafers, sacrificed for you….” Get the idea? My first confession was the most excruciating exercise I can recall: to do something nice for the person I disliked the most: First I had to make a list and then determine what God might consider suitably “nice” without actually letting the other person in on the exercise.

One day I spoke with Father Chuck about an issue and he ended our talk with a question: “Why is it I haven’t seen you at Communion?” for which I had an excellent reason. “You see, Father, I’m not Catholic.” After a week of the flimsiest catechism ever employed, I was baptized on a Saturday afternoon, with Dorothy Ryan (a former nun and secretary of the Newman Center) as my sponsor. Somewhere I’ve still got my baptismal candle. Meanwhile the war in Vietnam went on and on and on.

It was 1965. Bras and draft cards were aflame; JFK and Bobby were assassinated; so was Dr. King. My Black friend Harold showed me the Cleveland County courthouse where the adjacent duplicate water fountains for Whites and everyone else had been just two years before; the fountains were there, but the signs had been removed. God seemed nowhere in the vicinity. I’d also gone home to Chicago during the summers and attended local churches where Vatican II was barely a rumor and confession was formulaic. I learned that religion and spirituality weren’t even on speaking terms with one another. So, despite my deep appreciation for the rites and rituals and the sense of family I had known at university, I became “unchurched” a second time.

The Social Gospel

Dean Bryant Vollendorf and Fred Shellabarger were my favorite professors at O.U. Shell taught studio and two of the four architectural history courses, and it was somewhere in there I became aware of the Social Gospel, which resonated with the turmoil around me. It addressed my questions — about evil and good and being an agent for change — and set me on a path.

I think it was also Shell who dropped the phrase “Akron Plan” into a discussion, probably with a negative spin, since he and Gladys were Episcopalians and stylistic snobs. He was inclined to editorialize, too: couldn’t say “Christian Science,” for example, without the parenthetic observation “…neither Christian nor Scientific.” But his head and heart were in the right place for an appreciation of ethical behavior and social justice. I filed “Akron Plan” away for future reference, though it took forty years. I have a long attention span.

The invention of an imaginary town in Iowa, Agincourt, has provided numerous outlets for my spiritual inclinations: the introduction of characters of indeterminate religious stripe (like myself); creation of Agincourt’s own “village atheist” watchmaker Ernie “Red” Anhauser; the community’s very own incidents of the Second Great Awakening; and even the design of a genuine Akron-Auditorium church as a test of my own understanding of the type that I’ve invested so much time identifying.

The Mighty Muskrat River, which flows along the western edge of the original Agincourt townsite, took me to the creation myth of the Iroquois people, for whom the industrious muskrat was alone among animals to dredge mud from the bottom of the primordial sea to create an island for human habitation. Frankly, it and the Gnostic myth are the most satisfying tales I’ve encountered as a basis for belief in anything beyond ourselves.

He grazes much but produces no wool.

Cecil Elliott, another irreligionist, was my department chair and friend for fifteen years. He encouraged my interest in the Akron-Auditorium plan phenomenon but warned of a former colleague at N.C State: He grazes much but produces no wool. I have grazed this particular patch of grass for twenty years or more; the time has come to write.

The word count says 1,433. That’s 433 more than Cecil Elliott set for his own daily writing goal. If I could maintain that pace for three months, there’d be 90,000 of these words and very likely a first draft of the book in my head.



Haiku for the Hapless


If the road to Hell

is paved with good intentions,

will I get there soon?


MI tabernacle.jpg

The fine line defining Chautauqua from religious revival is probably not worth making. The same is true for the 19th and early 20th century buildings that housed them. And while I am an unlikely participant in revival or camp meetings, their architecture holds a special place in my spectrum of favored types.

Neither the Chautauqua building at the Fennimore county fairgrounds nor any of what might have been temporary structures to house religious revivals have been designed for Agincourt. It may be that their time has come, perhaps because I have been thinking vernacular-ly these days, admiring the minimalist aesthetic of such structures and learning from them about an adage taught by Bill Burgett, one of my instructors at the University of Oklahoma during the 1960s: “You earn your effects,” Bill told me once in a third-year studio as I labored on a scheme for a city hall for Norman, Oklahoma (where the university is located).

I understood Bill then, as I do now ten times over, to mean there is an inverse relationship between the appearance of something and the time-effort-cost required to achieve it. It is easy to make something complex but excruciatingly time consuming to reach the simplicity and illusory effortlessness of a Zen-like design. In today’s Minimalism — of the sort so well represented by David Chipperfield and John Pawson — I am convinced more than ever that Bill Burgett was right.


Central stair in the Pergamon Museum, showing Chipperfield’s minimalist insertions and all the damage wrought by war.

Some years ago (while collecting images for a seminar on Minimalism) I stumbled on an interior view of a hotel lobby in Spain —  the architectural equivalent of the overpriced (and perhaps overrated) meal consisting of three pork medallions on a drizzle of lemony sauce, accompanied by five fava beans and a carrot imagined by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, all on a white plate the size of a hub cap. The understated elegance of the presentation is inversely proportional to the unstated over-price, the theory being “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

The hotel lobby had no more than three materials: wood-veneered walls and reception desk, frosted-glass partition and white marble-clad floor, all with knife-edge joints of meeting. Yes, as a guest, I would delight in registering at that desk by the clerk in subtle median grey — if I could afford it. But I would not want to be the maintenance staff who polished that floor nightly, having to be oh so careful not to scuff the expensive wood veneer on either wall or desk or to splatter cleaning solution on the frosted glass. Architecture journals deceive us when they fail to reveal the detail where wall meets floor and deny us the actual cost per square foot, meter, etc. The life-cycle cost of maintaining those surfaces will guarantee that staff wages are kept well below minimum, in the interest of corporate profit. I expect the construction cost of some minimalist works nearly reach the expense of an extravagant Donald Trump Byzantine whore house. All of which brings me back to God.

Tabernacles from the years between the Civil and First World wars have much to teach us, if we would but look seriously at their integrity: what you see is what you get. Wood is wood; joints are elegant; functional economy is achieved. “Ford’s in his flivver, (…) All’s well with the world” Aldous Huxley assures us and I’m inclined to agree.

Here for your edification are four tabernacles found in a recent sweep of the on-line auction site that shall not be named:

From upper left, in clockwise order: Lorima, WI; Riverdale, IN; Gull Lake, Augusta, MI; the aptly named Asbury Grove, MA; and a second view of Gull Lake with the walls flipped up. Enjoy.


Technically, the tabernacle at Platteville, Wisconsin was a Chautauqua facility.

Dorothy “Doady” Newton [1916-2003]


[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

Dorothy “Doady” Newton [1916–2003]

Copse in Winter

circa 1980-1990

oil on masonite panel / 9 inches by 12 inches

Winter has been a frequent theme in the collection, landscapes such as “Copse in Winter” by Pittsburgh artist Dorothy Newton. Acquired from the estate following her death in 2003, the painting hung in the home of Victor and Frances Blaine and came to the collection in 2015 as a memorial to Victor Blaine, who had graduate from Duquesne University and knew the artist.

“Copse” is nearly monochromatic — as winter can often be — centered on a group of trees in the middle distance, reflected in cold dark water. Newton uses oil paint almost as one would watercolor, thin transparent glazes of color.


Frontier communities often engaged in seeming contradictions. The need to “civilize” the place, for example, required the harvesting of trees for production of lumber — to build houses, churches, schools and other testaments to an established community — while it also called for the planting of sheltering trees both in town and out. So it wouldn’t be at all unusual for Agincourt’s early businesses to have included both a saw mill and lumber yard as well as a nursery and greenhouse.

Before the arrival of railways and shipments of building supplies, often from great distances, lumber for building was produced locally from old-growth timber along rivers and in other sheltered places. Sawyers turned trees into planks and planks into boards, often on contract with the farmer who provided the trees themselves. And sawing operations were powered by sweat-equity and eventually by water power or steam; the boards having characteristic saw marks left by the different processes. [For an excellent treatment, I recommend Technics and Architecture by one of Agincourt’s honorary posthumous citizens Cecil Elliott.] The ability to date a building often comes from the forensic analysis of saw marks and nail heads.

Beyond the obvious need for shelter, the civilizing impulse also encouraged settlers from the Eastern Seaboard and Ohio River valley to literally transplant their vision of community which almost invariably meant stately rows of shade trees lining public thoroughfares — until the arrival of Dutch Elm disease. There is a short but telling note in a Valley City, Dakota Territory newspaper about Herbert Root planting literally miles of equidistant saplings along the streets of his subdivision and the inference that his property values were thereby enhanced far beyond the investment. It’s reasonable, therefore, to assume Fennimore county boasted multiple sawyers and at least one nursery.


When the original townsite was laid out in Section 15 (of some township or other yet to be identified), 1853 may have been premature to have imagined the arrival of a railroad. But the southwest corner of that mile-square plat was situated at the convergence of Crispin Creek with the Muskrat River, where we might logically assume there to have been some old-growth timber. Eventually, of course, the Milwaukee Road or one of its spurs sidled up to that side of town and a convenient place to cross the Muskrat. Since Medieval surnames often derived from either town or occupation (Baker or Cooper, for example), let’s identify Agincourt’s early lumber yard with the Sawyer family, who had brought their generational skill set to the area in the 1860s, setting up shop on a pair of outlots where the railroad eventually ran.


By 1900, certainly before the outbreak of World War I, Sawyer Lumber & Coal had its own rail siding for delivery of lumber and other building materials. Lumber yards were often the source for coal, since that part of Iowa had no native deposits. The 130 foot by 680 foot site by that time would have been “zoned” with sheds, shacks, and bins of material by type for ease of access and delivery. Here are four of Ed Sawyer’s employees: two human (Adam Markiewicz¹ in the sporty striped overalls on the left and Marlin Rust with those excessive cuffs on the right) and two of the four-legged variety (Sid and Jeff) on the right. The horses had their own accommodations on site and the Sawyers themselves may also have lived there or nearby, vigilance for fire being one of the costs of doing business.

The sawyer’s neighbors might also have included feed and seed dealers and granaries for the cash crops that would eventually have been a major component of the local GDP. Drayage would also have been an important service, with their requisite livestock and teamsters — linguistic holdovers into the 21st century that will be a mystery to anyone under fifty. Those enterprises have yet to be identified — if someone is looking for a corner of the sandbox to play.

¹ Adam Markiewicz was my grandmother’s youngest brother. Uncle Adam was a frequent visitor to my dad’s gas station in Bedford Park during his retirement, a quiet round-faced man who died when I was about ten years old. Late in life, Adam had worked on the building of the dam that created Lake Sakakawea, an obtuse connection with North Dakota long before I ever thought to move here.

14 Lines


“I cannot imagine how we forgive ourselves for all the things we didn’t say until it was too late… how do we forgive ourselves for all the things we did not become?” —Doc Luben, from “14 Lines from Love Letters or Suicide Notes.”

“You must suggest to me reality — you can never show me reality.” —George Inness

“Moonrise–1887” by George Inness is one of my favorites. Inness was a standout member of the 19th century Hudson River School of painters, who drew their subject matter from Nature for its own sake. For Inness, perhaps to a larger degree than his Hudson River fellows, nature was a “manifestation of the divine,”not as the backdrop for heroic human effort, like Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe” for example.

As a friend of Rev Henry Ward Beecher and economist Henry George, Inness’s late works were also influenced by a close study of pantheistic philosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Those three associations alone rank him very high in my regard, though, frankly, intellectualizing obstructs an appreciation for his considerable volume of work. I would have thought there were well more than a thousand examples, but the website devoted to him lists just 237. His style was widely copied, however, and paintings attributed to him appear often on auction sites—innocent copies by students of art or outright forgeries for the feckless art investor.

I cannot look at “Moonrise–1887” without recalling Benjamin Franklin’s observation about the chair George Washington had occupied for several months in 1887 during the Continental Congress. On the cresting piece behind Washington’s head, there appears a gilded sun, half-hidden by the horizon: at the convention’s end James Madison recorded Franklin’s observation “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising…sun.” Though Inness here records the moon and though he tells us it is, indeed, rising, my perspective at this phase of life is otherwise.

So, with ardent hope that it is not too late (in Doc Luben’s sense), I’ve resolved to say a few things to those who matter most. I hope they’ll be willing to listen.

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The world according to Steichen


Photography in the United States was a popular hobby during the late 19th century, both the taking of photographs and making improvements in the mechanics and chemistry involved. A quick review of the Patent Gazette during the 1890s reveals dozens, if not hundreds, of inventions in each of those technical areas, patents held by corporations like Kodak but also by amateur photographers across the nation, in large cities and small.

A few of the people mentioned incidentally in this blog were amateur photographers. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, can be see in an 1890s photograph, sitting on the steps of his Oak Park, Forest Avenue home (with wife, children, mother and others) holding the actual bulb used to release the shutter. This wasn’t the world’s first “selfie” but long before it was done by a Kardashian.

Improvements in film and photographic technology have shown up in other highly unlikely situations during my research for this and other projects. Hannibal Goodwin was an Episcopal priest who served the House of Prayer, a Newark, New Jersey parish. Curiously — and in the sense of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon — Father Goodwin was joined there about 1875 by an assistant priest named B. F. Cooley; within seven years, Father Cooley relocated to Fargo, Dakota Territory and then (in an entirely fictional detour) a six-month sojourn at Agincourt, Iowa. Hannibal Goodwin’s name also comes up in a very different context in 1887: he filed a patent covering improvement in the manufacture of roll film, a patent not issued until 1898, by which time George Eastman had trumped his invention.

The complex web of history connects Hannibal Goodwin with another research interest of mine: architect William Halsey Wood. Wood was a long-time congregant at the House of Prayer, where he also served as choir director at a time when his path might also have crossed Father Cooley’s. The real Halsey Wood is woven into the Agincourt narrative in multiple ways: 1) he was the fictional architect of the 1889 Fennimore county courthouse (which was actually designed by me); 2) he designed a real house in East Orange (for client C. S. French), a design published in the Scientific American Architect’s & Builders Supplement which inspired an eighteen-year-old Anson Tennant to make a doll house for his youngest sister as a Christmas gift; and, finally, Wood was also the real architect of a church visited by the fictional Anson Tennant in 1912, which resulted in the manufacture of “William Halsey Wood Blox”, patented (fictionally) by Tennant shortly before he sailed to Europe on the Lusitania. [Have I lost you yet?] What you probably don’t know is that Halsey Wood’s father-in-law — Alexander Hemsley — was also a photographer who had photographed Wood’s new Newark home “Winmarleigh” for an 1897 article in The House Beautiful. Hemsley died in a freak industrial accident in 1904 as he worked on an improved formula for photographic flash powder — blowing himself to smithereens.

Really, I don’t make this stuff up. Well, O.K., some of it is fiction but the choice bits aren’t. You have to admit it is fascinating.

[You might know I couldn’t avoid the “death by flash powder” story. It became the inspiration for the tale of an amateur Agincourt photographer whose death by chemical explosion might have been accidental — but it might also have been engineered by the photographer’s wife, who wanted a divorce but didn’t want to lose her “assets.”]

The point here — and you knew I’d eventually get to it — is photography as a means of recording (our times, ourselves) but also as a means of creative expression, an art form.

The Photo-Secession

Between 1902 and 1910 a photographic movement coalesced around the idea that the camera could be a tool for artistic expression. Its leaders included Edward Stieglitz and Edward Steichen [two photographers I habitually confuse] who also published Camera Work, a quarterly to promote its photographic point of view. The Photo-Secessionists operated a gallery in Manhattan, but they influenced photographers, amateur and professional, across America. And that influence could (would?) have been felt in communities the size of Agincourt.

I’m not a photographer. Self-deferentially, I often say “I don’t take photographs; I take pictures.” But one thing I’m pleased to note a decline in digital photography — I never liked those damned pixels anyway — and a purported renaissance in old-school darkroom methods, the very methods Photo-Secessionists used to pursue “Pictorialism, or techniques of manipulating negatives and prints so as to approximate the effects of drawings, etchings, and oil paintings.” Could someone in Agincourt have taken this photo-secession-esque photograph of Gnostic Grove?


Did Agincourt have a photography club? Did its members exhibit their work for public appreciation? At the college, the library, or as part of chautauqua? And how might one of those photographers have manipulated this image of the Chautauqua tent at the Fennimore County Fairgrounds?



The Social Gospel 1.1

With few exceptions, the history of religious architecture in North America falls in two broad categories: 1) the liturgical type, longitudinal and aligned on a ceremonial axis of circulation (i.e., procession) from entry to altar, and 2) the New England “meeting house” type with the congregation in a compact block for proximity to the spoken word. Until the blurring of such distinctions in recent years, one was for performance — the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Mass — and the other for preaching.¹

In the years following the U.S. Civil War, Christianity underwent tremendous pressure from massive European immigration and a parallel depopulation of the American countryside for wage labor in urban areas. The institutional church responded in several ways, organizationally and through the invention of new architectural types. It’s my contention that the foremost of these architectural responses was something called the Akron-Auditorium plan — not simply a melding of the two earlier types, but a genuine American innovation, a third category of religious buildings.

There are reasons the A-A or Combination Plan has been largely overlooked: the scholarly explanation and the less polite one that requires a bit of finger pointing. What is more important to note here is the Akron-Auditorium plan’s coincidence with the Social Gospel, a phenomenon among mainstream Protestants aligning humankind with Jesus horizontally as our brother, rather than vertically as part of the Trinitarian conception of the Supreme Being. Hindsight tells me that my fascination with the A-A plan derives from this almost humanist understanding of religion. There was a time when religion in the United States was broad, inclusive and concerned with improving the human condition. That was the religion of my youth; the religion that helped shape the agnostic I’ve become.


Browse the internet for summaries of the Social Gospel, its origins, evolution and major tenets, and you will find multiple critiques by theologues [spell-checking programs don’t like that word but I find in it a defensible parallel with connotations of “ideologue”] from several religious traditions. I take from them that the Social Gospel has no basis in Jesus’ teachings—arguments unconvincing to the unchurched, like myself, who detect more cherry-picking from the Bible than actual sowing of the seeds of salvation. I respond to this new gospel as someone who witnessed the social unrest of the 1960s, and who finds disquieting parallels with both the 1890s when the gospel was born and conditions today. I will cast my theological lot with the likes of Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Charles Monroe Sheldon, the first to query “What would Jesus do?”

The Social Gospel

In very general terms:

The Social Gospel Movement was a religious movement that arose during the second half of the nineteenth century. Ministers, especially ones belonging to the Protestant branch of Christianity, began to tie salvation and good works together. They argued that people must emulate the life of Jesus Christ. To honor God, people must put aside their own earthly desires and help other people, especially the needy. The purpose of wealth was not to hoard it but to share it with other, less fortunate people. The ideas that originated from the Social Gospel would heavily influence the Progressive Movement. The Social Gospel Movement also attacked the concept of Social Darwinism.²

A bulleted list of S.G. tenets would be welcome at this point. Lacking one, I’ll suggest some of the movement’s architectural response:

  • The sanctuary was reshaped as a genuine auditorium to maximize the gospel’s delivery. Happily, it coincided with the new science of acoustics.
  • Religious education —Sunday School — was reinvented by Rev John Heyl Vincent and philanthropist and Sunday School superintendent Lewis Miller, applying the efficiencies of American business practice. This new delivery system required an architectural setting without precedent. Vincent and Miller worked with architects Jacob Synder and G. W. Kramer to create the first Akron Plan Sunday School.
  • Popularity of the American Sunday School Union’s methods spread beyond the Methodist denomination, finding acceptance in most mainstream Protestant groups and spreading to nearly every state.
  • By the mid-1880s someone had placed an Akron Sunday School adjacent to an auditorium sanctuary, made the wall between them movable, and created the first Combination Plan or Akron-Auditorium church.
  • Churches of this new type multiplied in every U.S. state and many Canadian provinces. Architects specialized in this new typology and speed it from cost to coast in practices that were both regional and national.
  • The institutional church expanded its social services to include recreational programs (to get young people off the streets and out f the pool halls), food pantries and soup kitchens (for the less fortunate), emergency housing (for those out of work or whose homes were lost to fire, floor or repossession), and educational programs and lending libraries (for recent immigrants and those intent on improving their opportunities). The complexity of these 24/7 facilities rival today’s mega-churches — except that their theology was one of inclusion, rather than isolation from “competing” beliefs.
  • Independent institutions such as Temple University and the YMCA spun off from churches that had initiated them.

Do you see why I become so excited about the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon? Because it concerns an architecture of civic responsibility and social support and has remarkably little to do with gratuitous theorizing and philosophical bullshit. Was that too snarky?



¹ To someone raised in the Christian tradition as I was (a Protestant), that summary description may seem overly brief. But I now stand outside the beliefs of my youth and have a different, if no more objective view. For the time being, however, you should know that, though I am happily among the un-churched, I remain intensely interested in religion and its architectural consequences.

² http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Social_Gospel_Movement