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Romans 8:18

The Way Things Work: A lesson in Agincourtiana

My grandmother Clara lived through the Great Depression; my father Roy was shaped by it. That may be the reason I have only an intellectual grasp on its miseries: Clara endured it (and what I’ve learned was a miserable marriage), preferring to put it in the past, while Roy did all in his power to spare me his experience. Trying not to speak for my generation, I will say this: as a young man graduating from high school and preparing to depart for college, my horizon offered nothing but hope. I stood on a platform that would gradually rise and take us with it — all of us. Progress seemed the order of the day, and I could only imagine a world’s ever-improving the condition. Leaving aside that panglossian view—shit, I was seventeen or eighteen and it was long before I’d learned of Candide and Dr Pangloss — I want to understand the Great Depression as a shared experience in Agincourt and its hinterlands.

Enjoying a new monograph on the careers of 19th century British architects Sharpe, Paley & Austin (whose names I barely knew) I learned of a modest church of their design more powerful that many larger and superficially more sophisticated churches of those years: the Mission Church at #3, The Lane, Sunderland, Morecambe, LA3 3HS. At first glance, it’s hard to connect a respected 19th century architect with such humility, particularly a firm held in very high regard by none other than Nikolaus Pevsner. Ask me about Sir Nikolaus some time.

Mission Church, Sunderland Point, Morecambe, Lancs., UK / Paley & Austin, architects (1894) / Yes, this is the work of an architect, a damnably good one.

Given the incidental nature of this church in the huge output of the Paley & Austin practice, I’m surprised this building rated even a single image in the British Heritage monograph. Their comment, in fact, contrasts it with a signature P&A church of the same time, which brought me to a parallel with Halsey Wood and the series of modest churches he designed in New Jersey at about the same time he was about to engage the comparable “signature” design of his career, Saint John the Divine. More to the point, it inspired me to adapt the Mission Church (more chapel than church) as a project during the Great Depression in rural Iowa, and an opportunity to bring Anson Tennant back to the drawing board for one more work in his limited architectural output.

It brought to mind the rural village of Grou twelve miles or so northeast of Agincourt, a place of Dutch settlement but with more diversity by, say, 1938. Imagine the A&P Mission Church reinterpreted as a pole barn in the spirit of Romans 8:18.

“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” — Romans 8:18 (KJV)

Mission Church, Sunderland Point, Morecambe, Lancs., UK / Paley & Austin, architects (1894)

Sunderland Point is precisely the sort of place I’d not only visit, I would happily rent a cottage there for a few months and get down to serious writing. Our friend Cecil Elliott did much the same thing in a couple quite different ways: I recall once when he drove down to Alexandria, checked in to the Holiday Inn on the I-94 exit, and composed his way through a blizzard; Technics & Architecture was born that way. Then there were the series of his nearly-annual winters in Mexico—usually not the better known tourist destinations; the hotel staff came to know him.

As I write this, I had flashbacks to last week’s lecture in ARCH 322 on “Mannerism”: Robert Venturi’s “Fire Station #4” is, in my view, a fine and approachable example of that late Renaissance style, and this humble chapel in Lancashire has its own kinship with Mannerism, fore and aft; with both Michelangelo and Bob.

But there are other allusions to be made. With the comparable modesties (does modesty have a plural?) of both Halsey Wood in his Jersey Shore churches and in the exactly contemporary Dakota churches of emigrant British architect George Hancock. There’s a thread here pleading to be woven.

The hamlet of Sunderland Point from the north / image from 2016

PS: See the isolated white house just above and left of center? The chapel is across the road in the copse. Would I have had the modesty to design such a thing?


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