A new book by Christopher Millen struck a chord, or at least the title did, from the morning mail. There have certainly been far more literary fabrications than I am aware. Howard Hughes’s diaries, for example, or the counterfeit poem supposedly by Emily Dickenson that put its actual author behind bars for decades—not for the audacity that he could simulate the signature literary of a renowned and reclusive author but because he attempted murder to conceal his unraveling crime spree. Arguments around the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays will smolder on well beyond my own life, and then, of course, there are those who speculate on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hoaxes of these and other sorts can be drawn by financial gain or the simpler pleasures of pulling one over on academics and the Literati. My not-so-idle speculations in the realm of architectural history originate in mere curiosity, the wonderment of attempting to understand the mental proceses at work in the design of buildings. My contributions in this arena will hardly rise to the level of a university press production. Indeed, until I was challenged by a colleague to “go public” with this project, I was content to be an audience of one.
Were someone to publish a study of architectural hoaxes, what would its table of contents include—or exclude, for that matter? Are there even enough examples to warrant at least a few paragraphs in an obscure mimeographed, stapled, and three-ring-bound newsletter for limited circulation? In one category, there are the faint hopes of finding a lost, misidentified, or previously unknown design by the phenomenally production Frank Lloyd Wright, author of 1,100 designs in a 75-year career. Yet they disappear, even if with exceptional rarity, several years ago a young scholar of the great H.H. Richardson identified a commercial building in Boston as his. <Cynthia Zaitzevsky>
Early works of LeCorbusier are now included in lists of his own projects—not lost or forgotten, but simply overlooked, (inconvenient) in the developing canon of early Modernism. Early works by Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other hand—projects that date from his contractual terms of employment with Adler & Sullivan were suppressed by the architect himself as violations of that agreement. So suppressed that even Wright had lost track of them. Preparation of the project list in 1940 for publication In the Nature of Materials illustrates Wright’s own faulty recollection and calls some entries into question. Richard Allin Storrer has not only corrected the list but also added several works which had slipped Wright’s memory altogether. Enlargement of even this expanded list has become a cottage industry (parlor game) among Wright oficianados.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is yet another early Modern revisited in recent years, which involves speculation about projects from his apprenticeship and early partnership, but also late works from the last years of a practice dissolved into (again) the orthodox history of Modernism—thanks largely to the writing of sir Nicholas Pevsner—where Mackintosh’s reliance upon ornament and the quainter highly personal aspects of the Arts & Crafts made him an inconvenient figure, worthwhile only as an interruption in the flow of historical forms, a necessary belch t the end of an overly rich meal. Perhaps that is the value of revisionist history; the opportunity to fill gaps, patch ellipses, and balance the convenient narrative of orthodoxy/convention.
The most successful architectural hoax in Agincourt? There are two of mine and one designed by a friend of the project. My favorite, though it is far from being complete or even passable for its moment in time, is Asbury United Methodist church, one of the five original congregations and recipient of a coveted “church lot”, northwest of the courthouse. It was a challenge to cope with one Methodism’s contributions to the traditions of church architecture: the Akron-Auditorium plan popular during the years s1885-1920, pushing its envelope, I chose to design A-A church at the end of its popularity, when its possibilities, all its permutations and combinations might have been exhausted. Could I coax one more iteration from the matrix of A-A types?
It certainly helped for mine to be the second or third building occupied by Methodists on that site. the prosperity of the post-WWI years are likely to have encouraged a scheme as large as the one I proposed, an ambitious program for a community of Agincourt’s size at the time, not a true “institutional church” of major urban proportions, but complex nonetheless.
The irregular pentagonal site precluded a more conventional solution (though A-A churches were hardly ever that, i.e., conventional), since there was no self-evident “front”. The angled edge, the nicked corner not on the orthogonal grid which regulated the rest of the O.T. [original townsite] and thereby called attention to itself seemed too obvious at first. But the south side face nothing in particular, certainly nothing comparable, and the east was too residential—though that’s no bad thing for the A-A. Since by 1919 (the birth of the project) the Avenue had likely become a one-way and traffic would approach from that direction, it seemed logical for the church oblique to that audience and (in a wonderful twist of logic) at the same time address the courthouse (another of my design efforts and one in which I also take some satisfaction). So much for parenthetic insertions.
It’s difficult to describe my process without first explaining the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon of which Asbury was an example—if not an exemplar. In brief, the A-A type was a marriage of two post-Civil War developments in Protestant church architecture: 1) the evolution of “sanctuary” into auditorium; and 2) the invention of Sunday School as an education delivery system based on the efficiencies of factory production and sound business models. Someone about 1885 had an adventurous notion: What would happen when an auditorium meeting room was placed adjacent to an Akron Sunday school, itself a plan form without precedent? And suppose the wall between them was a movable partition? The rumbling you feel is A.W.N. Pugin whirling in his eternal resting place. Architecture for religion has not known such heretical innovation since Hagia Sophia. Thirty years of unbridled experimentation by American architects had produced such remarkable variation of that simple theme that even Bach would be impressed. Some of them were fruitful for further development; some dead ended; a few embarrassingly awful. so what did I have to lose. After all, I’d seen plenty of the bad.
With that as a too lengthy, jargon-infested introduction, my first sketch on the inside of a telephone company billing envelope tells most of the story—though you should know that it came from twenty-one years’ study of the A-A. Look at enough examples of anything and they haunt your dreams. In the Akron-Auditorium nomenclature I had developed—a matrix of six auditoria and three Sunday school types, which yielded eighteen variations and several sub-species—this was a variant of the B-1 type. [Though I must admit the rigor of the matrix continues to be challenged by the A-A type’s resistance to classification. I may scrap the whole thing and begin again.]
Where the Asbury falls apart is not its three-dimensionality, its volumetrics; the approach I too is what I call “packing the suitcase”, conceiving a shape dictated largely by site conditions and then coordinating the various program elements within it—with an understanding that, when packing an actual suitcase, shoes don’t belong near the shirts. And again, as in preparation for travel, there may be room for something extra or (more likely) at least one item may have to be left behind. In this case, the program expanded slightly and in interesting directions. In addition to the pastor’s residence (an idea more Catholic than Protestant, but not unheard of), there was also space for a sexton’s apartment and, with some judicious manipulation of floor-to-floor heights, an opportunity for emergency housing, such as would be welcome just ten years hence during the Great Depression.
My failure, my great shortcoming, was, instead, in the realm of elevation. I am far too inclined to wallow in the realm of plan and volumetrics and put facade study off to the end: how it works is more important than what it wears. And so I am able to argue that Asbury M.E. church is a highly credible example of the A-A phenomenon, as I’m equally reluctant what it looks like to those congregants on the westward journey along the Avenue.
But what of its future? With some notion of the A-A’s complex origin and evolution so multi-faceted as to be practically invisible to historians of religion and embarrassing to those of art and architecture—the vast majority of whom come from art history—we don’t have to guess what happened to such ambitious, even Progressive architectural piles such as Asbury in Agincourt. The congregations, indeed all mainline Protestant denominations, peaked during the ____ (in the United States, at least) and began their retreat dur to falling birthrates, social mobility, and concomitant economic and geographic shifts, the plate tectonics of sociological change. The Social Gospel itself passed from the scene, replaced by I know not what.
Many of those Social Gospel service, components more visible in the examples known as the “Institutional Church”, prospered and attained independence. Adult education separated as colleges and institutes—Temple University began this way—lending libraries seeded the public library movement, encouraged by Andrew Carnegie philanthropy; and recreational facilities which drew youth away from the evils of pool halls and street corners, were the foundation of YM and YWCAs, something I had anticipated at Asbury.
It was surprising to me the range of community sizes where a “Y” could flourish. They were not exclusive to dense urban settings. Yes, they appeared in Hell’s Kitchen and the Tenderloin, but also in communities of modest size, often those with a one-industry work force likely to have attracted young unmarried males, or women, but rarely both. Railroads especially provided this need at service centers spaced along their mainline routes (of which Iowa had a few) where they offered clean supervised housing for permanent staff and as “motels” for section-line workers awaiting a return to family at their permanent place of residence. It was too much to hope that Agincourt might have worked this way.
My independent, long-term study of the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon has shown me several scenarios for the WWI-era overbuilding which put so many A-A churches at risk. Changes in the system of religious education (replacement of the Uniform Lesson Plan with graded Sunday schools) antiquated the Akron facility overnight; those unable to adapt were remodeled extensively, converted to another use, or demolished to make way for a facility which looked and functioned like a standard early 20th century elementary school. So Agincourt provided an opportunity to explore why a full-service Social Gospel church might have materialized there; the decades of imagery which had preceded it, but also the shifting social patterns which may have altered or eliminated it.
Any national or even regional phenomenon, no matter how potent or pervasive, still requires a catalyst. Methodism was not a monolith; neither were its clergy, I suspect. Until the United Methodist church formed in 1956, there were Methodist Episcopalians, Methodist Protestants, Evangelical United Brethren, and southern Methodists separated becasue of the issue of slavery. <to be continued>