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Polygonality

There were any number of polygonal or point-generated radial buildings in the post-Civil War era to serve as inspiration for the “auditorium” component of a typical A-A church. Some are obvious, probably because they are so plentiful and prominent. Others are more obscure, even obtuse. Polygonality has been in my mind lately [wordpress spell-checker doesn’t like that word at all] and I thought it might be time to post a few notes and observations.

Centripetal vs. Centrifugal

Recall from your last encounter with solid geometry that a sphere is the shape with the most interior volume and the least surface area. I an era of decreasing energy resources, this would be the ideal shape for most buildings — were floors and walls not a high priority. Nearly two hundred years ago, that great experiment in American spirituality, the Shakers, understood those practicalities and developed an architecture of elegant, exquisite efficiency — almost Zen — perhaps best illustrated by the 1826 Round Barn at Hancock, Massachusetts.

Note the gravity feed system, with a circular driveway for delivery of hay, the dairy cattle feeding radially below and manure storage in the basement. At the center, both structure and ventilation. Waste not, want not.

Public libraries became another typically American architectural type after the Civil War, driven by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who eventually underwrote the construction of 1,800 libraries in the English-speaking world. Carnegie’s benefaction stimulated architects to “invent” forms for a new function. The best of the series — from Carnegie’s own point of view — were economical and efficient, housing maximum resources and requiring minimum staffing, resulting in plans like this for a unit of the Broolyn library system:

On the obscure end of the spectrum, consider the gymnasium as a building type, especially those with indoor running tracks. They have every functional reason for round or polygonal ends and longitudinal plans. The technology for these — limited as it may be — could have derived from the American dairy barn but didn’t have to. There were other experiments more directly involved with 19th American spirituality.

Harmon Gymnasium for Men, University of California at Berkeley (1879)

The Chautauqua Movement began on the shores of a lake in upstate New York unofficially in 1874 as a training academy for Sunday school teachers. It grew in scope and audience, becoming a nationwide movement intimately connected with the A-A phenomenon. And like the A-A, it generated its own architectural expression, drawn from the need for a space to provide large audiences with good acoustics and sight lines.Remember “audit” is Latin for “he/she hears.”

Just as “Our Gang” comedies were perpetually “putting on a show” in someone’s barn, long-span agricultural buildings like the Shaker barn were easily adapted for Chautauqua purposes. Yet they, too, were capable of adaptation and improvement. The 1903 Chautauqua facility at Shelbyville, Illinois was custom designed by architect Morrison H. Vail, who patented its structural system — a bicycle wheel placed horizontally:

Chautauqua Shed, Shelbyville, IL (1903); Morrison H. Vail, architect

With precedents like these and an audience eager for the expression of new ideas and innovative systems, it’s no wonder that our database has grown to nearly 3,700.

Ponce DeLeon Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

Beaux Arts Atlanta architect Haralson Bleckley is better known for his substantial number of suburban residences. He designed Ponce De Leon Baptist church in 1909. Postcard views are rare but the plan was published in the American Architect & Building News for 18 August.

Central Congregational Church, Atlanta, GA

Central Congregational in Atlanta was built in 1908, very likely from plans by NYC architect G. W. Kramer. Could Kramer (if, indeed, he was the architect) have been familiar with Fontevrault Abbey in France?

Capitol Avenue Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

This image showed up during the search for another Atlanta church. Capitol Avenue Baptist church was built circa 1900 and photographed here in 1953; it has since been demolished. Which came first, do you suppose? the street corner portion or the taller pedimented component at the far left?

Temple Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

There is, for me, no challenge quite like a very large and architecturally interesting church about which very little has been written. The former Temple Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia is my current quest.

Views of Jackson Hill and Temple Baptist Churches Atlanta, GA

Richard Kenyon brought this image to my attention two days ago (the bottom part of this postcard). It suggests a not insubstantial investment and a building of such physical prominence that its arrival and disappearance without notice is difficult to fathom. Once again, a genealogical website came through: the building once stood at the corner of Mangum and Hunter streets on Atlanta’s southwest side; Mangum street has been substantially obliterated and Hunter is now MLK Jr Drive. Atlanta, apparently, has a habit of renaming its streets and that combined with urban renewal and other redevelopment efforts put the building in the middle of the field of red earth shown below:

The church may have disappeared long before, however, as the Atlanta Constitution notes both its opening on 02 January 1905, at the end of a nine-year construction campaign, and the sale of the building ten years later, when the congregation ceremoniously marched to Central Baptist, with which it had merged. Ten years seems too short a life for such a monumental structure. So highway and railway construction conspired with more general urban renewal to take it from us. It’s irritating that so little record remains — at least for the curious who live so many miles away.

The obvious comparison, it seems to me, is : Memorial Baptist church in Newark, NJ, an 1890 design by William Halsey Wood and not an implausible influence.

Peddie Memorial First Baptist Church, Newark, NJ (1888); William Halsey Wood, architect

Two in Atlanta, GA

There are two prominent anniversary celebrations this year: 1) the centennial of the Russian Revolution, and 2) the sesqui-centennial of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth. Frankly, the second has greater meaning for me. But there is another centennial that just came to my attention — the Great Atlanta Fire of May 21st, 1917.

Every major urban area has had a fire of some significance. Chicago in 1871; Boston (1872); Seattle (1889); Jacksonville (1901); Baltimore (1904); San Francisco (1906, following the earthquake); these are just the fires in the U.S. The Atlanta fire consumed 300 acres or seventy-three blocks. For a study such as this, these were double-edged swords: the swept relatively early examples of A-A churches, and they provided a clean slate for the construction of new ones.

This combination postcard illustrates two Atlanta churches, each interesting in its own right: Jackson Hill Baptist church, a fine example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, and Temple Baptist church, a remarkable heap of stone looking more like a mosque or synagogue than a place of Christian worship. The first of these was lost in the 1917 conflagration; I’m uncertain about the second.

Views of Jackson Hill and Temple Baptist Churches Atlanta, GA

Besides the buildings themselves, two other things are worth noting:

  • Other images of either building are simply not available from a quick search;
  • Likewise, information on their design and construction, the name of their architect, even the date of construction have so far eluded me.

Jackson Hill is a fairly orthodox design from the years of H. H. Richardson’s influence, but Temple Baptist is an altogether different matter. How could this be the sole photographic representation available? And how can such a substantial structure have evaded treatment in social or architectural histories?

Presbyterian Church, Vinton, IA (again)

Vinton’s Presbyterian church was added to the database in 1915 but here is some additional information that may interest you:

The architect in 1913 (following the destruction of the earlier Gothic Revival building) was Joseph Schwartz (a.k.a., Joseph Swartz) of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. One wonders why he had been chosen, given the ready supply of qualified architectural talent closer to home. As a Type F-1 plan, the main floor sanctuary-auditorium has a balcony above and a full complement of support spaces both below and behind. It’s interesting to note provision for a host of “gender appropriate” activities for both girls and boys. Inclusion of a gymnasium for communities as small as Vinton is not unusual. Rauschenbusch and Gladden would heartily approve adaptation of the Social Gospel program for a small Midwestern town.