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A start…

October 21, 2013

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For a project now more than fifteen years in progress, undertaking this blog seems more than a little late. Nevertheless, here is my opening gambit, a happy one for me, if not for the members of Elgin, Illinois’ First Congregational Church.

“Building the Social Gospel” is an investigation of a phenomenon in American religious architecture during the years between the Civil and First World wars. The two streams of our religious architectural tradition—the ritualistic longitudinal plan and the compact meeting house—were joined by a third uniquely American contribution: the Akron-Auditorium plan.

Embraced, abandoned, then disdained, the original Akron-Auditorium type responded to the needs of Protestant Christianity stressed by an urbanizing culture and and strained by massive European immigration. The response was twofold: an auditorium sanctuary for preaching a la the new preaching orders of the Middle Ages (Franciscans, Dominicans), and a new method for religious education patterned after improved American business practices of American capitalism. These two innovation are interesting in themselves, but their combination in the early 1880s revolutionized the presence of churches in communities large and small.

It would have been nice to introduce these ideas to you with the image of a “typical” Akron-Auditorium church—except there isn’t one. The A-A type is organizational, volumetric, a type without style, capable of assuming the guise of any of the architectural styles popular in the forty years from 1880 to 1920: Gothic Revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, Spanish Colonial/Churrigueresque, Arts & Crafts, Prairie Style and others. And so eBay.com once again comes to my rescue by providing the postcard view of an Akron-Auditorium church destroyed by tornado.

First Congregational Church in Elgin, Illinois, was damaged probably beyond repair on 28 March 1920. And in this post-tornado view we can see the curved balcony of the auditorium sanctuary. But beyond it, through the wreckage, we can see a large two-panel movable door which afforded access to the Sunday School room and also allowed for the two volumes to be joined for the children and adults to join forces or for overflow attendance on special occasions—the very essence of the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon.

With this modest offering, I hope to expand the blog and make my case for an important but under-appreciated chapter in American architectural history.

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3 Comments
  1. Mark Latus permalink

    I think this church still exists. Website for the congregation shows an A-A building and history there shows and mentions the same in a brief history. Interestingly, no mention is made of a tornado. Here is the URL: http://www.fcc-elgin.org. Thanks for the blog.

  2. Juliet George permalink

    Greetings from Texas. I am researching and writing a history of a church, and would love to quote from one or more of your blog posts. However, I have not yet found your name. If you like, I can provide my e-mail and, if e-mails are exchanged, I can send you my credentials. Perhaps the name is something I just missed. The Akron-Auditorium style was followed in each of the two earlier buildings occupied by the tributary congregations. I have contacted another scholar who has commented here, and have flagged a skillion pages in Kilde’s book. I would love to ask a few questions. Thanks for great commentary and a huge collection of good images.

    • Hello! Yes,I’d be pleased to exchange some information with you and learn more about your project. I’m Ron Ramsay [Ronald H.L.M. Ramsay], a professor of architecture at North Dakota State University. You can reach me at plains.architecture@gmail.com.

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