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The Akron-Auditorium: a personal note

November 16, 2013

I hope you’ll suffer a very personal note about the Akron-Auditorium project, something you may already have detected from the title of this blog: Building the Social Gospel.

Elsewhere I’ve written about the academic side of things; about the objectivity that is implicit in research, in the choice of a topic, in the gathering, evaluation and synthesis of material. And I have admitted that my topics have, in fact, chosen me. In this case, I had previously been investigating the early Episcopal fieldstone churches of Dakota Territory—more than twenty-five years of information gathering that some day will find its way into print, I hope—and there came a point when I desperately required an antidote to those high church, ecclesiologically-driven buildings. A recollection from my undergraduate years—the architectural history courses I had taken from my mentor Fred Shellabarger in the mid-60s—came to mind.

Fred was himself an Episcopalian with little tolerance for church architecture that deviated from the liturgical norm, or, for that matter, for denominations that has also abandoned liturgical practice. Christian Science, for example, was habitually footnoted as “neither Christian nor scientific.” Cute but cutting, for no particularly good reason. I do it myself and ought to be embarrassed. I remember Fred observing something equally rude about something he called “the Akron plan” long before I knew what it had been. Fred’s disdain became my determination to look at it without his implied theological blinders. Suddenly I was a Man with a Mission.

Folks who know me (or think they do) will understand that, once a topic has been chosen, I am a pit bull, accumulating research material without end and rarely, if ever, getting to the point of synthesis. As my friend Cecil Elliott once said of me, “He grazes much but produces no wool.” Several recent blog entries have reminded me of this inconvenient truth and set me on a different path—one that will bring the A-A project to completion.

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So what.

This project began as a personal initiative to balance the opinion that Professor Shellabarger had planted—gee, do you think I’m guilty of doing that myself?—and believing that what Fred had called “the Akron plan” might actually have been an admirable phenomenon in its time. My strategies for exploring that possibility were crude and clumsy at first, libraries being what they were in the 1980s and 90s (card catalogues and paper-based media). But that changed with time and shifts in information management.

More important, following various research threads educated me about important aspects of the late Victorian and Progressive movements that spawned the A-A phenomenon. I read and read about Walter Rouschenbusch and Washington Gladden; about Progressive clergy named Judson, McCulloch and Lloyd-Jones (yes, that Welsh family connected with you-know-who). I was frustrated with art history and its preoccupation during the 60s and 70s with stylistic purity, and found myself driven to other more egalitarian resources like eBay.

What I’m wading through right now is a massive amount of material—photocopies, out-of-print books, and more than 2,500 postcard images—and making sense of what I maintain (sorry, Fred) was a genuine, unique American contribution to the body of religious architecture. What he and a large number of historians have either 1) ignored or 2) characterized as an embarrassment was precisely what Louis Sullivan had sought: Form Following Function.

Posting a handful of images on FaceBook, I elicited some comforting and insightful words from friends who have helped me understand not only the A-A phenomenon, but also the resonance it has with who I am as a spiritual being. Indeed, with the time that my recent surgery may have afforded, I could invest it no better than using the Akron-Auditorium episode to highlight the fork in the road where religion finds itself as I write this. I have gradually come to believe that this project is important.

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