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Institutional Church, Kansas City, MO

January 8, 2014

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Growing in tandem with the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon, the “institutional church” emerged in the 1890s to serve the growing needs of larger urban centers. The influx of population from both the American countryside and European immigration challenged the capacity of established city churches to respond, especially their ability to serve the poor and non-English speakers. The institutional church became the mechanism to address these new and heightened needs.

A conference was held in New York City in 1894, out of which emerged the Institutional Church League, heavy with NYC churches but drawing attendance from the Midwest and New England. Even before the conference, however, institutional churches had appeared in Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Rev Jenkin Lloyd-Jones, for example, (notably Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncle) had formed All Soul’s Unitarian Church on Chicago’s south side. But by 1905 his fellowship had grown to become the Abraham Lincoln Center. In its new building jointly or alternately designed by his nephew and Dwight Perkins, Lloyd-Jones’s congregation had become so non-denominational and even non-sectarian that Jews and others of Chicago’s increasingly polyglot population regularly attended his services. That story has been told elsewhere, but those of its siblings should also be told, like the Institutional Church on Admiral Boulevard in Kansas City.

Built in 1905 from the designs of Root & Siemens—younger brother of John Wellborn Root of Burnham & Root—Kansas City’s Institutional Church was a similar response to urban evangelization, though I’ve not yet found an institutional history. What seems obvious from the published drawing (above) and the postcard views (below) is that the client sought a design that was as un-institutional as possible. Ironic for a church that was part of the IC movement.

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Everything about the Root & Siemens design was intended to welcome rather than put off the worshiper. Its general horizontality; trellises, porches, gables and dormers were an invitation to what was presumably a similar “homey” service. Admiral Boulevard, by the way, was a component of the city’s progressive park and boulevard system that remains largely intact today.

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