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St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Cedar Rapids, IA

July 5, 2014

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon is the absence of familiar architectural names, Either “starchitects” at the turn of the century were disinterested in the Akron innovation, or clients were disinclined to seek that sort of star power. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. This observation, however, makes the handful of designs by the likes of McKim Mead & White and Frank Lloyd Wright all the more significant. Take for example St Paul Methodist Episcopal church [I use the original name here] in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Several architects competed for this 1914 commission, including both Louis Sullivan and his disciples Purcell, Feick & Elmslie. W.G. Purcell and G.G. Elmslie had both worked in Sullivan’s Chicago office before setting out on their own; I presume they remained on friendly terms. The complete list of all firms who interviewed for the job has not been published, but it must have included Iowa practitioners as well as out-of-state firms.

Sullivan’s design was far more detailed than the executed project of 1914, with a considerable amount of his signature terracotta ornament. I can imagine Liebe, Nourse & Rasmussen from Des Moines and several likely Omaha firms taking interest. Even at this point in his shifting career, Sullivan prevailed. One wonders how, given his increasing tendency to drink and even drugs. What he offered the client was vintage Sullivan, however, though one misguided architectural historian labelled it “unsatisfying”.

If Sullivan (and other competing architects) was responding to a client “wish list”, we’re privileged to have a moment of insight into his creative process. And, while I admire St Paul’s for its architecture, it belongs only peripherally in the BSG Project because it lacks one of the constituent elements: it did not have an Akron Sunday School, as can be seen from this plan published in The Western Architect. Admirable for its overall logic and clarity, it is not an A-A church.


That observation alone would be of little interest. In the context of Purcell, Feick & Elmslie’s competitive proposal, however, it takes on greater meaning, for PF&E proposed an orthodox A-A solution [of the D-! type in my matrix], as shown here: The sanctuary and Sunday School open in a straight-line relationship through a two-story movable partition.


Though St Paul’s is on the National Register of Historic Places, there is surprisingly little else written about the commission, and the current congregation seems somewhat defensive about the subsequent stripping of Sullivan’s original proposal by an architect named Jones. I’m not the only person interested in this footnote to architectural history.

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