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The Institutional Church

July 30, 2016

The chronology of events that led to the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon is short:

  • Shortly after the American Civil War, three Methodists collaborated on a revolution in religious education; it was called the Akron Plan. Initially it was a method — based on sound business practices and industrial efficiency — for religious education. [For the time being, I hope you will take this proposition on faith.] Since no architectural form existed that would “fit” this new methodology, Jacob Snyder, an architect from Akron, Ohio became involved. The first fruits of their collaboration was the 1872 Sunday School of First Methodist Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio, which became a prototype for hundreds that would follow.
  • Somewhat later but paralleling the experiment in Akron came an acoustic innovation in the design of church sanctuaries. Longitudinal plans were fine for liturgy primarily as ritual, but for Protestants more concerned with the Word a genuine auditorium was necessary. Two candidates for creation of what became known as the “diagonal plan” were an architect from upstate New York and a Sunday School superintendent from Detroit.
  • Someone who may never be identified had the very bright idea to place an Akron Sunday School next to a diagonal-plan auditorium-sancturary and allow them to be joined by means of a large movable partition.
  • In March 1894 several clergy organized The Open or Institutional Church League at a conference in New York City. Incidental but also consequent to this meeting, large church buildings, far more complex that the relatively simple Akron-Auditorium began to be contracted. Far fewer in number and far more diverse in their architectural form, they consciously bore the “Institutional Church” label. Several of them continue to the present day.

American Architect and Building News

Institutional Churches of the early 20th century are counterparts to today’s 24/7 mega-church. Beside the expected auditorium and Sunday School, they could include a long list of services: lending libraries; gymnasia, swimming pools and other recreational facilities; food pantries; adult education and emergency housing. Several Carnegie-era public libraries had their beginning in an Institutional Church basement. Temple University spun off from Temple Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

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