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Union Chapel (Congregational), Islington, London, UK

October 3, 2016

I feel quite safe in saying that the Akron-Auditorium plan was, as I understand it, a phenomenon of the English-speaking world. By which I mean you will find examples in the United States and Canada. I have attempted correspondence with my counterparts in both Australia and New Zealand — in which I include historians of art, architecture and church history — and inquired if they were familiar with the term “Akron Plan” (and its permutations) or whether they were acquainted with Protestant churches that fit its physical description. The result has been uniformly negative: they tend to beg ignorance of both the term and the type. And if that is true in former British colonies, it is surely true for the United Kingdom itself.

Wikipedia has an entry for “Akron Plan” with which I disagree but have not yet had time or inclination to change in as substantial a way, largely because I will be going against more than a century of evolution in the term’s meaning. That’s another story for another time. What interested me today was the Wikipedia entry’s suggestion that there were two examples in Greater London: at Shoreditch and at Islington.

Having said I’d postpone a discussion of the phrase Akron-Auditorium (which is the proper way to refer to the churches discussed in this blog) I’ll go at least this far in laying out my argument. The hyphenated nature of “Akron-Auditorium” suggests that these churches are an amalgam of two parallel architectural innovations in the post-Civil War years: 1) the Auditorium sanctuary, with its bowl-shaped seating and the pulpit often in the corner, i.e., on the diagonal, and 2) the Akron Plan Sunday School, conceived first as a method for religious education by Lewis Miller and Rev. John Heyl Vincent about 1872 and given form by Akron architect Jacob Snyder. Someone, as yet unidentified, had the very bright idea to place these two spaces adjacent to one another with a movable partition between them for a degree of flexibility unknown in 19th century religious architecture. This conjoined arrangement was initially called the Combination Plan and somewhat later the Akron-Auditorium Plan. My research during the last fifteen years or more suggests that the phrase Akron-Auditorium (admittedly somewhat cumbersome) morphed very gradually to mean something quite different in the early 21st century.

First, the “Auditorium” part was dropped, for brevity I suppose.  And the “Akron” part gradually came to be associated with the sanctuary and its distinctive bowl shape and radial/concentric non-liturgical seating. The Akron Plan as a system or method of religious education was replaced by the 1920 and the buildings that had been designed specifically to be its “delivery system” were remodeled or replaced by schools that looked very much like their secular counterparts: with separate classrooms along double-loaded corridors. So “Akron” which had originally meant only the Sunday School came to define the sanctuary, which should more properly have been described as “diagonal.” Are you still with me? The upshot of this confusion is that Wikipedia has identified two London churches as “Akron Plan”, one of which I cannot locate (it seems to be the site of a major hospital enlargement) and the other obviously lacks a Sunday School wing (and may never have had one). So I offer you here three views of Union Chapel, a Congregational church in the London borough of Islington.

ukislingtonunionchapel4

From the street, Union Chapel appears to be a fairly typical Gothic Revival church. Its architect was James Cubitt¹ but the date of construction (1874-1877) places it too close to the auditorium phenomenon in the U.S. and makes it an unlikely example of American influence. The interest in Protestant “preaching” spaces, however, was of interest to clergy on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, many charismatic preachers like George Hepworth and Thomas DeWitt Talmadge in New York City attracted huge congregations that built some of our earliest mega-churches. Clerics in Britain surely followed a similar path, so the enormous preaching space behind this unprepossessing facade is an obvious counterpart to, say, the Broadway Tabernacle of the 1850s in NYC [shown here, immediately below].

broadway-tabernacle-1850esmall-1024x763

The compact cylindrical shape and wrap-around seating brought the congregations closer to the message and enhanced the intimacy of the experience. With suitable precautions, acoustics did not have to be a problem. The “octagon-in-square” at Union Chapel avoids those acoustic issues yet still gathers an enormous congregation close to the pulpit or platform.

ukislingtonunionchapelukislingtonunionchapel3

Yes, this is an exemplary auditorium for preaching the Gospel, but “Akron” it is not. Indeed I am unable here or in other on-line images to find any semblance of a Sunday School lurking behind a movable partition. So, until proven otherwise, I suspect a genuine American -inspired Akron-Auditorium church has yet to be found in the British Isles.

For me, the question du jour is this: Will it be enough to trace the evolution of the Akron-Auditorium phrase to its present meaning (which in my view is incorrect), without trying to return to its original meaning? Your advice will be appreciated.

¹ I was unfamiliar with architect James Cubitt [1836-1912], who came from Norfolk stock. Thomas Cubitt [1788-1855] is a well known British master builder who also has Norfolk origins. I wonder if there is a connection.

 

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