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What’s in a name?

April 30, 2017

What to call these religious buildings has been difficult. My own sense is that — since they are an amalgam of two components developed separately by different by related people — they should be called “Akron-Auditorium” churches: “Akron” from the original Akron Plan system of religious education developed by Bp John Heyl Vincent and Louis Miller and housed eventually in a building that took its name; and “Auditorium” for the auditorium sanctuary that emerged quite distinct from the Sunday school about 1880. During the late 1880s and through the 1890s these were often called “Akron-Auditorium” or “Combination Plan” churches.

Both of those are clumsy, aren’t they. And writers at the turn of the century must have thought so, too. Because almost immediately the five-syllable part (au·di·to·ri·um) was dropped in common parlance and the combination became the “Akron Plan” and through the years that phrase has shifted to the auditorium itself. So, those churches that weren’t actually combined found their auditoria labelled “Akron”— with or without a Sunday school, attached or otherwise.

Some years ago (more than I care to admit, because the information is out of date), I wrote each of the State Historic Preservation Officers (state administrators of the National Register program) and asked three simple question: 1) Are you acquainted with the phrase “Akron Plan”? 2) What do you understand it to mean? and 3) Are you aware of examples in your state identified through the NR program? The results were curious.

Addressing each state, district and territory by mail (the survey was that long ago) and enclosing a stamped self-addressed envelope, I preconceived who would respond. Surely, I thought, bureaucratic states like New York would find far better things to occupy their day. And other smaller, less-populated states would be grateful for the break in their otherwise empty day. With apologies to state employees (like myself) whose contributions are under-appreciated, I expect somewhat less than a fifty-percent response, but was mightily surprised that more than sixty-percent replied. The distribution was diverse: New York and Nevada, for example, were among the earliest arrivals. And the tone was both informative and enthusiastic. Other states were a mystery, however. Why had my own state not seen fit to respond? [You should know that, as an old friend puts it, I am persona au gratin in Bismarck, so it may have been nothing more than payback.]

The point of the survey — to understand the breadth of interpretation of “Akron Plan” — was informative. New York, for example, knew full well the difference between Akron-Auditorium and Akron Plan; perhaps I liked that answer because it agreed with my own understanding. Nevada’s came as no surprise: for a state created in 1907, where settlement patterns may well have missed the A-A phenomenon, the SHPO had never heard the term and, indeed, did not know what it represented. The message for me was basic: the terminology is imprecise and at this point may not be capable of correction, i.e., a return to the original binomial phrase. I only mention this because experience today — searching for the names of A-A architects — confirms the broad range of understanding that is abroad.

So, in these blog entries and in the eventual monograph that may result, I will consistently and conservatively make a distinction between and among these labels and abbreviate my reference to “A-A’.

And the answer to “What’s in a name?” is plenty.

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