The Sanctuary of United Parish of Auburndale
And Recommendations for its
Physical and Liturgical Improvement
Patrick J Quinn, FAIA, FAAR, FRSA
March 18th 2015
Report on the Sanctuary of United Parish of Auburndale.
Before my visit I read various documents including:
the “History and Architecture “ of the church (sent to me by Allen LeVines),
the June 1997 Landmarks report “Auburndale Congregational Church-64 Hancock Street” by the Newton Historical Commission with the assistance of Gretchen Schuler and
Three sermons by Rev. Doug Robinson-Johnson (from the Internet).
I also refreshed myself on some appropriate references in my own library, particularly those dealing with the religious traditions of New England and
the wooden churches of the region.
I did some research on the various architects who designed, extended, and re-ordered the building complex over its life and how their predilections affected their contributions to the architecture.
Finally I asked Melissa Wylie to send me some interior photos of the church. I was disappointed that there were no readily available plans or architectural drawings of the existing building or its historical evolution. It is important to make a proper archive of such drawings and related documents.
I was delighted to know that the new gallery was named for my late and dear friend Betty Meyers.
Saturday, March 7th 2015.
First I made a brief visual survey of the sanctuary interior, its spatial, formal, material characteristics, its furnishing, etc.
I then met for more than an hour with a group of eight: Melissa Wylie, Bob & Carol Dutton, Natalie Austrian, Allen LeVines, Rich Frantz, Elizabeth McVittie, and Doug Robinson-Johnson. The purpose was to get a sense of the various perspectives of the group members on the issues presented in the “Mini-Brief for Sanctuary Consultant” developed by Melissa in conjunction with the Property Board.
I found all members to be open, frank and thoughtful not only about their personal preferences but also about what they feel matters for the entire community of the United Parish of Auburndale. The group was aware and appreciative of the rich history of the building and its evolving community. They were deeply conscious of how necessary it is to develop facilities that will be adaptable and “configurable”
(Natalie’s word) and will enrich the spiritual life of the community as it evolves in future. Rich wisely emphasized the need for a master plan that would allow for
phasing improvements according to the availability of resources.
I very much appreciated the conciseness and brevity of each one’s remarks.
We then moved to the Sanctuary for in situ discussion of specifics.
Beginning with the Altar area including the furnishings, decoration, and general character, we turned to discuss the furnishing, material, acoustics and lighting of the Nave. We continued to the Narthex, the organ loft, and the vestibule at the side entrance, all the time raising and discussing the same range of issues.
Sunday, March 8th 2015
I believe that it is difficult to assess the needs of a church without participating in a service that reveals the spiritual and communal nature of the congregation.
I was welcomed to the Sunday morning Worship service and the pleasant coffee hour that followed. At the latter I had a most informative discussion with Charlie Kessler, a member of the Worship Board. I was also pleased to meet Deacon Samantha Cowan, whose reference to King Kamehameha, my former professional partner’s hero, intrigued me.
Between these two events I had a detailed tour of the “catacombs,” as Rich Frantz refers to the basement utility spaces. Thanks to his expertise I now have a fair understanding of the structural and mechanical systems of the building.
My report and recommendations follow.
If the formal extremes of early (17thC) American church building are represented by The Old Ship Meeting House at Hingham, MA, and St. Luke’s Church, Smithfield, VA, the Auburndale Congregational Church lies somewhere in between.
The Meeting House served both religious and civic needs of a progressive New World community. St. Luke’s, on the other hand, espoused the established English (Anglican) church, medieval in form and regressive in its imagery.
The classical experiment of English architects Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren was further popularized by James Gibbs. Placing a compound spire on the classical temple form, he begot a new enlightenment in religious architecture.
As a way of giving a more “churchy” character to the meeting house, the Gibbsian spire was adopted in such American works as Boston’s Old South Meeting House (1730) and the Congregational church in Lyme, Connecticut (1815).
Back in England, however, as classical (Renaissance/Georgian) forms became rapidly identified with many secular institutions, Augustus Welby Pugin and the Cambridge Ecclesiologists reacted strongly in favor of a return to the historic purity of 13th century symbolism. After 1828, Gothic Revival architecture became the hallmark of the Anglican Church. The fashion spread with the rapidity of historicist passion and swept across America, especially in Episcopal churches and collegiate buildings. Ralph Adams Cram was a strong advocate for and practitioner of Gothic revival architecture in the United States.
Still the classical examples of Thomas Jefferson (University of Virginia) and Benjamin Latrobe (Baltimore Cathedral) remained to show that gothic was not the only answer. The classical form of the Gibbsian model remained popular among voluntary churches including Congregational and Unitarian communities.
The passionate disagreement between classicists and mediaevalists sometimes resulted in half-and-half buildings like one Yale college whose exterior is pure gothic and whose interior quadrangle is colonial classical. A famous country house in Northern Ireland is actually split down the middle. The front half was classical for the husband and the rear half was Gothic for the wife.
The Auburndale church, designed by Charles Edward Parker, is a particularly beautiful example of clear architectural thinking built after the initial gothic wave and two decades before the Great Columbian Exhibition of Chicago (1893) where classicism was the keynote.
The interior space has almost classical acoustic proportions. In my research of
Renaissance and baroque oratories and musical performance salons, I often noted that the proportions were what I call “1.66 cubes.” In these the height approximately equals the width and the length is about 1.6 times the width. The formula 1:1.66 is sometimes called the Golden Section or the Divine Proportion. It dates back to ancient Greek scholarship, was further explored in the Renaissance, and stems from mathematical attempts to formulate the geometric order of the pinecone, the sunflower, the nautilus shell, etc. It is at the root of the proportioning system of the renaissance villas and churches of Palladio and in the 20th century was the basis for Le Corbusier’s proportioning system “Le Modulor.”
In the Auburndale church, however, the acoustic space is modified by three elements, the beautiful wooden roof structure, the curvilinear geometry of the narthex wall and the vaulted complexity of the altar area. These combine to reduce echoes. The result is a very short reverberation time. Hence the choir and the organ music sound a little “dry” as the longer notes become abbreviated.
The carpeted aisles further deaden the sound.
A full congregation also absorbs much and reduces reverberation. A simple hand-clapping test showed the existing reverberation time to be approximately one second. For music I believe that it should be closer to two seconds at least. Some older cathedral spaces have a time of over four seconds but they in turn make speech quite difficult without sophisticated electronic sound control.
The columns and semi circular vaults of the altar area however enrich the overall ambience, while emphasizing the place of Word and Sacrament. I am not clear as to whether these were added in the renovations of 1878 or those of 1907, but they certainly add strength and beauty to the overall classical narrative that begins with the elegant Romanesque entrance doorway.
The plain walls and gentle rhythm of the slim vertical windows add visual grace to the space.
The windows appear to be in the style of the renowned John LaFarge who invented the technique of layering opalescent glass to create nuances of shade and color.
Beautiful as they are, it is clear that the colors mute the light and reduce the potential clarity of the architecture.
The rich simplicity of the original space loses strength also in the dark color of the narthex wall, the choir loft and the dark oak of the pews. The result is a dull yellowish light rather than a joyful clarity.
The electric lighting of the space is dreary. The pendants are typical of what I sometimes call “church goods store ecclesiastical”. They speak of a more genteel piety than the strength of spirit that pervades the present community.
The Altar Area
The entire altar area is so filled with thick obtrusive furnishings that the spatial
clarity is obscured. Instead of a clear, liturgically beautiful space we find a dense
Arguments about the character and quality of “religious space” and “places for worship” have often foundered between those who favor the numinous (mysterious) spaces advocated by Rudolf Otto in his famous The Idea of the Holy and those who seek the richness and ineffability of powerful simplicity in spatial form.
Oak, used throughout the sanctuary area and the pews, was a pervasive choice for
church furnishing over many centuries. It was once inexpensive, durable and beautifully grained. Over the years, however, wear and repeated varnishing often reduced it to an ominous blackish brown. The thick oak railing, the bulky pulpit and the lectern clearly “occupy” the visual space in front of the slim white columns making them appear stumpy and disguising their elegance. The heavy choir seating also obtrudes crudely into one’s view. The tall dossal forms an impressive coda to the spatial rhythms of the vaulted altar area but its indecisive color and partial translucency greatly reduce its potential. The whole altar area assembly is liturgically, theologically and visually confusing, especially with the communion table and the lovely baptismal font relegated to lesser side locations.
Finally the sheer black bulk of the grand piano is compressed into a space much too small for its elegant form. It combines with the pulpit, railing and pews to further increase the visual clutter.
The following recommendations are intended to allow that they be accomplished in phases or stages as part of an overall plan for transforming the sanctuary into a unified whole, architecturally and liturgically, conducive to a richer and more profound spirituality of place.
THE ALTAR AREA.
- That the oak furnishings be completely removed from the altar area. That they be replaced by elegant contemporary equivalents of slimmer and more beautiful design. It would even be worth consulting Mr. Moser the excellent furniture designer in Boston or Steve Lewis of Springwood Studios in Troy, NY.
It would make sense, I believe to replace the existing bulky railing with one consisting of one-inch-square black steel balusters topped by a slim, wide hand rail of fine-grained, clear polished white oak.
I envision the pulpit also made of black steel square tubing topped by a reading desk of light oak with adequate shelf space included.
- That the crimson curtains flanking the dossal be removed and the white wall exposed. The dossal should be replaced by a rich blue fabric. The paneling and exit doors beneath the organ pipe recesses should also be painted white. The existing oak altar/shelf would be removed and the existing communion table would be placed in the center of the present altar area, except on Communion Sundays when it would be moved to the congregants’ level.
- That the choir seating in this area be replaced with some strong, elegant chairs of pale oak. This would allow for easy adaptability of seating arrangements.
- In this digital era, it makes sense to incorporate a retractable video screen over the dossal where it could be most visible yet instantly removable.
Ever since Abbot Suger used the 12thC church of S. Denis in Paris to demonstrate the importance of natural light in expressing the essence of Christian theology,
architects and liturgists have sought ways to incorporate the symbolism of light in religious buildings. Suger not only placed magnificent rose windows in the transepts but he made the choir and altar area come alive with light.
In our own time Le Corbusier wrote of his famed Ronchamp chapel:
“The key is light
and light illumines shapes
and shapes have an emotional power”
I recommend that all of the stained glass, with the exception of the figural ones, be replaced by striated uncolored glass in patterns designed by a creative stained-glass artist. It is possible that two of the existing geometric patterns could be inserted into the new windows at the rear. The new stained glass windows would be translucent and not transparent. I recommend also an outer layer of thermal triple glass. The yellow diamond pattern glazing of the Narthex wall is evocative of eighteenth century coaching inns or taverns. This is inappropriate and should also be replaced with uncolored translucent glass similar to that of the main windows.
I recommend that the sanctuary walls be repainted white.
Before beginning such work it would be important to consider the economics of adding a layer of rigid polyfoam insulation to the inner surface of the exterior walls.
I recommend the same white finish be applied to (1) the dark oak lower walls behind the altar area and (2) the curved wall section beneath the organ loft.
The fixtures should not obtrude. Lighting should be effective, visually and liturgically, i.e., supporting the participation in communal worship.
I recommend that a series of LED units be placed on the forward faces of the horizontal roof beams, illuminating both the congregation and the roof space above.
I recommend that similar units be strategically placed behind the vaults of the altar area. In both cases there is a need for units to be aimed at the pulpit, the lectern, the communion table, the dossal and, of course the choir.
I recommend that a good lighting consultant, familiar with work of the RPI Lighting Research Center, be retained to advise on the most efficient approach. The approach should not be merely utilitarian but should reflect and amplify the spiritual nature of the worship service. I asked Prof. Russell Leslie of the LRC for names of such consultants in the Boston region. (See Appendix A)
Perhaps the thorniest problem in improving the liturgical character of an existing church is the issue of seating……pews versus chairs, solid versus slender, straight rows versus curved, fixity versus flexibility, etc., etc.
The issue is often one of stability of traditional order versus adaptability of movable units. Natalie used the interesting word “configurability” as a desirable objective
for a progressive congregation. Future generations will be increasingly accustomed to greater choice in reshaping liturgical space as their understanding of the spiritual nature of communal worship grows.
The original seating appears to have been simple benches in three sections, two abutting the walls and one in the center, resulting in two aisles at the one-third points of the sanctuary width. It is not clear to me when the arrangement was changed to a center aisle and two side aisles. I assume that it was done to facilitate more dramatic wedding processions and possibly to allow for baseboard heating.
I recommend a plan of action that can be completed as a whole or executed in several phases, thus allowing the congregation to experiment over time with various possibilities.
The most adaptable system would use appropriate chairs that could be connected in rows, long or short. Several good manufacturers make good chairs like those in Lutheran churches designed by the late, great Edvard Sovik and his friend the liturgical designer Frank Kacmarcik. Some examples may be found in the pages of Faith and Form, the journal founded by Betty Meyer.
Another system is used by many small contemporary European churches consists of
very simple backed benches, usually no more than six or eight feet long. These can be placed in various configurations according to need.
I recommend that the committee examine these two possibilities and I suggest the following strategic phasing.
- Remove the first THREE rows of pews. After all people tend not to occupy these during regular Worship service. This will dramatically increase the space for the piano and for more dignified Communion movement. It will also allow better placement of baptismal font.
- Remove the next seven rows and replace them with six or eight foot long bench pews of good design in light oak. Retain the remaining traditional pews at the rear. Experiment with arrangement of the first seven rows.
- Replace the first seven rows with individual liturgically appropriate but connectable (gangable) chairs. Replace the remaining traditional pews with the shorter bench pews.
With regard to pew cushions and chair seats: I recommend using a blue material close to the proposed color of the new dossal.
Comfort is important in community worship spaces. I do not think that monastic asceticism in cold stony buildings is essential to holiness (having lived with the monks on Mount Athos I have some experience of the extremes).
The existing heating units along the exterior walls simply send the heat up the wall to the roof space, where fans have been installed to blow it back down.
This is hardly an example of thermal efficiency.
I recommend investigating the possibility of installing electric radiant floor heating. There are many systems, some in the form of mats, some in rolls. Some can be placed beneath hardwood, carpets, tiles, etc. and these can be plugged directly into existing power outlets. Rich Frantz and I spent some time in the basement area and concluded that, while a sub-floor hot water piped system would work in the unfinished area, an overall system would be decidedly uneconomical because it would mean opening up the ceiling in the existing remodeled spaces for daycare and classrooms.
Appendix B refers to in-floor radiant systems.
The existing carpet in the aisles and the altar area will have to be replaced sometime in the near future. It is possible that your investigation into radiant electric flooring may result in an economically feasible replacement of both the carpet and the existing “battleship” linoleum under the pews.
Indeed, if you adopt the phased pew replacement strategy that I recommend, you would need to consider the flooring as a whole.
Modern hardwood (5/16”) flooring could incorporate electric radiant heating and
also significantly improve the acoustics. At present the space lacks the reverberation and resonance for good choral music. A hardwood or vinyl or tile surface would enliven the space.
I would however recommend that you prioritize phases as follows:
- Altar area furnishings.
- Pew replacement and flooring/heating.
- Wall painting and insulation.
- Electric lighting replacement (locations for LEDs can be determined by arrangements of seating)
- Window replacement.
Patrick J. Quinn, FAIA, FAAR, FRSA 8
From: Leslie, Russ <email@example.com>
Date: Wed, Mar 11, 2015 at 12:43 PM
Subject: Your phone message
Three LRC alums come to mind. Carrie is the most experienced, running the Boston office of a large and successful firm. Insiya has about 10 years experience and started her own firm in Boston in 2013. Dorothy is a recent graduate with less experience, but her Master’s project, Re-lighting the Divine, included the lighting design for two local churches. She may have contacted you while she worked on this last year. I believe she is currently in the Albany area.
Insiya Divan firstname.lastname@example.org
Dorothy Underwood: email@example.com
Russell P. Leslie, AIA, FIES
Professor and Associate Director
Lighting Research Center
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY 12180
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