Universalist church building demolition watch

This time, Peoria, Illinois. Sure, the congregation sold it, but it seems noteworthy because this was once one of the largest Universalist churches in the country.

The 94-year-old Universalist Unitarian Church in Peoria, which was sold to Methodist Medical Center last October and could be demolished, has been put on a list of the top 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois, officials announced Wednesday.

Peoria Journal Star, 15 March 2005



Call me silly but I have a fascination with mixed-use (or interfaith) religious architecture with a particular period (post-WWII it seems) feature: turntable altars.

This interest was fostered by its odd, gee-wizz, and even its kitch character, but the original inquiry came out of some thought around the appropriate interworking of worship in governmental settings, like military, aviation, or educational settings. Most of the turntable altars are and were found in military chapels. If you have one chapel, out of necessity it must serve the whole religious program. Here comes technology to the rescue.

Imagine a triangular tower that pivots on its vertical axis where each of the three sides are set for Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish worship. Pivot, and voila the building changes function. Simple chancel furnishings complete the scene.

No great thoughts here — just a couple of pictures. Of course, the best pictures are “in-between” shots. (Coming from US government sites, I’m assuming they’re public domain.)

National Institutes of Health chapel Naval hospital chapel, St. Albans, New York

And a remote link:

in the United States Merchant Marine Academy chapel

Universalist church for sale!

The buzz today: on eBay is a former Universalist church building, in New York.

Sold for scrap.

I don’t feel bad — it hasn’t been a Universalist church since 1922 — but I wouldn’t say no to an architectural feature. After all, it was built in 1818.

Go thou and bid

Facilities rules

I made reference to some “rules of thumb” for space needs. I wanted to offer some resources speaking to that.

I have a working rule. “If you need some specific, nondenominational, technical information about church life, look to the Armed Forces.” Somehow, they usually have an answer, even if no denomination does. (Online, or for free, anyway.) Thus, see

  • “Flexible design makes effective classrooms”
  • The ABC’s of school furniture (Archive link.) Though speaking to the needs of a church-based school, it is a sobering breakdown of the cost of furnishings and space needs.
  • Also, it is worth noting that children and youth, in their educational setting, need much more space per capita than adults.

    Background on space: The post-reformation English chancel

    What do Quaker pews and Elizabethan chancels have in common? Certainly not that big altar-table, but there’s something about “church in the square” that makes me thing that these two English-born communions have in common.

    But first, go and look at two pictures, and come back.

    1. Deerhurst Parish chancel (not set up for communion)
    2. Hailes Parish chancel (set up for communion, but lacking linen and communion ware

    Both and more are at the Ecclesiological Society’s website feature, Communion arrangements in the century after the Reformation, 1560-1640

    The object lesson from the Episcopal church these days is that the Puritans were bad, bad, bad for destroying those graven images, and the Oxford fathers were good, good, good for re-establishing catholic standards and practices in the Church of England. Now that it is harder and harder to find low-church Morning Prayer Episcopalianism, the conversion is about complete. But is there something to recover from those now-lost days?

    What the Oxfordites did was reconfigure the churches in the Victorian era to eradicate architectural evidence of how churches were used in earlier ages. Indeed, church buildings adapt to the needs of the day. A medieval English church would have had almost perfectly distinct chancels – the realm of the clergy, making the Mass in the virtual privacy – with the nave reserved for the laity to observe the Mass and their private devotions. Grandma Ermengard, in the thirteenth century, might have gone to St. Ninian’s, said the rosary, and when the chancel bell rang, would have looked up to see the elevation of the Host, crossed herself and gone back to her prayers. That’s a rather overstated simplification, but the point holds. (Please put your corrections, amendments, brickbats, etc. in the comments.)

    The reformers (and this really is a crass oversimplification) opened out the churches, made preaching and singing (and paying attention) central, and at the height of Puritan power maximized the pulput and minimized the table and baptistry to near-vestiges. But I’m interested in the Elizabethan church. Typically, it moderated between the two extremes. The off-limits chancel was opened, “salon-style,” but not universally. (But then again, you can measure a church by what it does, and so there’s something distinct about the church-in-communion. Read that in both senses.) It was the place for those who communicated: the clergy and laity who came to meet their Lord at the table. To this end, the table (the old stone altars have been smashed) was against the east/back wall when not in use (Deerhurst Parish photo) and brought out when in use (Hailes Parish photo). The Hailes parish chancel appears to be in the place of what we would consider a chapel (indeed, I wonder if it was a chantry chapel before the Reformation) but in a “typical church” it would be “up front” like churches with chancels today. Just partitioned off.

    I imagine if you went outside the door, you would find the reading desk and pulpit facing the nave.

    Now imagine a substantial, single-tier but movable reading desk/pulpit flipped back inside the chancel. And make the wall behind this reading desk a pair of large doors. Behind the doors put a multipurpose room twice the size of the chancel. Now I think you can see the direction I’m going.

    A “chancel” seating thirty-five or so, with communion centered worship would hold services there most of the time, but for larger celebrations – Christmas, Easter, conferences – the doors could be opened, the reading desk turned around, and more space used. Most of the time, it could be safely rented or used for other, secular purposes.

    Further space considerations

    To piggyback on Derek’s comments:

    I think space concerns are important for a new church for two reasons. The lessor one is that the aesthetics set a tone that visitors pick up on. Dirty floors, stained (cracked vinyl flannel-back especially) tablecloths, and a selection of faded silk flowers say something about how the church regards itself, and thus any new members.

    But there are bigger theological fish, too. Space tells us what – and who – are important.

    I don’t get long-nave buildings for churches with a dominant preaching tradition (I’m thinking of a couple of monied Presbyterian churches) especially since they are almost always anachronistic. First Unitarian Church, Dallas, as an example, is very well set up for a “preaching service” (and would be a complete nightmare for a service of Communion, however distributed) and so the building fits its liturgy.

    Also, yes, I think the clergy are important for a church, but there’s no excuse for having the architecture say (from the clergy) “I’m better than you are.” If there wasn’t a heritage of Thomas Potter and his chapel’s “square Quaker pew” we would have to invent one. I have some ideas (please comment on them) about what an idea first space might be for a small egalitarian Christian church. Perhaps it would be a useful way to recondition spaces that are too large for a current congregation, too. In the meantime, I’ll assemble a set of links for images that might get some of my points across.