A Postcard Tour of Historic Houses of Worship
Since their inception in the mid-to-late 19th century, postcards have become a thoughtful way of communicating with loved ones. From cheerful holiday greetings to wartime images, the subjects depicted on historical and contemporary postcards have been varied, catering to diverse publics. Notably, due to the trend of sending postcards while travelling, prominent historic buildings and landscapes in major cities and small towns remained one of the most common postcard subjects. As some of the most identifiable buildings at the center of the town or community, houses of worship are especially well represented within historical postcards.
The vast quantity of postcards depicting historic houses of worship is best evidenced through the James R. Tanis Collection of Church Postcards, held in Special Collections and Archives at Princeton Theological Seminary, and digitally accessible via Theological Commons, and the Internet Archive. The collection of more than 20,000 postcards, donated by minister, professor, and librarian James R. Tanis, was started by his father in the early 1900s, and illuminates a range of church architecture in the United States from monumental cathedrals to one-room meeting houses. These postcards often showcase early depictions of historic houses of worship which were not documented or have not survived through traditional photographs.
About half of the participating congregations in the National Fund for Sacred Places are represented in the Tanis Collection. The National Fund for Sacred Places is a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation that offers financial support and technical assistance to community-serving historic houses of worship undertaking major capital work. Below is a postcard tour, arranged in rough chronological order of postcards sourced from the Tanis Collection, highlighting the history and significance of select congregations in the National Fund for Sacred Places.
Second Presbyterian Church (Chicago, Illinois)
This postcard, dating between 1907 and 1911, depicts Second Presbyterian Church, completed in 1874 in a Gothic Revival design by celebrated architect James Renwick Jr. The congregation, founded in 1842, is now one of the oldest in Chicago. This postcard highlights the church’s appearance before the loss of the spire above the tower’s parapet. Although not depicted in the Tanis Collection, the building is noted for its Arts and Crafts interior designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1900. Upgrades to the church’s mechanical systems, supported by the National Fund for Sacred Places, will help preserve both the exterior and the interior of this National Historic Landmark.
St. Vincent de Paul Church (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Printed in Germany shortly before World War I, this postcard is one of the only interiors of a National Fund for Sacred Places congregation in the Tanis Collection. St. Vincent de Paul Church was the first—and is now the only surviving—Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. The Italianate-style church, designed by Joseph D. Keocker in 1857, is known for its elaborate Renaissance-style murals, stained-glass windows, and a carved marble shrine, all seen in this postcard. Rehabilitation work funded by a National Fund for Sacred Places grant helped to address water infiltration-related damage to ensure that this interior remains intact and in good repair for the community.
First Congregational Church of Detroit (Detroit, Michigan)
Postmarked in 1911, this postcard showcases the ornate Romanesque and Byzantine Revival-style building designed by John Faxon in 1891 for First Congregational Church of Detroit, a congregation founded by abolitionists in 1844. A description printed on the back of the postcard describes First Congregational as “one of the largest and most substantial organizations of Michigan Protestants.” The bell tower, a character-defining feature of the church, became structurally unstable following the collapse of a supporting column in 2017, but repairs funded through the National Fund for Sacred Places are helping stabilize this tower.
First Congregational Church of Long Beach (Long Beach, California)
This postcard, circa 1915 to 1925, is likely one of the earliest depictions of First Congregational Church of Long Beach. Designed in 1914 by H.M. Patterson, this Romanesque Revival-style church is defined by the contrasting materials of red brick and stone, a trait which this postcard further emphasizes. The stained-glass windows subtly detailed in the postcard are considered the last to come out of Germany prior to World War I. One of the rose windows and the east facade masonry were repaired with support from the National Fund for Sacred Places.
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
Postmarked in 1925, this postcard depicts the Prairie-style St. Paul’s United Methodist Church approximately ten years after its construction. The congregation, established in log cabins in 1856, originally commissioned notable architect Louis Sullivan to design a “modern church for a seven-day program” but later hired W.C. Jones due to budget restrictions. The distinct exterior differs little from Sullivan’s original design, but the interior was substantially redesigned. Grant support from the National Fund for Sacred Places allowed the congregation to replace the HVAC systems in the sanctuary and 1963 education wing.
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church (Indianapolis, Indiana)
Printed by Curt Teich & Company, once the largest printer of postcards, this 1930 postcard depicts an early view of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church one year after its construction. Chicago architect Henry J. Schlacks designed this Romanesque Revival-style church, currently undergoing a National Fund-supported, multi-year restoration, for a congregation founded by worshippers of German and Irish descent. The description on the back of this postcard also provides a snapshot of Indianapolis’ greater Christian landscape in the 1930s, stating, “There are over 400 churches in the city of Indianapolis representing all denominations and nationalities.”
United Baptist Church of Poultney (Poultney, Vermont)
This hand-colored postcard circa the 1940s shows a picturesque view of United Baptist Church of Poultney, a Federal-style church designed by builder Elisha Scott in 1805 and constructed out of local materials. The church, which also served as a school and meeting house for freeman’s groups, was inspired by an illustration from Asher Benjamin’s “A Country Builder’s Assistant,” with a monumental entrance pavilion and attached Christopher Wren-style steeple. The National Fund for Sacred Places supported the restoration and weatherproofing of the church, which has stood prominently on the village green for over two centuries.
San Xavier del Bac Mission (Tucson, Arizona)
Postmarked in 1947, this postcard includes a message from a visitor to San Xavier del Bac Mission describing the church as “beautiful.” Founded in 1692 by Spanish missionaries at the invitation of the Tohono O’odham people, San Xavier still ministers to the population it was built to serve, including contemporary members of the Tohono O’odham nation. The mission’s Roman-inspired building, considered the oldest European-designed building in Arizona, was completed in 1783 under the supervision of master builder Ignacio Gaona. With support from a National Fund for Sacred Places grant, San Xavier recently completed the restoration of the east tower, seen on the right side of the postcard.
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