August 10, 2021

Iconic Architectural Styles at Sacred Places

The architectural style of a sacred place represents the people, the denomination, and the culture that resides within. From an Indigenous-designed iconostasis, to an innovative Pueblo Revival-style sanctuary, to the largest copper dome in the world, the following churches are emblematic of unique regional and denominational architectural styles across the country, and demonstrate the breadth of architectural wonders represented within and preserved through the National Fund for Sacred Places (National Fund).

First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

The exterior view of a church New Mexico is made of a sandy brown stucco in the Pueblo Revival-style of architecture. The front of the building is partially obscured by a tree branch, but  there is a central doorway with stairs leading to the entrance.

photo by: Judi Haines

Founded in 1867, the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe was the first Protestant church established in the New Mexico territory.

The exterior wall of a church in New Mexico is made of a sandy brown stucco in the Pueblo Revival-style of architecture.

photo by: Judi Haines

Thanks to a grant from the National Fund, the First Presbyterian Church was able to restore the Pueblo Revival-style stucco on the exterior of the historic building.

The First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe is the oldest continuing Protestant church established in the New Mexico territory, in 1867. The church, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017, originally stood within an adobe structure built in its founding year and was replaced in 1882 by a brick Victorian on the same site. In 1939, the congregation returned to its Southwestern architectural roots with the construction of the current Pueblo Revival-style downtown sanctuary designed by architect John Gaw Meem. A longtime Santa Fe resident, Meem was best known for his role in the creation and popularization of the Pueblo Revival Style, which was inspired by Southwestern materials, local folk and Indigenous art forms, and the Acoma Pueblo, a National Trust Historic Site.

In each architectural iteration of the church, artifacts from the old buildings were brought into the new, including a 10-foot wood and metal cross, exterior window grills, corbels, light fixtures, salvaged brick, and some old doors and hardware. Most of the woodworking labor in the historic Sanctuary building was performed by imprisoned, skilled Mexican woodcarvers who spent their days carving beams and corbels under police supervision.

The grant from the National Fund allowed First Presbyterian to repair and restore the stucco, wood vigas, doors, canales, window grilles, balconies, and the facade deck over the south entrance, as well as replace the HVAC, electrical, and fire protection systems, further ensuring the longevity of the historic structure, and enhancing First Presbyterian's ability to host concerts, weddings, and other community events.

Basilica of St. Josaphat (Milwaukee)

Exterior view of a cathedral with a central dome and columns.

photo by: Paul Sableman via Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

Exterior of the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee.

Interior of the main sanctuary in a cathedral with pews on either side of a central aisle beneath a soaring dome with ornate work. The image is black and white and was taken as part of HABS documentation.

photo by: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

From the Historic American Building Survey, this 1960s black and white image shows the interior of the Basilica of St. Josaphat.

Located in the Lincoln Village neighborhood in the South Side of Milwaukee, the Basilica of St. Josaphat is an icon of Polish American history. The Roman Catholic church was founded in 1866, but its original building burned down in 1889. In 1896, Rev. Wilhelm Grutza commissioned Erhard Brielmaier, a German-born Ohio architect, to build the church that still stands today. Modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Josaphat was built using salvaged material from the Chicago Federal Building and features original granite columns and ornamental features from the demolished building.

The Basilica of St. Josaphat is a true community fixture: Besides salvaging materials from demolished local structures, the parishioners performed much of the construction labor under the guidance of Brielmaier, building the church from the ground up. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Brielmaier and his sons designed and built over 1,000 churches, schools, and hospitals across the country, radically shaping the Polish Cathedral style that is now found across the Great Lakes region. In 1929, Pope Pius XI named St. Josaphat Church the third minor basilica in the United States, and today the church features one of the largest copper domes in the world.

With support from the National Fund, the Basilica of St. Josaphat will be able to renew a destination for inspiration by restoring the exterior facade, repairing wood windows, sealing stones, and soldering metal roof joints. These protective measures will allow the basilica to continue to serve the broader community through their volunteer-led weekly food pantry, elementary school programming, adult education, historic tours, and arts programs.

St. Mary & Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church (Nashua, New Hampshire)

A closer view of a church made of Vermont Blue Marble.

photo by: St. Mary & Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church

At 185 feet tall, the Vermont blue marble cathedral of St. Mary & Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church can be seen from miles away.

St. Mary & Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church was designed in 1896 and completed in 1898 by Boston-based architect Timothy G. O’Connell, who designed over 600 churches and civic buildings across New England. A crew of French Canadian immigrant millworkers built the church for their community using nickels and dimes they saved for years. The building held Catholic services as the St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church for more than a century, until the Catholic church closed its doors in 2003.

In January 2009, the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church of Boston purchased the vacant building and, in January 2009, opened the St. Mary & Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church. Located atop French Hill in downtown Nashua, the rich Vermont blue marble, basilica-styled cathedral, and copper domes can be seen from miles away. Standing 185 feet tall, St. Mary & Archangel Michael is the fifth largest structure in the state of New Hampshire.

Guidance and funding from the National Fund will allow St. Mary & Archangel Michael to replace and reconstruct masonry on the west elevation of the church, including the center, north, and south towers, ensuring the longevity of the grand structure. As a central fixture in the French Hill neighborhood and the site of ESL classes, visits and services to the elderly, medical clinics, new immigrant services, local cultural festivals, and Symphony NH concerts. St. Mary & Archangel Michael Church, as a newly preserved space, will serve as a hub for the broader Nashua community and act as an economic driver for redevelopment in the area.

The First Church in Oberlin United Church of Christ (Oberlin, Ohio)

Interior of a meetinghouse, the images shows a balcony with pews arranged in a curved design while other seating surrounds a stage with a covered piano and a table.

photo by: Peter Richards

With seating for nearly 2,000 people, the meetinghouse of the First Church was the largest auditorium west of the Allegheny Mountains at the time of its construction..

Founded in 1834, the First Church in Oberlin United Church of Christ is located adjacent to the Oberlin College and Conservatory campus in Oberlin, Ohio. The Oberlin community was founded in 1833 by individuals dedicated to educational and religious reform, and by 1835, the community expanded their commitment, making the community a haven for women and freed and escaped slaves.

Services were held in campus buildings, until the early 1840s, when the congregation rapidly outgrew its temporary home. The 1842 construction of the historic meetinghouse was a product of the United Church of Christ’s mission of benevolence, mission work, and social action: The people of the community of Oberlin and friends from around the world donated materials, finances, and labor to construct the permanent meetinghouse. In 1845, the community added a tower to the building, which now shines as a vibrant white beacon above the brick building.

When it was built the meetinghouse of the First Church was the largest auditorium west of the Allegheny Mountains, with seating for 1,800 people, and has been used for worship services, lectures, political meetings, concerts, and even Oberlin College’s graduation ceremonies.

The building is so large that at one point it housed local firefighting carts in the basement, further serving the community’s health and safety needs. Financial support from the National Fund allowed the First Church to undergo a comprehensive restoration and renovation of its meetinghouse, including the rehabilitation of the exterior brick, sandstone, windowsills, windows, and steps, as well as the refurbishment of electrical systems and the conversion of the front sidewalk to be compliant with federal Americans with Disabilities Act access guidelines

The preservation campaign allowed First Church to connect with the broader community around the historic significance of the meetinghouse, and the new features, notably the new accessible entrance, has allowed First Church to bring to life its commitment to enhancing the usability of the meetinghouse for the whole community, both inside and outside of the congregation.

Church of the Holy Ascension (Unalaska, Alaska)

Ornate interior of a church with Indigenous Aleut woodworking with design work traditionally seen in Russian Orthodox churches. The iconostasis has white and gold detailing with a series of red podiums to holding icons and other sacred objects.

photo by: ROSSIA

Carved by local Aleut builders, the iconostasis of the Chapel of St. Innocent combines elements of Indigenous Aleut woodworking mastery and traditional Russian Orthodox design.

Located in the western Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska, the Church of the Holy Ascension is one of the oldest churches in Alaska and one of the most prominent landmarks in the community of Unalaska. Russian missionary Father Ioann Veniaminov founded the church in 1824 and led the church with his wife and children for 15 years. After converting local Aleut people to Orthodoxy and training them in Russian building methods, Father Veniaminov guided the construction of the original church building in 1826. The building had to be replaced twice within two decades due to the harsh climate in southwestern Alaska.

Today’s church, built between 1894 and 1896, is a red-roofed, wood-frame cruciform structure, with a 52-foot-tall bell tower on its western side. Timbers from the original 1826 church were salvaged to build the foundation for the new church, as is customary in Russian Orthodox architecture. The cruciform structure contains a sanctuary, two side chapels, nave, narthex, and bell tower, as well as a cupola and green onion domes. Inside the church, the traditional iconostasis of the Chapel of St. Innocent demonstrates the technical skill and artistic mastery of the Aleut builders.

A close up photograph of a green dome of a church against a gray sky.

photo by: ROSSIA

Built between 1894 and 1896, the Church of the Holy Ascension is one of the oldest churches in the state.

The grant from National Fund will allow the Church of the Holy Ascension to implement a HI-FOG fire suppression system—a sprinkler system that uses high pressure, specialized sprinkler heads, and less water—to fight fires further ensuring the longevity and safety of the building and its artifacts for years to come. Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska (ROSSIA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox churches, is working with the National Fund to help the Church of the Holy Ascension continue to bridge Indigenous Alaskan and Russian Orthodox worlds, holding space for weddings, funerals, guided tours, bake sales highlighting Indigenous foods, and a community potluck called Feast Day of the Church of St. Innocent.

Launched in 2016, the National Fund for Sacred Places has so far supported the preservation of 67 historic houses of worship representing 19 different religious denominations. Funded by $20 million from the Indiana-based Lilly Endowment, the National Fund for Sacred Places is a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Grants from the National Fund have supported capital repair projects at community-serving congregations nationwide. These sacred places are in nearly every corner of the country, span a wide variety of faith traditions, and consist of myriad architectural styles. The National Fund for Sacred Places not only provides technical and financial support for congregations, but also helps protect unique and architecturally complex structures to preserve historic community centers for posterity.

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Image of Morgan Vickers with some trees behind them.

Morgan P. Vickers is a writer, historian, and graduate student based in Oakland, California. They are passionate about spatial histories, underrepresented narratives, and questions of belonging.

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