Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is St. Mark's the Most Beautiful Church in Town?

Generally we worship at the pub and bar counter. We have an altar and celebrant, libations too.

But what about actual churches? What is the most beautiful church in Salem?

We propose St. Mark's Lutheran on the corner of Marion and Winter. Its Belluschi+Wright blend of modernism and prairie school strike us as the most lovely church building in town. Its rhythm, proportion, and harmony are a most pleasant balance of old and new, of jaunty and peaceful. The brick is warm without being at all severe, the windows and massing shape the space in lively ways, and the gothicky bas-relief of Jesus stresses the Good Shepherd and not the Crucifix. And it still has energy, refusing to be tired or dowdy or dated, from which some mid-century design now suffers. Indeed, it has just past the 50 year threshold for listing on the National Register, and we wonder if it might meet the other criteria for significance.

The congregation is almost 100 years old. In 1957 construction started on a new building and in 1958 it was dedicated. Harold E. Wagoner of Philadelphia designed it.

According to the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings database:
Harold E. Wagoner was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and received most of his architectural education at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (B. Arch. 1926), with a return to architectural education in 1933 when he enrolled at the American Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Fountainebleau, France. Immediately after graduation from Carnegie he was employed by the Methodist Bureau of Architecture (1926-1933; Sundt & Wenner), and this experience inclined his mature career toward ecclesiastical design, an area in which he became a specialist. Writing in 1983, Wagoner declared: "My firm is one of the few, perhaps the only one in the U.S. which has devoted all its efforts to Religious Architecture. We have had commissions in 36 states. . . . We have designed over 500 religious buildings."

During the years in Philadelphia working for the Bureau Wagoner was associated with the office of Thomas & Martin (1936-40), followed by a stint of work with Wenner & Chance. His connection to Walter Thomas would be cemented in the 1940s when Wagoner became Thomas's partner in Thomas & Wagoner (1944-1948), after serving as Chief of the Camouflage Unit, U.S. Army Engineers during World War II (1942-1944). In 1948, however, he organized his own independent office and continued in operation well into the 1980s. During this period, he was also associated with William C. Chance. Wagoner's office was succeeded by Henry Jung.

Prominent in the field of Protestant church design, Wagoner contributed a number of articles to Faith & Form. He also received several awards, including in 1958 an Award of Merit from Carnegie Institute of Technology. Within the awards granted by the Church Architecture Guild of America, Wagoner dominated in the 1950s and 1960s.

Wagoner was also active in the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, serving on the board of directors from 1959 to 1961 and as vice-president from 1961-1962. He gained Emeritus status with the AIA in 1976. He also served as Chairman of the Commission on Architecture, Lutheran Society of Music, Worship and the Arts and President of the Church Architectural Guild of America.
Though this doesn't list it, in 1968 he also became a Fellow of the AIA. His AIA membership file contains a long list of publications, addresses, and church designs. Clearly he was a big deal in church architecture. The google suggests he worked in a broad range of styles, from neo-Gothic to modernist, and it seems he took special pride in designing from and following each congregation's sensibility and theology rather than imposing his own style.

So that's our candidate. What's your choice for the most beautiful church in Salem?


  1. I'm fond of the Woodland Chapel myself. But that might be all setting and size. You might have to separate this one into categories. Best modern, best traditional, best tiny church, best interior space. And to crown a single one among them as the most beautiful? Not sure that is possible.

  2. Here's a photo from the 1890 flood taken from just about where the Chapel is located today!

    Yes, we crown one! And so should you!

  3. As far as exteriors go, I'm rather fond of the landmark First United Methodist, of course, but for mid-century churches I think St. Mark's may be the winner. I need to take up my "mystery worshipper" project to sample more church interiors. It's not a church, but the interior of Cone Chapel at Willamette University is charming.

  4. Cone! We forget about Cone. A fine choice, as of course is First Methodist, though it's one of the "usual suspects," and perhaps needs no more new attention.

    Others? Any suburban churches in wacky locations that are nonetheless stunning? Any hitherto unknown Salem Belluschis out there?

  5. Never been inside, but I love the exterior of First Congregational, United Church of Christ on the corner of Cottage and Marion.

  6. If only it were still around...

  7. Lost wood churches! Back to Emily's point, that would indeed make a good stand-alone note, and is a group more capacious than most of us would probably like to think about.

    Our own favorite might be the Christian Science church at Liberty and Chemeketa, where the mall entry is, across from the Belluschi bank and Capital Journal site. That corner is so bland and even a little lifeless today, especially compared to Court and Liberty, one block down.

    The remaining wood churches aren't very grand, architecturally speaking, but they certainly deserve more love and attention than they generally get. Virginia Green's captioned a lot of them:
    Highland Friends
    Immanuel Baptist on Hazel
    Nazarene/Quaker on 19th
    West Salem Methodist
    Spring Valley - of course!
    Lutheran/Church of God on State
    and that church on the corner of 16th and A streets - for which we couldn't quickly find an image or link
    Jason Lee is a fine stone church that deserves more love

  8. Man, CT, you show me every post how little I know about this city and how much more I have to see. But what aesthetic criteria are you using on these? Some might find the exalting cathedrals the most beautiful, others the intimate spaces, is the beauty in what it is or what it does?

  9. Thank you for the kind words!

    As for aesthetics...whoo-boy! Anything we write directly on that would almost certainly be soporific and tedious - and we already fear we are often long-winded!

    However...what's the difference between Fallingwater and the Gordon House? Or how about this one! Here's two buildings designed and constructed at almost exactly the same time: The abbey library at Mt. Angel and the Salem Library and Civic Center.

    It may not be possible with a straight face to say that Salem is full of really excellent things, but surely we can say that there are many interesting things, often in unexpected places!

    We are most interested in churches as things, things to behold and things that give us delight. Things of some degree of beauty. We are less interested ourselves in functions or actions or feelings a church might inspire and so we "bracket" their spiritual ends. There's a continuum, of course, as a beautiful thing creates an undeniable set of feelings. But we are interested in the "thingy" side of objects.

    So if you don't already have something invested in a building or institution associated with it, what qualities does it have to create and sustain interest? (Obviously, there are lots of other good ways to frame the question and answer.)