Architecture: Religious

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Architecture: Religious

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the predominant strain of religious building in the English colonies that became the new American Republic was neoclassical. By the 1720s, the classicism practiced by the great British designers Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) and Sir James Gibbs (1682–1754) had been adopted in various provincial modifications across the Atlantic seaboard. In the Anglican colonies of the South, churches were usually executed in brick and located at nodes of rural transportation. Neoclassicism rapidly displaced the Puritan meetinghouse style in New England and can still be seen on town greens there, with main entrances on the short end in "churchly" fashion and often featuring a pillared Gibbsian portico. By the Revolutionary period it had even been adopted by the sectarian Baptists in their Providence, Rhode Island, meetinghouse, and by the early nineteenth century could be found in New England outposts such as Tallmadge, Ohio. Elaborate versions in what by then was known as the Federal style, such as Center and United Churches on the New Haven, Connecticut, green, represented a display of refined urban taste;

the continuing presence of the two side-by-side is a mute witness to the sundering of Congregational fellowship during the Great Awakening revivals, which persisted materially even after theological differences had been settled.

At the same time, other versions of classicism with republican ideological associations began to crowd out the older, English-flavored style. The first Roman Catholic cathedral, built in Baltimore from 1805 to 1818 under Bishop John Carroll's (1735–1815) supervision, represented a conscious choice of the Roman revival mode, with distinctive dome, over the Gothic alternative also offered by architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764–1820). By the 1820s the Greek Revival had emerged as the definitive American religious as well as civic style. Examples can be found across denominational and sectional lines and even among different faiths, as can be seen in the Sweden-borgian Church in Bath, Maine (1843); Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina (1841); the First Congregational Church in Madison, Connecticut (1838); and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in Cincinnati, Ohio (1845). It is noteworthy that both Jews and Catholics tended during these decades to adopt the styles of the dominant culture for their houses of worship. An early Jewish example is the Touro Synagogue (1763) in Newport, Rhode Island, which was designed by Peter Harrison, often characterized as the first professional architect in the British colonies, and which resembles the home of a prosperous merchant more than a religious structure.

Although classicism was favored by those denominations wanting to identify with the civic and cultural mainstream, dissenting groups often ignored or were oblivious to this tradition. Both Quakers and Shakers, for example, adhered to the same "plain style" that had characterized early Puritan New England meetinghouses, as did German sectarians whose structures often featured distinctively ethnic touches. Popular denominations worshipped wherever they could, though many, such as the Methodists, eventually adopted the styles of the times. Also, beginning with the Great Awakening of the 1740s, many evangelical services were held either out-of-doors or in temporary structures erected as preaching halls. A variant which emerged from this tradition was that of the camp meeting, a several-day event in which large numbers gathered for protracted preaching sessions. The Cane Ridge revival of 1801 in Kentucky was a major prototype of this tradition, which before long became routinized, with permanent facilities for its conduct.

Other styles were utilized by religious communities that drew on different sectors of the European past. Alongside the two neoclassical Congregational churches on the New Haven green lies Trinity Episcopal Church, also built during the second decade of the nineteenth century. Unlike its neighbors, Trinity is designed in an early American version of the Gothic mode, which at this time consisted primarily of some medieval features such as pointed arch windows superimposed on the same sort of rectangular frame as in most neoclassical churches. A similar but more distinctive adaptation of Gothic exists in the first Mormon temple, built in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, fitted internally for the distinctive Latter-day Saints rituals then in the process of formation. By the 1840s a more archaeologically correct Gothic style would emerge in Richard Upjohn's (1802–1878) urban Episcopal churches. Upjohn's simplified wooden "Carpenter Gothic" was adopted widely by a broad range of denominations.

In the outlying lands that would be incorporated into the United States by war or purchase, St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, the result of several building campaigns, illustrates in its eclectic style the influence of French, Spanish, and American tastes. Its prominent place in the Place d'Armes (Jackson Square) and the adjacent Cabildo (governmental offices) and Presbytère (quarters for clergy) indicate the close alliance of church and state under both French and Spanish regimes. The Spanish missions in California built in the late eighteenth century by the Franciscans Junípero Serra (1713–1784) and Fermin Lasuen (1736–1803) are much smaller in scale, but similarly reflect the cultural mélange of Spanish baroque style with Muslim influences built by indigenous laborers under clerical direction.

See alsoArchitectural Styles; Revivals and Revivalism .


Buggeln, Gretchen Townsend. Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut's Churches, 1790–1840. Hanover, Conn.: University Press of New England, 2003.

Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Peter W. Williams