A New Chapel for Shadyside Church?

Two renderings  in the Carnegie Mellon Architecture Archives, attributed to Pittsburgh architect James T. Steen,  raise more questions than they settle about Shadyside Church.  Even the date of their production is uncertain (between 1914 and the mid 1930s – likely the late 20s).  One drawing is clearly a proposed modification (unexecuted) to the 1890 sanctuary of the church.  The other is labeled “Chapel for Shadyside Presbyterian Church.”  The pencil and watercolor rendering depicts a much more ambitious design than any of the versions actually realized at the chapel.  A pencil sketch on the reverse of the rendering adds to the mystery.

Rendering labeled as above.  Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives

Depicted is a Romanesque worship space, long and narrow, with a chancel inset in the front wall.  An exposed wooden gable roof is supported on a series of ornate hammer beams, resting on piers at the side walls.  Ample round-arch windows pierce the walls, with smaller clerestory windows paired above each.

What may be a rose window hovers on a colorful chancel wall above what appears to be a wooden reredos. The rose, clerestory and the arches of the main windows are stained glass.  The lower portion of the windows seems to be depicted as square panes of clear glass.   A substantial pulpit with a sounding board is on the congregation’s right.  To the left is a lower wooden structure, which might be a communion table with an adjacent baptismal font.  (A reredos would be unusual for a church in the Reformed tradition, but an elaborate one was erected in the new Ralph Adams Cram East Liberty Presbyterian Church in the early 1930s.)

Chapel Exterior – Shadyside Presbyterian Church

As built in 1892 (Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge), the chapel’s ground floor was used as both a small worship space and a Sunday School.  Movable glass panels accommodated this flexibility.  A library at this level is also mentioned in the architect’s proposal.  That document also describes the lower floor as accommodating a large room for social gatherings, a kitchen as well as lavatories and retiring rooms.

Church records (below) show that major modifications to the church had been under consideration as early as 1930.  In 1937-38, the sanctuary was completely redesigned and an office wing connected the main church and existing chapel at the north end of the buildings.  The Steen chapel rendering is configured such that it could not be contained within the height of the original chapel structure (completed in 1892).  This implies that the original chapel would have to be razed or the new chapel located elsewhere.  A report to the congregation calls for “a new Church School plant, together with a Church Chapel and the alteration of the Church auditorium.”  Was the word “new” intended to describe “Church Chapel” as well as “School?”

Excerpt from 1930 report to congregation

The pencil sketch on the reverse of the Steen perspective shows plan and sectional elevation views of a church with side aisles.  It seems to place a worship space in the original chapel location at the end of the cloister connecting to the main sanctuary building.  This existing cloister was built to include a pass-through as a porte-cochere and the Steen sketch does not seem to modify this.  The sketch could be interpreted as consistent with the rendering.  The sketch’s side aisles could be outside the main windows of the rendering.  This would devote a lot of space for ambulatories.

Pencil Sketches on reverse of Steen Rendering of Chapel for Shadyside Presbyterian Church (plan on left, elevation on right)

Assuming the plan shows a building approximately fifty feet wide (the existing chapel size), the worship space would be about thirty feet wide.  The rendering shows some human figures near the front of the chancel.  Using these for scale, the width shown on the rendering also seems to be thirty feet, implying ten foot aisles on each side.  Continuing on the basis of these proportions, the chapel worship space shown on the sketch is roughly forty-five feet long.  So Steen’s proposed 30′ x 45′ worship space is roughly the same size as the chapel actually built in 1952:  27′ x 44′  (Hoffman & Crumpton, architects, successors to Pittsburgh’s famed Benno Janssen).

Still puzzling would be the space devoted to side aisles if they are strictly ambulatories. In many worship spaces, the side aisles are used for seating.  The rendering, however depicts windows (or at least grill work) between the worship space and aisles.  Also to be noted, pencil lines extend downward on the sketch, parallel to the chapel long walls.  This might indicate the “new Church School plant” of the report and would place such a structure near where the 1952 Parish Hall is today.

Comparison of Steen plan sketch appearing to place the new chapel in location of existing one. (Shown at same approximate scale.)

Comparison of elevations demonstrating need for complete restructuring for the Steen chapel.  (Shown at same approximate scale.)

Although the design shown on Steen’s rendering was not built, there is a remarkable resemblance to it in the chapel worship space of 1952.  The round arched chancel inset into a stone wall and hammer beams are two notable similarities.  The clergy seats at the center of the chapel even correspond to the reredos in the Steen depiction.  Clearly, Steen’s chapel was much taller and placed a rose window (or possbly stenciled ornament) where the 1952 worship space has a Cross.  Whether Steen’s chapel design was available to designers in the early 1950s is not known.  Their solution provided a very similar worship space within confines of the existing chapel building.  By locating a room to the west side of the 1952 chapel, the space for the two side aisles were combined to be more useful as a parlor.  This only sacrificed some height in the worship space.

Detail of Steen rendering and 1960s view of 1952 chapel.

2009 views by Ellen Allston show chancel and entrance of chapel

Photos taken by Ellen Allston, longtime Shadyside member and Director of Christian Education, show the 1952 chapel just before the start of the church’s Building Community construction project.  They show warmer colors on the painted surfaces and tile in place of carpeting.  Changes had also been made to remove some furniture and make room for a new digital organ in the chancel.

Chancel of chapel 2010

The 2010 changes to the chapel (Celli-Flynn Brennan, architects) are dramatic, yet retain the intimate, worshipful ambience.  Fixed pews are replaced by high quality movable seating.  Deep, rich colors in the chancel go a step beyond Steen’s subtle color (which was perhaps meant to be stenciling). Such colors may have been used in the original 1890 main sanctuary, which did include stenciled ornament. This new chancel treatment will likely arrest attention in the way the mosaic does in the main sanctuary. The wall and ceiling colors have been further warmed and enlivened by stenciling.  The color of the woodwork in the chapel has been made uniform and consistent with the parlor and atrium.

Chapel ceiling 2010

Mysteries still surround the two  Steen renderings in the CMU archives.  However the architect would be at least bemused that so many of the features he suggested were eventually adopted in Shadyside Church’s chapel in the following century.  The composite below shows remarkable similarities.

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The Cross at Shadyside

The Cross is the most widely recognized symbol of Christianity. And, while the Gospels and the Epistles speak of its overarching significance to the earliest believers, the Cross was not always openly displayed.  By the third century, Christians made the sign of the Cross on their foreheads.  However, as a physical artifact, the Cross was disguised during the first centuries after Christ, when persecution was widespread.  The open use of various forms of Christian Crosses at Shadyside Church was not a practice of the Early Church until the late fourth century.

The cross shape was sometimes hidden within other symbols, such as the mast of a ship or an anchor. The anchor is one of the carved medallions on the front façade of Shadyside’s Parish Hall.  As such, it recalls two aspects of Christ.  In addition to his atoning sacrifice through crucifixion, we find in Hebrews 6:19-20, “… this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf…”

Not far from the anchor is a medallion with two symbolic references. In the Cross Etoile or Star Cross, we are reminded of the heavenly guide for the Magi after the birth of Jesus as well as the instrument of his death.

Two other medallions incorporate small crosses within their symbols.  The symbol for Peter is crossed keys, referring to the authority of the church given by Christ through the Disciple.  Within the bit of each key, we see the Latin Cross.  More subtle, are crosses on the loaves in the medallion that recalls the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus.

Before departing the Parish Hall, we note a Cross related to the Scots-Irish Presbyterianism of Western Pennsylvania. The form of the Celtic Cross predates its Christian symbolic use. There are numerous ancient examples, some associated with pagan religious practice. No definitive explanation is available for the Christian adoption of a superimposition of circle and cruciform. One particularly romantic story claims that the circle was used among pagans to identify a person to be sacrificed. The person on whom the circle focused the sun’s rays was to die. The placement of the Cross over the circle blocks the rays and signifies that Christ has become the sacrifice for everyone.

Two more Crosses are found outside at Shadyside. At the peak of all four main gables, an equal-armed Greek Cross is found, mounted within a circle. The use of a Greek Cross may allude to the Byzantine influence on Romanesque architecture and its various revivals. Below this example on the front façade is a Latin Cross covered with foliate carving. The graceful tapering at the ends of the Cross members is a variation on this most common Christian symbol in the Western Church.

As a result of post-Reformation iconoclasm and mistrust of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches often rejected the display of Crosses in worship. This suspicion of explicit symbolism began to diminish in the mid-1800s, but was still somewhat common through the first half of the twentieth century.

In Shadyside’s chancel and nave, only the gold Cross on the communion table is found. It was added only after the 1938 remodeling of the sanctuary. Apparently, some skepticism remained and the compromise acceptance required a simple Cross. Shortly after its addition, however, the bright red backing was added to make the Cross more prominent.

When this feature was published in the predecessor website, I forgot about the Cross in the chapel chancel.  It was carried over from the 1950s chapel as it existed before the 2010 remodeling.  And so, we find only two Crosses within the building, and those of relatively recent origin. Of the eight outside, five were part of the original 1890 structure. The remaining three are a part of the Parish Hall, erected in 1953.


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I Wish I Could Have Seen It

Shadyside Sanctuary 1890 facing east

A new friend, after seeing my book Evidence of Things Not Seen about the church’s architecture and Christian symbolism, remarked, “I wish I had been able to see Shadyside Church’s sanctuary before the 1938 remodeling.”  I share his sentiment which spurred me to new thinking and visualization of how it must have looked and felt. (Book available from church office (412) 682-4300).

Shadyside sanctuary 1890 facing west

I realize that my imagination has been limited by the fact that we do not have color photos of the worship space from its first half-century. I usually picture the pre-1938 sanctuary in black and white!  We do, however, have some clues to its appearance.  The architects, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, described their proposed interior as designed “…to create a harmonious whole with encaustic color, which gives a soft and pleasing tone.”  Encaustic is a painting technique in which pigment is mixed into wax and heated after application.  Geometric pattern stenciling enlivened the plastered walls.

What colors constitute a soft and pleasing tone? We may look to Boston’s Trinity Church, the conception of Henry Hobson Richardson, mentor to Shadyside’s architects.  While the plan and massing of Shadyside derived from Trinity, it seems unlikely that the Pittsburgh Presbyterians wanted the vivid hues of the Boston church’s interior.  Richardson himself characterized Trinity as “a color church.”

Trinity Church, Boston – photo credit Ben Miller

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A near-contemporary of Shadyside, Detroit’s First Presbyterian Church was built on the same central tower-auditorium model. That building, now part of Ecumenical Theological Seminary, has preserved its original interior.  It points to what may well have been Shadyside’s ambiance.

First Presbyterian Church, Detroit – photo courtesy Ecumenical Theological Seminary

Other than the wall treatment, Shadyside had two pre-1938 interiors. In 1890, a somewhat spare preaching platform incorporated the Hook & Hastings organ from the 1873 building (see photo, top).  A modest “preaching lectern” held the sermon notes or text.  Some commenters point out that this typical 19th century Protestant arrangement allowed the preacher to move about the platform as he spoke.  Concern grew that attention might be drawn to the preacher rather than to the proclamation of the Word.

Shadyside sanctuary 1904 – photo courtesy Organ Historical Society

Whether or not Shadyside’s congregation felt that concern, a major remodeling of the platform accompanied the installation of a new W. W. Kimball Company organ in 1904. An ample preaching desk anchored the platform and may have encouraged a preacher to “stay put” during the sermon.

Shadyside Chapel

Today, Shadysiders may get a direct impression of the color environment inside the original worship space. During renovations and additions implemented with the “Building Community” campaign, the congregation undertook a thorough remodeling of the 1950’s Chapel.  For this space, a careful study yielded a color and stencil scheme believed to reflect those in the church’s 1890 sanctuary.  Some question must remain (unless documentation turns up) on the exact decorative plan in Pittsburgh’s smoky air, for a building equipped to accommodate both gas and electrical lighting.

Shadyside Chapel ceiling

Chancel – Shadyside Chapel – note communion table

Inside the 2010 version of Shadyside’s Chapel, one finds another echo of the pre-1938 main sanctuary. A small communion table stands in the chancel.  Careful examination reveals it to have been constructed from the 1904 preaching desk.

1904 Preaching desk later refashioned into communion table – see photo above
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Roof Over Our Heads

The buildings of Shadyside Presbyterian Church represent a wide variety of shapes, sizes and proportions. Each was designed to suit the intended (and foreseen) purposes of the spaces enclosed. Richardsonian Romanesque style readily accommodates functional design with volumes and masses in picturesque compositions. This leads to an equally varied collection of roof types, matching the functions of a roof to the building plan.       These functions include shelter from the elements (rain, snow, sun, wind and temperature extremes), disposal of rain and snow melt, ventilation, admission of light and structural soundness.

Shed Roof Form

Shed Roof on Colonnade at South Porch

Among the simplest roof shapes is a sloped, flat plane known as a shed roof.     Obvious examples of a shed roof are the colonnaded extensions to the church’s two “porches” (the sanctuary’s Westminster entrance and the Craig Room ). These are relatively small roofs, but receive and channel runoff from a number of nearby roofs.

Gable Roof Form

Entrance Gable

The gable is perhaps the most familiar roof shape and, at Shadyside, covers the transepts, the main entrance and the chancel of the sanctuary. Since it is undesirable to direct runoff toward the building or over an entrance, the two sloping sides and flat front are appropriate.

Hip Roof Form

Chapel Hip Roof with Modifications

Next in the development of shapes is the hip roof. It can be thought of as a gable roof in which the vertical triangular wall ends are “tilted back” to form two additional roof planes. While the hip roof has structural and aesthetic advantages, it is useful in limiting the water runoff volume sent in any single direction.

Shadyside Church Chapel

Shadyside’s chapel is covered by a hip roof that has (and had) various embellishments.       First, we notice that the end planes of the hip roof do not rise completely to the main ridge line. Instead, a small triangular panel is formed (known variously as a Dutch gable, gabled hip or gabelet). One source of this feature is the medieval hall building, which often housed people and animals – hence the useful ventilation feature.

The chapel building today has a “loft” level of offices above the parlor, beside the chapel worship space. When completed in 1892, the chapel consisted of a single large bay, which could be subdivided by movable walls. The three dormer windows on each side of the structure would have been an important light source during the day.  In addition, skylights were mounted on the long planes of the hip roof and were later removed. In the loft offices, the side dormers and the one above the front entrance make a very animated ceiling.  (The entrance dormer also deflects water away from the chapel door.)

Pyramid Roof Form- Showing “Sprung Section” at Base

Pyramid Roof on Church’s Lantern

A special case of the hip roof is seen on the church’s signature lantern tower.  The pyramid shape is formed by stretching four equal panels to a point high above the square base. Besides being ta most graceful termination of the tower, this form equalizes the amount of rain runoff in each direction.   Another feature of the lantern roof is functionally related to runoff: at the base the roof slope decreases. This is called a “sprung roof” and it sends the runoff away from the wall surface below (where it could increase erosion). It is also imparts a picturesque, medieval appearance to the composition.

Roof Dormer with “Witch’s Hat”

Perhaps the most complex roof is that of the lantern dormers.  They echo the pyramid shape at the front, transitioning into a gable that joins the main roof.  The bottom is sprung recalling a shape sometimes referred to as a “witches hat.”  While they are certainly charming, the dormers fill a critical purpose of ventilating the space under the pyramid.

Conical Roof Form with Gable Extension

Conical Roof at Pastor’s Study

Related to the pyramid shape, there are two conical roofs at the church. One covers the Pastor’s Study tower and blends with a gable extending to the main building. The other is half-conical in shape and tops the semi-circular apse added to the east end of the sanctuary in 1938.

Flat Roof at Parish Hall

Shadyside Church also has several examples of the so-called “flat roof.” A truly flat roof would retain snowmelt and rain. The associated leakage is a practical problem of such an arrangement. In practice, there are features to channel water away. The first large flat roof at the church was on Parish Hall. As for the authenticity of a flat roof for a Romanesque Revival structure, Shadyside’s Centennial History points out that ample precedent was found in medieval examples.

Skylight View of Lantern at Stair Tower

The lovely Sharp Atrium, constructed during the church’s “Building Community” campaign is also covered by an essentially flat roof. Indeed, the varied surrounding walls and roof lines would have made any other style impractical. Skylights in the Sharp Atrium and the new stair tower leading to Parish Hall are key features of the delightful ambience of these spaces. In this sense they borrow from the original design of the adjacent chapel roof, where skylights once existed.

Sharp Atrium at Night

And so, we have the development sequence:  function determines the plan; the plan is extruded to form useful, attractive volumes;  the projected plan sets base shape of the roof;  practical considerations, tempered by aesthetics, lead to the roof form. The resulting animated roofline, then, speaks of the varied and vital ministries that flow out of the church.


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