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.

About Tim Engleman

I am a semi-retired mechanical engineer with an interest in church architecture.
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