Commitment to Craft

by Scott Ford, appearing in Volume 24

Motown has a particular claim on the American soul. As Keith Schnieder has observed, the narrative of twentieth-century America was written by those who came of age in the Motor City: mass production, the division of labor, establishment of the middle class with the accompanying developments in sports and entertainment, delivering the arsenal of WWII, and the promise of boundless individual mobility delivered by the car are all concepts that emanated from Detroit. The mass industrialization that Detroit has come to represent was accomplished with the labor of millions of immigrants who, once ensconced in America, sought to reconstruct community through cultural traditions of their homelands.

Detroit’s Historic Places of Worship is the story of the monuments they built. The book focuses upon the period from 1848 to 1950, a period of explosive growth from a frontier town of 21,000 to a major metropolitan center of nearly two million people. Intentionally framed as a “comprehensive survey of Detroit’s churches,” the book contains a chronological catalog of churches featured in four to six page spreads that include history as well as photo-documentation of each building’s exterior and interior, as well as detailed imagery of stained glass and tile. The informative narratives give equal time to the patrons, architects, and craftsman along with the architecture, decorative art, and craftsmanship itself. One can imagine accompanying the celebrated historian, Dr. Dorothy Kostuch, as she delivers her sermons through an architectural tour of the city.

There is an implicit narrative that strings this collection of tours together. At each stop, the story is repeated: enterprising founders engaging a rich tradition of craft and an optimism of a growing congregation, which over time falls victim to the depopulation of the city’s core. In many cases, a parish was in peril of abandonment when an impassioned group of parishioners stepped forward to preserve the church. Aside from the opening comments by noted Free Press architectural historian John Gallagher, there is little treatment of a thematic message and the obvious link between a commitment to craft in the churches and the craftsmanship that built the foundation of Detroit’s economic heritage.

The reader cannot but wish the authors took the survey a step further to engage the question of what these churches and synagogues can reveal about Detroit’s contribution to architecture. The template for this conversation has been established through seminal works such as Michael Dennis‘s Court and Garden and Polyzoides, Sherwood, Tice, and Schulman’s Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, in which the examination of a specific building type, in a certain place, over a particular period of history, yields mutual insights into the evolution of the type’s program and architectural character, as well as that of the sociological and ecological environment in which it is set. Court and Garden can be read for formal design instruction as well as for a historical account of the political and social development of Paris. The potential to focus on one specific type, the house of worship in Detroit, would move the conversation beyond architectural style to a deeper reading of the interaction of the people and the place to generate a specific architecture.

While the photography in Detroit’s Historic Places of Worship gives shape to the historical accounts, the absence of plans, sections, and elevations denies a useful reading of these spaces for architectural study. Moreover, the illustrations are nearly uniformly devoid of people. Whether this is to underscore the present condition in Detroit’s challenged neighborhoods or intentionally to focus on the architecture, it casts a lonely shadow on the book. In a few instances, historic images were included, and one wishes more historic photographs were included to highlight the bustling atmosphere of these churches and synagogues as the focal points in Detroit’s mosaic of culturally distinct neighborhoods.

Detroit is more than a cautionary tale to the twentieth-century American experience. It is a living place that continues to represent the forge in which diverse cultures and ideas have been assimilated into the American experience. Its places of worship, as links to both the Divine and the old world, merit further study to distill how that experience has shaped and been shaped by sacred architecture.