Postwar Building Boom
by Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, CSC, appearing in Volume 34
In the two decades after World War II, American Christians built an unprecedented number of churches as a postwar baby boom and suburban expansion created tremendous demand for new houses of worship. The trend began in 1947, when Americans spent $126 million dollars on church construction, and peaked in 1965 at some $1.2 billion dollars.
This period of feverish church building has, until recently, been largely unexplored by architectural, religious, and urban historians. Among recent books aiming to change this are Jay M. Price’s Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America and Gretchen Buggeln’s The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America.
Buggeln holds a Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. Her book focuses on three influential Protestant architects—Edward Dupaquier Dart, Charles Edward Stade, and Edward Anders Sövik—and seventy-five of the churches they designed in the Midwest. Making impressive use of congregational archives and interviews with founding-era parishioners, she explores the prevalence of the A-frame design from the 1950s to the mid-1960s; the way a vision of the Church as family shaped sanctuary design; the prioritization of fellowship and education in design of the church plant; and a case study of churches in the suburb of Park Forest, Illinois.
Price is professor of history and directs the Public History Program at Wichita State University. His book focuses on the network of architects, consultants, denominational and ecumenical bodies such as the National Council of Church’s Bureau of Church Building and Architecture, professional organizations such as the Church Architectural Guild of America, and journals such as Protestant Church Building, Church Management, and Church Property Administration that promoted a modern aesthetic in ecclesial design. He examines how design styles evolved through the postwar period, highlighting how Modernist styles predominated as architects from the World War II generation exerted increased influence in the 1960s.
Unsurprisingly, certain themes run through both books: the professionalization of church architects; the centrality of the building committee in planning and fundraising; the impact of construction costs on churches comprised of cash-strapped suburbanites; the prevalence of building in stages and the frequent flexibility and insufficiency of “first units”; the focus on creating seven-day-a-week campuses for educational and social programs; and the influence of suburban domestic architecture on church design.
Both Buggeln and Price conclude their books with similar tales about the state of postwar churches in the new millennium. In many instances, the congregations these churches house have aged, have moved on to newer suburbs, or have been reshaped by changes in the neighborhood’s ethnic and racial makeup. The buildings themselves have often aged poorly, requiring expensive maintenance and renovation projects, or being vacated and torn down.
Those that continue to be used, especially among Catholic parishes, have often been renovated to make greater use of “symbols, statuary, decoration, ornament, and woodwork.” That signifies a “modest revolution against the simple forms and opaque symbols of the original buildings.”
Buggeln and Price are both sympathetic to the architects and congregations they study and admirably retrieve for skeptical millennial readers the spiritual and social meaning postwar churches had to the congregations that built them. They depict postwar churches as an attempt by parishioners to respond to an atomic age that they felt demanded a new architecture to proclaim the Gospel amidst a consumerist and media savvy culture.
Yet one of the most salient themes in both texts is the tension between tradition and modernity: the divide between the updated but traditional structures postwar congregations desired and the modernist buildings preferred by newly ordained clergy and young architects. Both writers repeatedly admit that “the general public did not so much demand contemporary houses of worship as resign themselves to their inevitable construction.”
Detractors lamented the “grocery store” and “gas station” churches. “Seldom in history,” Price notes, “have supposedly sacred structures been the object of so many disparaging remarks.”
Buggeln and Price admit that modernist churches were controversial and never garnered the popular support the era’s other public structures received. That calls into question their contention that postwar churches provide crucial insight into what Americans wanted to say, in stone and glass, about themselves and their faith communities.