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  • Writer's pictureJohn Mastera, Architect, AIA

Our Places of Worship as Icons of Culture

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

First of all, warmest wishes for a Merry Christmas to you all!

Our practice has long been recognized for our work on churches in Connecticut, New York and Colorado. Having designed one from scratch with Elizabeth Wright Ingraham in Colorado Springs, we know and understand that not only the expert design and planning of such a building is critical, but the history and relationships of the institution to the community are also important to consider in our creative response to the scope.

These places of worship are icons of our culture. When they are designed well they represent the foundational spirit of all subsequent generations. They are an expression of our spiritual past, present and future.

Let’s take a look at three churches and find lessons of design from each.

The Congregational Church of New Canaan

This extremely historic icon atop the green “God’s Acre in New Canaan is Church, a Meeting House, a School and Church Offices. As we’ve written before about this project extensively in a previous article, we created a Master Plan for the facility that repaired, expanded and preserved the facility. Our mission was to execute this work, even making the facility significantly bigger, without overshadowing the excellent historic architecture of the original design by New York Architect Minard LaFever in 1838. Our work became the backdrop that lets the original design shine even more, while the facility behind it was modernized.

Every Church Committee and Town organization that had a stake in the work was consulted, including a thorough review of the project by Historic District Commission of New Canaan and neighbors of the facility gaining approvals of our concept throughout the process. The Masterplan work began in 1997, with the majority of the work being completed by 2000. The final pieces of the plan were implemented in 2013 with final repair of the Sanctuary footings. The Church will go on for decades now being able to function as a modern church, while maintaining its historic integrity. And it will remain New Canaan’s signature architectural gem.

Second Congregational Church

A great gothic cathedral built in granite that sits prominently on this hill in Greenwich overlooking the town, it's been a key landmark and iconic piece of architecture in Greenwich. Although a relatively small project, we developed a plan for their childcare center. They were also looking to repair some of the stone on the north side of the Sanctuary, something to stay ahead of in historic structures.

On Redesigning Historical Sites

Our approach on both of these projects was to try to get into the design mind of the original Architects and learn the lessons of their design approach and theme. It’s also important to think about the congregation of each Church at the time, and the scope of the problems they wanted solved. Was it just shelter during services? Or was it a Town Hall, Meeting Room, School and Sanctuary? And what was the expression of their religion? In the case of both the Congregational Church in New Canaan and the Second Congregational Church of Greenwich they had prior Sanctuaries. In the early 1800's they had finally reached a point where they really wanted to do something special, that was going to be their permanent home for years to come, even hundreds of years going forward. So it was important to do it right!

Learning those lessons and then trying to integrate that into our new design and getting in the head of the original architect - that was the challenge. How can we turn the Gothic expression into an interior theme and bring harmony throughout the building?

And in designing the Congregational Church in New Canaan, it was getting into the mind of Minard LaFever and to correctly refurbish each square foot of the existing building while also adding over 3000 square feet of new Offices, a Library and Classroom space.

There are many design approaches.

“A lot of the process is saying to myself, look maybe we can do something incredibly different - a fantastic piece of architecture on its own that contrasts with the original. Because the original designs were so classic and iconic, our decision was to enhance them with a wonderful backdrop of similar architecture. It wasn’t proper to overdo it and overshadow the sanctuary. "

We follow a similar process when we design for historical homes. We are currently working on two homes from 1871 and 1890. These are very old grand mansions, works of excellent architecture from the industrial age, originally built by great industrialists, one of which invented a certain thing you might use quite often called the “horseless carriage” at the time. He was the first to race one. Our clients today are in similar positions in our current culture and our goal is to give them modern living in these great pieces of architecture that very much represent their skill and stature in life.

Indoor plumbing didn’t exist at first in the home from 1871, and now these homes will of course have the best of indoor plumbing as well as state of the art digital interfaces with technology, energy systems and the whole world. Our goal is to recognize that the architecture that has shaped our world into a more beautiful and brilliant place doesn't change - we still need that, but the function of the day to day has changed significantly. We weave the old architecture and the new lifestyles into a wonderful expression of architecture that functions well into the next century.

Vista Grande Community Church

And then there is a new and modern expression for the scope of work presented by a brand new congregation, led by a dynamic minister. This was an empty lot on a hill on what is named the Vista Grande in Colorado Springs. Standing on this hill and looking west you looked over the city of Colorado Springs and at the center of your view was Pikes Peak, the highest summit of the southern front range of the Rocky Mountains, just the other side of the city. It was a wonderful opportunity to be chosen to work with Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright and an exceptional Architect by her own right. It was a young and small congregation, so money was tight. The site was exceptional with a wealth of views and sunlight. The Congregational wanted expansion possibilities and an all in one building to begin their life as a church, a Sanctuary that lifted one up to recognize God and God’s gifts, church offices and school classrooms tied to the nature around the site, art of sculpture and space to envelope the worshippers and a sensitivity to conservation and simplicity.

This extremely historic icon atop the green “God’s Acre in New Canaan" is Church, a Meeting House, a School and Church Offices. As we’ve written before about g services, with Pikes Peak at the centerline. The building was built with insulated concrete to be inexpensive, permanent and energy efficient. The fellowship hall was placed below the footprint of the Sanctuary and the Children's Center with a design for future expansion later, was put to the side of this and the Church Offices next to that and facing an outdoor garden.

I visited the Church recently on a trip out west and the congregation still absolutely loves their design and the spiritual worship they have there. It is much like the old fashioned cathedrals of Europe; only the large expanse of gothic arches to look up and honor God inside of those European classics is outside of windows of the sanctuary in the mountains.

Holiday Traditions

All three Sanctuaries will be full to the rafters for Christmas Eve services and in New Canaan the congregants will flow out to God’s acre after service is over to join other congregants leaving other Churches and other residents coming from home in a wonderful tradition of singing carols on God's Acre with the Town Band playing accompaniment.

Visit these works of architecture, and in those visits we hope our design has motivated you to get into the spirit. We encourage you to be happy, sing loud and most of all this coming season - Merry be your Christmas wherever you are!


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