Sacred Space in the City: Adapting to the Urban Context

Volume 47, Issue 3 :: By Michael T. Foster, FAIA

Ruins of St. Thomas's Cathedral

St. Thomas’s Cathedral has sat as a ruin in Washington, D.C. for 40 years. Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid/wikipedia

For thousands of years, sacred space has shaped and provided deep meaning to cities and urban communities as well as to the health, well being, and quality of life for the inhabitants. For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s population is now living in urban areas. Most growth is now shaped by government bonds, tax-increment financing, and large-scale corporate returns. Despite the ascendance of economics as the touchstone for value and meaning in cities, sacred spaces are and will remain a vital part of healthy cities.

Sacred spaces and gathering areas for worship have historically had a synergistic correlation with residential patterns of development. From the “upper room” to the cathedral town and even post-war sprawl in America, sacred spaces and cities have informed and even defined each other. Urban areas are now experiencing tremendous growth and change, but without the diverse cultural values or faith traditions that shaped great cities of the past. Reversing this trend will be difficult in the future, with current planning and development criteria well established. Hundreds of urban churches, synagogues, mosques, and other sacred spaces are lost every year for lack of resources. The need to acknowledge the “buried talents” in sacred land equity could not be greater. It is the land itself, often abandoned by unsustainable buildings and institutions, that offers solutions to preserving and renewing sacred space in the city in a new context.

This generation of accelerated urban growth, technology, and mixed-use development has transformed our cities, embracing the diversity of uses through shared resources. New infrastructure, optimizing land use to serve more people through diversity, density, and heightened design quality and through mixed use has become the best practice of public policy to achieve many urban goals. Unfortunately many key elements in the mix of uses of a healthy city have either been forgotten or ignored.

The health of a city or of its inhabitants is not limited to green buildings and hospitals. Sadly the role of sacred spaces has gone the way of big box retail, with the mega-church model moving congregations to large suburban parking lots far from the vibrant urban fabric. Much-needed renovations of existing churches, synagogues, and mosques in urban areas are challenged by changing demographics and are often deferred indefinitely, until the buildings become obsolete or abandoned. Many are lost to redevelopment, and others are at risk of deterioration beyond the point of feasible renovation.

Excellent options to preserve sacred spaces in urban areas include revitalization, adaptive re-use, and synergistic land-use designed to retain and grow the sacred and the associated program missions of faith-based congregations. Establishing compatible and strategic partnerships allowing these institutions to survive and flourish is dependent upon faith-based institutions taking the lead in mixed-use development by prioritizing their mission while shaping the city. Strategic partners can range from affordable housing financed through tax credits, or development partners for commercial enterprise or condominiums, to support and sustain ministries in the city or around the world. In every case the objective must focus on the mission through creative, shared land-use stewardship to sustain and grow sacred space and ministry activity in the city.

There is no single solution that is appropriate for every congregation or site, and there is no magic formula. Further, there is no architectural or land-use option that will ever replace the spiritual act of tithing to fulfill the health of a congregation. With most faith-based institutions, it is necessary to establish the careful balance of fulfilling all mission priorities together with land-use stewardship within the program, budget, and pro-forma. The approach is not limited to size, or jurisdiction, and can be applied to any religious organization across the spectrum of denominations and faiths, ranging from small groups to large congregations. The solution is revealed in a carefully structured process to reconcile mission, stewardship, community needs, and resources to explore and develop strategic partnerships to help preserve sacred spaces and programs.

Case Study: St. Thomas’s Parish

For 40 years, following the destruction by rioting and arson of the downtown cathedral of St. Thomas’s Parish in Washington, D.C., the congregation spent decades in prayer, seeking discernment. The historic cathedral was a grand Gothic structure expressive of the Episcopal Church. It had served powerful and influential socialites in the city. After fire ravaged the site, only the ruins and a small portion of the church remained. The site where the cathedral once stood was converted to a temporary park that remained for decades pending reconstruction. The community was transformed and rebuilt on renewed values to welcome and embrace everyone through God’s grace, compassion, and hospitality. The congregation first shrank, and then struggled, but continued to meet in the remaining crowded fellowship hall in the back corner of the site. It is there they kept faith alive with hope and prayer that they would re-establish the once vibrant parish and preserve its mission in a city that has been losing sacred space every year.
Failing to gain consensus on whether to rebuild or to leave for the suburbs, the congregation invested in dozens of studies and completed several building designs that could not be funded. Instead of giving up, they asked our firm to facilitate an “Ambassadors Workshop” to explore in depth two critical questions the firm had formally asked the chair of the stewardship committee: First, “What is going on here…that is worth preserving?” And second, “What is not going on here … that God is calling us to do?” From the careful exploration of these two questions, a balanced program was developed to meet the current needs of both the congregation and the community, while preserving not only the sacred space, but also its identity and mission. The final question they had to ask themselves was this: “Are we willing to be held accountable to what God is calling us to do, and if so, how to do it?”

St. Thomas's New Facility

Rendering of a new facility for St. Thomas’s Parish, as it faces 18th Street. Photo: Courtesy of MTFA Architecture

Today their vision is not that of a Gothic cathedral of times gone by, but of an open and welcoming transparent presence in the community, serving a smaller but more hospitable congregation. After researching the full zoning potential and prioritizing the needed program spaces, we were able to determine how the potential of land use, zoning, height, and density capacity could be used for needed housing in the area, which would also fund the new structure. The sacred space is designed to respect the heritage of the Episcopal denomination, while expressing the values of the current congregation. Organized to fit on one-third of the original site’s footprint, the new structure could not be limited to the suburban model of one or two floors. The new urban church re-establishes its presence in the city in five stories with an aspirational presence and a focal point in the community. The program includes an entry narthex gallery, offices, and conference area on the first floor, a monumental stair and an oversized elevator ascending to the upper room for worship in a large glass sanctuary on the second floor, religious education and classrooms on the third floor, with the fellowship hall and an open landscape roof terrace overlooking the city on the roof deck, all over underground parking.

The remainder of the site is being developed into seven levels of multifamily residential construction, serving diverse needs from workforce housing to luxury condominiums. The site utilization strategy has allowed the prominent identity of the church to be restored to its historic location on the corner of 18th and Church Street, NW, in a modern expression that welcomes all and provides a sacred refuge from the city. The residential building is designed in scale and texture to be a transition from the historic residential fabric of the tree-lined street to being the home for a new generation of people and families, while harvesting the buried land value in support of renewed and healthy sacred space. Construction documents are now being completed, and construction is anticipated to start in 2015.

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The challenge is always change. In some cases it takes radical change to preserve values and reverse the silent change of diminishing sacred space in our cities to the vibrant and spiritually healthy environments we crave and need. Today sacred space is less of a catalyst or meaningful response to urban land use. Reversing the trend from losing sacred space to redefining it on existing land will revitalize and contribute to the physical, spiritual, and psychological health, as well as to the beauty of our streets and cities.

The author is a principal with MTFA Architecture in Arlington, Virginia, specializing in design and strategic consulting for faith-based communities, liturgical spaces, and educational buildings. He also serves on the Arlington Economic Development Commission, and is former chair of the Arlington Planning Commission in Virginia.