Across the UCC: UCC churches redesign to meet the times

Across the UCC: UCC churches redesign to meet the times

December 31, 2003
Written by Staff Reports
Carol L. Pavlik

When should traditional give way to contemporary? Is there a way to blend the two? What is "right" for our worship space? Should we gut the space, remodel or renovate? UCC congregations and architects embarking on a journey to improve an existing church structure struggle with these and other questions. Here are some stories from some UCC churches who have weathered that storm successfully.

Building leaves room for future congregations

First Congregational UCC of San Francisco recently sold its church building, opting to buy property on the corner of an urban crossroads, lending high-volume traffic and visibility to the new building.

Joe Story, church treasurer and member of the building committee, says that the old church building had become a burden, draining church resources and eating up time at committee meetings. Selling it allows the congregation to focus on a vital 21st-century ministry.

First Congregational will break ground this summer and complete the project by the end of 2005. High on the priority list is a design that reflects the church's openness to all. The new building will feature oversized doors at the main entrance, a daytime chapel open during office hours, and space for San Francisco Night Ministry, an ongoing "after hours" ecumenical counseling ministry that the church has hosted for more than 20 years. The building will be 100 percent accessible.

Even the church's new bathrooms will reflect the church's sensitivity to making everyone feel welcome. Besides the usual gender-specific bathrooms, the church deliberately has chosen to have several non-genderassigned bathrooms to accommodate parents with children of the opposite gender, handicapped persons with opposite gender caretakers, or those who are transsexual or transgender and may not feel comfortable using a genderspecific bathroom.

With the design process complete, Story has advice for other churches:

 Obtain designs from a handful of architects to get different perspectives on design.

 Hire a representative who specializes in representing nonprofit organizations in construction projects. The representative acts as project manager and deals with both the contractor and the architect.

 Hold design sessions with church members to build consensus and help them feel part of the new structure.

The congregation also decided to make the design open-ended, enabling congregations of future generations to add their own modifications to the fingerprint of the design. "We feel congregations benefit from working through a design process," says Story. "If they walk in and everything is already finished, they don't ever get to experience that opportunity."

First Congregational UCC of Crystal Lake, Ill., before (top) and after (above). Before photo: McCormick + McCormick, architecture/interior design. After photo: Johnson Photography.
'Puritan blue' gives way to increased worship flexibility

A few years ago, the Rev. Keith Haemmelmann described life at First Congregational UCC of Crystal Lake (Ill.) like a family with five children living in a two-bedroom apartment. The 1,700-member church housed in the New England-style building had a vision of extensive programming, but its building did not allow for all of the members' dreams.

Remodeling the 1860s building instead of starting from scratch was a huge commitment. The building offered old New England charm, including the distinctive "Puritan blue" paint color in the sanctuary, but didn't provide the needed flexibility and openness.

In 1996, phase one was completed. The new chancel makes up a third of the new sanctuary. Each element, from the console of the nine-ton pipe organ to the pulpit and communion table, is moveable. The choir stands on risers facing the congregation. Grand pianos are kept in an off-sanctuary area, ready to be rolled in when needed. Two balconies can accommodate small instrumental groups, and sophisticated theater lighting lends a dramatic fl air to candlelight services and liturgical dance performances.

Phase two of the renovation, slated for completion by Thanksgiving 2004, will add a Christian education wing, youth room and meetinghouse-style chapel, furnished with chairs and a retractable screen to provide space for contemporary worship, meditation, classes and lectures. "People come to our church because they like the worship we do, but [they also ] ... come here and say, 'This is home.' That's an abstract feeling that means so much."

During quiet times, Haemmelmann wanders into the sanctuary and sits in a back pew. "I can just look at the architecture and feel like I'm worshipping," he says. "It's art."

The new sanctuary at Parkway UCC in St. Louis. Mankse Architects photo.
Adapting old design improves space for ministry

Phil Lum is an architect, but sometimes he feels like his work takes on the form of ministry. A member of Immanuel UCC in the Ferguson neighborhood of St. Louis, he has spent the last 21 years working for Mankse Architects, an architectural firm that specializes in church design.

Fifteen years ago, when the late Rev. Robert L. Burt (see article on p. A15) began the UCC Architects Fellowship, Phil Lum joined. "One thing the Architects Fellowship showed us," says Lum, "is how many old buildings we have [in the UCC]." Lum says a majority of his projects are not designing new structures, but modifying the old ones, opening up constrictive spaces and working to simplify confusing or dysfunctional "circulation space."

In the case of Parkway UCC in Town and Country, Mo., Lum designed a sanctuary to replace the original built in 1870. At the time of original construction, the sanctuary was built across a small dirt road from the church school wing and the fellowship hall. A four-lane highway replaced the quiet road, making the two halves of the facility impractical. Lum incorporated the style and look of the old sanctuary into the new design. No longer across the street from the rest of the facility, the new sanctuary opened in 1999.

Lum says that when the architect is aware of the overall plan of the church's mission, then he or she can do a better job of designing something that's practical and spiritual. "In commercial architecture, they say, 'I want a warehouse. I want a store.' They know how many employees, how many square feet, how many parking spots," says Lum. "Churches rarely have a program. They have a wish list, but it's everything under the sun and more, because usually they have an inadequate building facility and property."

Lum finds more churches are asking the architect to respond to a mission need, such as building a daycare or a specific space for outreach. Lum finds the results of those projects most satisfying. "That's where it has become more like a ministry," he says, "than regular architectural practice."

Wright design evokes ancient elements

It's fair to say that Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Redding, Calif., is a masterpiece in progress. The church building, designed in 1958 by Frank Lloyd Wright, emerges majestically from the earth, resembling a cave made of stones and angular beams reaching heavenward. Wright once referred to the design as "pole and boulder Gothic," recalling the ancient tent dwellings of Israel to represent temporary, migratory and transient lives. Even the pulpit area was designed to look like a cave.

Unfinished, the building is a symbol of a labor of love. Contractors in the late 1950s were unsure of how to build Wright's design. So the congregation got involved and built the fellowship hall portion of the design. Barbara Ashbaugh, who was a charter member along with her late husband, remembers those times with fondness. "My three little boys, who are now in their 50s, were there to help," Ashbaugh laughs. "It was built with rocks gathered by the people. We had all ages helping. It was a dedicated group!"

Ashbaugh says the facility works well. "We are fully handicap accessible," she notes. When visitors come to see the structure, they can explore the 3-foot by 3-foot model of how the church will look some day, when it is completed. "We realize that if we had [the completed building] now, we couldn't fi ll it. We couldn't support it," she says. "For a lot of churches and charities, the money is not coming in like it should." And she remains hopeful.

"Part of the design is there and the rest, I hope, will be built some time," she says. "But not in my lifetime."


For more information about church building renovation and architecture, contact the UCC's Evangelism Ministry at 216-736-EVAN (3826); or e-mail the Rev. David Schoen, Evangelism Minister and Team Leader, at For information about church renovation funding contact the UCC's Cornerstone Fund, toll-free, at 888-822-3863.

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