Detroit’s Historic Houses of Worship
Compiled by Maria O. Collum, Barbara E. Kruger, and Dorothy Kostuch. Photographs by Dirk Bakker.
Wayne State University Press. Pp. 256. $39.95

Review by Matthew Alderman

Books on local history, especially local church history, are a bit like local museums. You might stumble across a little-known but well-curated collection, holding such forgotten gems as the lantern from the night of Paul Revere’s ride. Or you may be confronted with a puzzling hodgepodge of the decontextualized and ephemeral — a diorama of a giant prehistoric armadillo, an international collection of hats someone gave President Eisenhower, a glass soda bottle of uncertain provenance, or Anwar Sadat’s Fearless Leader-ish dress uniform. Fortunately, there are no giant armadillos, real or metaphorical, to be found in this illuminating new volume from Wayne State University Press.

Detroit’s Historic Houses of Worship, the most comprehensive chronicle of the city’s historic churches, has been 20 years in the making, and all that time and work shows. Built around a broad selection of churches of numerous denominations, two cathedrals and a synagogue, 37 in all, it presents their detailed histories, both architectural and social, within the larger civic context, as well as treating the reader to page after page of dazzling full-color photography from Dirk Bakker. Instead of the operatic decay portrayed by another recent work, The Ruins of Detroit, we encounter soaring interiors lit with stained glass like the German hall-church of St. Joseph’s, its baby-blue ceiling studded with gilt stars. Despite the somewhat sorrowful note struck obliquely in the preface, which comments on the “significant change” Detroit’s urban landscape has undergone, it is startling to find the heart of the city so full of beauty and life. One might be looking at an entirely different city.

Compiling such a work requires considerable dexterity and balance. Every house of worship profiled has something to delight both the armchair historian and the aesthete. Sainte Anne, the Mother Church of Detroit, is handsome enough, but its 19th-century brickwork conceals a history going back to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and French fur-trading days, making it the second-oldest continuously active Roman Catholic church in the United States. Closer to our own time, we encounter people like the anonymous black freedmen and -women who founded Second Baptist Church, the mother of 30 other local congregations, or like the Rev. Richard W. Ingalls (1926-2006), who rang the bell of the Mariners’ Church downtown to mark the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. Helpful appendices on the architects, artists, and craftsmen give further background. While all the structures have an important role in the architectural history of Detroit, several have deeper significance.

Two works by master Boston church builder Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and St. Florian’s Roman Catholic Church in Hamtramck, are prominently showcased. Cram revolutionized liturgical taste at the start of the last century, transforming America’s vision of church architecture from Puritan New England clapboard to stone-walled Gothic. (I must admit a certain bias here, as I work for the architectural firm founded by Cram in 1889, which still builds in the traditional styles he popularized.) The inclusion of these works not only ties the world of Detroit’s churches to larger artistic and theological trends but also illustrates an architect’s versatility over time. St. Paul’s, finished in 1911, is crisp, English, austerely beautiful, and not without a touch of robust muscularity. St. Florian’s, dedicated in 1928, almost two decades later, is broader in its inspirations, luminous, vivid and equally stunning in a very different way. Cram’s influence can also be detected in the Art Deco-tinged Little Rock Missionary Church and the more straightforward Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church and St. Matthew and St. Joseph Episcopal Church.

Even the more obscure entries are beautiful, or at least endearingly quirky, like the lavish, mosaic-decorated three-decker interior of Saint Aloysius Church, local architect Walter R. Meier’s clever (and, to my knowledge, unique) response to an unusually cramped site. There is also Our Lady of the Rosary with its gilt pyramidal roof atop a crenellated, castle-like campanile; the serene green-blue interior of First Presbyterian Church; and the zebra-stripe brick and stone of Most Holy Redeemer, a sort of pup Westminster Cathedral.

The book achieves an ecumenical breadth without losing focus. There are cavernous Roman Catholic immigrant churches, ceilings studded with Gothic ribs and antique lightbulbs (and in the case of one Hungarian parish, ceiling fans), a sober takeoff on the Pantheon designed as a synagogue, and a number of worthy entries from denominations whose architectural contributions are often un­justly overlooked, like Historic Trinity Lutheran Church, a 1931 Gothic jewel box with a trussed wooden ceiling of exquisite color and detail.

Like the churches it chronicles, the book is itself a monument of sorts. It is dedicated to Dr. Kostuch, one of the coauthors, who passed away in 2005. Her work is in turn based on research begun by Lucy Hamilton, coauthor of Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, who died in 1996. However glowing its illustrations, a touch of poignant memorial pervades its text. The book is a work of preservation as well as celebration. John Gallagher comments in the foreword that “We live in a more secular age now, and the old saying ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ has never seemed more apt,” though he also notes that the glorious old churches of years past are filled with “loving details,” woodwork and stained glass, that remind us that “we can tell a people by what they spend their money on …. No one can visit these churches and not grasp the profound importance that worship held in their builders’ lives.” But beauty never dies. Even amid the so-called “ruins of Detroit” a light still burns, and I invite you to read this book not merely as a tribute to past faith but as an inspiration for the future.

Matthew Alderman lives in Concord, Massachusetts, where he works at Cram and Ferguson Architects. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s classical design program, he frequently lectures and writes on ecclesiastical architecture.

Detroit Churches