A Cathedral for the 21st Century

Photos courtesy of Christ Church Cathedral

By Duo Dickinson

The immediate stresses of COVID-19 and long-term shifts in cultural values are dramatically shaping how we address the sacred in our lives, and the buildings we create need to manifest those changes.

The Episcopal Church in Connecticut, led by Bishop Ian Douglas, has spent the last decade reorganizing itself and addressing how its more than 150 parishes are dealing with dramatic drops in attendance and relevance in a changing culture. While the social vitality of worship remains woven into many parts of the American culture, when it comes to the role of church in people’s lives, the place of religion is dramatically changing in 21st-century New England.

Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford has just been recreated to directly address the relevance of sacred space in a secularizing society.

Douglas and the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Rev. Miguelina Howell, along with the cathedral’s governing body, the Cathedral Chapter, worked to reinvent the way this 1827 building could be used. Having been a full participant in the diocese’s decade of change, I was asked to give counsel as an architect.

A four-year effort defined the changes that needed to be made, defined the costs and the ways to build those desires, and then raised $2 million. Hard bidding and diligence meant the project was completed on budget and on time by Enterprise Construction, all amid COVID.

Why do buildings matter in our relationship to God? Religion and architecture are uniquely human. While the reality of God is central for many, the power of beauty is universal — and architecture is part of what we find beautiful. As culture evolves and tries to embrace God in worship, architecture responds.

(Click to enlarge) Ramps mean anyone can ascend to the altar without apology

Our creation and use of sacred space is a direct reaction to how our cultures change. The Renaissance transformed the Western world, and that included the Protestant Reformation. That Reformation spawned radical Puritans who came to America, leaving their cathedrals and parish churches to form communities centered on religion.

In Puritan meeting houses, faith, commerce, and government shared space. The Industrial Revolution saw American churches become a central cultural reality, and fabulous sacred spaces were created. The Great Depression then saw emptier churches and World War II saw church attendance and construction explode.

It verges on the clichéd to observe that the last 20 years have seen a deepening crisis of faith in organized religion in both the popular and convicted cultures. The American Northeast can be seen as the canary in the coal mine for how our culture manifests a diminished connection to God. In a country that was in no small part created to divide church and state, the cultural foundation of Christendom is entering uncharted territory.

It is no secret that the 21st century has manifested a rampage of change. The Internet, artificial intelligence, shifting understandings about gender, and now a pandemic are all radically affecting our society, with no obvious direction or outcome. Inevitably, those changes affect how religion is a part of American life.

But this change of the moment has had a parallel evolution in how we worship. After World War II, Europe experienced mass secularization to the point that churches now attract more tourists than worshipers. The vast majority of Europe has come to feel that its places of worship are more cultural icons than sacred spaces. A similar change is happening now in Northeastern America.

Like Europe, New England is rich in history, which is as inevitable as weather in shaping our daily lives. In 1827, architect Ithiel Town designed Christ Church in downtown Hartford. The church has gone through generations of renovations. Existing pews were replaced, but the original pew ends were reused, their last rows raised, and expressive pew back panels installed.

Christ Church became a cathedral in 1919, when the American “Cathedral Movement” was creating buildings like Washington National Cathedral and St. John the Divine in New York. Over the years the interior was refined and elaborated. In the 1950s, a renovated organ with its supporting structures and steps were added to a raised chancel floor, using new flooring of square, multicolored bluestone tiles.

The result was an altar-focused, strictly ordered space. “The problem with this 20th-century model of the cathedral in the Episcopal Church is that it reversed the direction of God’s action,” Douglas said in a sermon at the cathedral several years ago. “Instead of cathedrals being places from which the faithful would go in that great centrifugal mission of God into the world, they became centers of power, privilege, and prestige to which people would be centripetally drawn. Instead of ‘go, go, in the mission of God,’ cathedrals became a place of ‘come, come, and be drawn into the ‘one true church.’”

Dean Howell saw the need on the ground for “flexibility of the space that will serve a diverse constituency, from the arts to civic discourse, to community engagement activities for those who are housing- and food-insecure. This project has given the cathedral a remarkable opportunity to model active and adaptive ministry in the public square around issues of social justice, advocacy, and cultural advancement for underserved communities.”

The list of changes this renovation has wrought is universally applicable to almost all buildings designed over a century ago, but are exquisitely necessary if our buildings are to address the future:

Flexibility. Fixed pews are iconic, even comforting in their embrace of the worshiper, but fixed seating is a straitjacket of imposed focus in any building. So those pews were removed, and chairs provided that can be set in any orientation. Top-down, fixed lighting makes any focus other than its direction problematic. Fully movable, flexible, focusing, color-projecting, electronically controlled lighting was installed instead.

Welcoming. A central entry ramp surfaced to match the existing walkways around the church replaced steps, so that everyone, all the time, has equal access. An artful interior ramp meant that anyone could ascend to the altar without apology. Solid doors were removed, with clear glass versions set to the street, open for anyone to see through. Bathrooms were designed to enable anyone to use them, easily. New steps and railings are gentle, with railings.

Comfort. Beyond bathrooms directly off the central Nave space, a “shock system” of temperature and humidity mitigation was integrated into the existing heating system. At perhaps a third of the cost of traditional air conditioning, its event-specific impact has meant cooler gatherings. All grilles were integrated to the fabric of the building.

History. Rather than remove iconic elements, the provenance of the existing building was burnished and revived. The original pew end panels and doors (in numeric sequence), and artfully carved end walls were reused in the new design, and existing columns and ceiling trim once hidden by renovations became focal and repainted to their original colors. New bathrooms were tucked under the existing gallery. All existing memorials were preserved and relocated as needed, honoring all the dead. The pulpit, lectern, and baptismal font were all retained, but equipped with features to make them more accessible and flexible.

Craft. White oak was used throughout. This is a locally prized tree to the point of being the state tree of Connecticut, and is fully renewable. Quartersawn grain orientation means less cracking and movement. Sinuous curves and clear finish, with carved details, express its natural luster.

Safety. Asbestos was removed from under the existing floor. Fire detection, alarm, and suppression systems were updated and extended.

Use. Beyond opening the space, special care was taken to ensure that the tools that enhanced flexibility were seamlessly incorporated into the structure, and yet also, readily available for use. The original pew parts were united with Stations of the Cross plaques and new oak and HVAC grilles to create places set to and under the sills of the existing flanking windows of the Nave. New wiring integrated outlets for future control of event lighting. Full Wi-Fi and streaming capabilities were added, allowing the world to be part of every gathering.

These means and methods maintained the fabric of what made Christ Church a moving sacred space for so many people for so many years. Beyond embracing aesthetics and history, new ways of addressing the world, large and local, were incorporated.

“The renovations have created a space for our cathedral to embody its vocation as a resource for all people,” Dean Howell said. “Our collaboration with Hartford Stage, Capital Community College, iQuilt Partnership, and other groups across the Greater Hartford area will help to bring our community together as we seek the welfare of our beloved city, across the State of Connecticut, and beyond.”

Classes, dinners, plays, lectures, exhibits, small gatherings and large convocations can now all be held alongside all the services and rituals that remain the central reality of the church’s life.

Bishop Douglas set the bar high in addressing the future of Christ Church Cathedral and the mission Dean Howell leads: “If this cathedral is to have meaning in the 21st century, then it must reclaim the ancient calling of a cathedral as a place from which we go, go in the mission of God. Sent out to every town and place traveling lightly, we too must go, go from this cathedral to every town and city in Connecticut and beyond to effect God’s healing and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.”

Christ Church Cathedral has been renovated as a civic resource, rather than restored as an icon. Instead of living in the past, its new structure equips its people for an expanding mission, showing an increasingly secular society why faith has relevance in our time.

Duo Dickinson, FAIA, has helped over 40 places of worship to create or recreate their physical surroundings in his 40-year career. He is a staff writer for Hearst Publications, ArchDaily, Mockingbird Ministries, the Common Edge Collaborative, and a member of Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven. His latest book, A Home Called New England, is published by Pequot Globe Press.



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