It can be difficult to design a church in a modernist style that still “looks like a church.” Traditional motifs in gothic or classical styles can convey spiritual feelings because of their historical association with religious architecture. The A-frame church is an obvious solution to this problem. Its simple, triangular shape evokes a wide array of religious sentiments. In her analysis of post-war Christian architecture, Gretchen Buggeln notes that the A-frame church was often perceived as ” praying hands, a triangle representing the Trinity, a tent for God’s people on the move, an inverted ark, or even a cave for quiet renewal.”
Many of these symbolic associations carry over into an LDS context. The A-frame meetinghouses built by the church in the 60s and 70s are among its most spiritually evocative. Reverence comes naturally inside these chapels. A sense of awe permeates the sanctuary. I’ve come across about a dozen of these A-frame churches along the Wasatch front, although I’m sure there are others I have yet to discover.
The Bountiful 9th Ward Meetinghouse
The exterior of the Bountiful 9th Ward meetinghouse is perhaps a bit disappointing. The facade is decorated with a series of vents set within corrugated siding. But in spite of this lackluster exterior, the interior is among the most beautiful LDS chapels ever built.
The A-frame shape is moderated by a low, slightly arched ceiling, which gives the chapel a wide, enclosed feel. The steeply pitched walls are framed by elegant glulam beams shaped like gothic buttresses. Sunlight streams through rows of triangular windows during morning meetings. The rostrum consists of a simple wall of wooden panelling providing a minimalist background for the pipe organ. The chapel’s most striking feature is also its most unexpected: an elaborate lattice structure built above the overflow area between the chapel and the gym. This is an often overlooked area for architectural attention and it creates quite an impression. Latecomers feel less like like second-class church members consigned to the gym, and more like proud members of a congregation with an extraordinarily beautiful church. (An identical meetinghouse was also built at 3970 S 5200 W West Valley City, UT)
Mueller Park 1st Ward Meetinghouse
The Mueller Park 1st Ward has one of the tallest facades of any LDS meetinghouse. The roof is set at an exceptionally steep grade, its height augmented by the setting at the top of a hill overlooking the valley. A narrow column of stone decorates the facade which gleams like gold in the afternoon sun. Its steeple looks like an enormous piece of factory machinery, an odd choice, but an interesting one. The interior is rather plain, but its sheer verticality still has a transcendent effect.
Olympus Stake Center
In her critique of architectural standardization The Cloning of Mormon Architecture, Martha Sontag Bradley approvingly notes that the 1963 Olympus Stake Center was a rare (though expensive) exception to the trend of increasing standardization. In my opinion however, the Olympus Stake Center’s design is so dramatic that it fails somewhat as an LDS meetinghouse. LDS architecture must always find a balance between transcendent spiritual ideals and the “human scale” of a pragmatic, lived religion. I attended a mission farewell in this building and couldn’t help but feel that the grand architecture distracted rather than supported the spirit of the meeting.
Nevertheless, the Olympus Stake is worth enjoying for its inspiring architecture. Particularly noteworthy are the open skylights, which bring in light from heaven across the entire length of the chapel. Behind the rostrum is a long organ loft decorated with small wooden notches which have the appearance of a “shower of gold,” or even “the descent of the Holy Spirit.” The glulam beams are massive and their parabolic shape gives the chapel a grounded quality that contrasts with the structure’s verticality.
The Olympus Stake’s A-frame structure differs from the linear “tent-like” construction of other A-frames. It is built in the pagoda style which gives it an Asian flavor. This mutes the transcendent “gothic” evocations usually associated with A-frame structures. I would go so far as to suggest that its pagoda shape evokes a Taoist spirit which seeks to bring heaven and earth into a single unity. The pagoda shape was also a popular symbol for Asian rulers seeking to broadcast their possession of “the mandate of heaven.” This traditional association with oriental power and authority may be the main reason that the Olympus Stake doesn’t quite work in an LDS context.
It is interesting to contrast the Olympus Stake with the Prince of Peace Lutheran church in Taylorsville, UT which is also built in the pagoda style. The Lutheran chapel succeeds in creating a sense of sacredness by making the pagoda structure more enclosed, dark, and modest. This creates, as Buggeln noted, a “cave for quiet renewal.” The “nature-worshipping” Taoist elements of the pagoda shape are restrained in the Lutheran church. In the Olympus Ward, the Taoist elements are expanded, through the long rows of skylights that articulate both the top and the sides of the pagoda, flooding the chapel with light and strengthening the connection with the natural world.
The Bountiful 13th and 53rd Ward Meetinghouse
Bountiful is blessed with no less than five A-frame meetinghouses (four LDS and one Lutheran). The Bountiful 13th Ward contains an interesting array of stylistic elements. The entryway is an austere glass structure built in the International Style of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. The steeple’s pointy tower evokes Italian medievalism. The A-frame chapel is covered in dark wood paneling which gives it a warm, enclosed feel. The rostrum has what might be described as a “rude screen.” In traditional Christian architecture, the rude screen is a tall wooden frame that separates the priests celebrating the eucharist from the rest of the congregation. This unique design contributes a sense of mystery and ritualization which might seem foreign to an LDS service, but which nevertheless imbues the space with reverence.
The Milcreek 5th Ward
LDS architects in the modern period were responsive to trends in Christian architecture across America. A-frame churches were springing up by the thousands in post-war suburbs across the country. Many were cheaply made and look dated and decrepit today. However, there were a number of finer examples of the style created by a leading architect named Charles Stade. His Immanuel Lutheran church in Des Plaines IL is an example of what an A-frame church can be at its best. The Milcreek 5th Ward looks like it could have been inspired by Immanuel Lutheran’s dramatic exterior silhouette and sophisticated use of materials.
The A-Frame Standard Plans: Baker (1959), Lindon (1967), Alta (1971)
Scattered across Utah are three A-frame standard plans. Richard W. Jackson’s survey of LDS architecture Places of Worship gives a thorough account of each of these: Baker (1959), Lindon (1967), and Alta (1971). These plans were built for smaller ward congregations as opposed to larger stake meetinghouses, and their A-frame structures succeed admirably in balancing a comforting sense of enclosure with a transcendent sense of verticality.
Other Notable LDS A-Frames
Below is a gallery of other notable LDS A-frames. It includes American Fork’s Manila YSA Ward, Ogden’s Lorin Farr Ward, and Bountiful’s Orchard 3rd Ward.
Alas, for all its success in evoking feelings of worshipfulness, the A-frame church shows no sign of revival. Across America, A-frame churches were popular up until the mid-60s, when they suddenly became unfashionable. I can’t think of a single example built in more recent times. The A-frame church is thus a symbol, not just of a divine orientation toward the heavens, but also of the post-war era in American religious life. Fortunate is the congregation that continues to worship in one of these A-frame churches today.
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