If you had asked me a question a month ago about the United Reformed Church of Christ in Huntingdon Abbey, all I could have told you is that it is the only church overlooking Church Street. Along Mifflin Street, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians practically trip over each other within a few blocks, and for good measure, the Springs of Living Water Fellowship occupies a structure at 609 Mifflin which was built in 1909 as a car dealership and later became a fire station. But Church Street only has the abbey church.
What anyone can see from the pavement is that the abbey church has an unusually delicate and lovely spire. And unlike many other churches in the city whose exteriors are flattened to suit their lots, the Abbey Church is set back from the street so it can show off three-dimensional architectural features – muscular stone buttresses that hold the walls and the roof in place, wide stairs, a deep entrance door, a steep roof. Even so, I hadn’t given it much thought.
But just after last month’s Buildings & Grounds column profiled St. John’s Episcopal, an email arrived from Jim Wenner, the abbey church’s treasurer. He invited me to accompany a visiting scholar interested in the work of the church architect, Ralph Adams Cram. This caught my attention: Cram (1863-1942) was one of the most prominent and prolific architects of his time.
With two partners, Bertram Goodhue and Frank Ferguson, Cram designed dozens of churches – Wikipedia lists 60 – of which St. John the Divine Cathedral, New York, is probably the best known. He also worked at many colleges, designing individual buildings (Princeton University Chapel and Graduate College, for example) but also preparing campus master plans for institutions as varied as the United States Military Academy. United at West Point, Sweet Briar College (a small women’s college outside of Lynchburg, Virginia), and Rice University in Houston.
Many of Cram’s designs are lively variations on Gothic themes, such as at West Point and Princeton. John Smagner, the Chicago scholar for whom the tour of the abbey church was arranged, said Cram regularly traveled to Europe to sketch buildings he found inspiring – often Gothic buildings. But he could easily switch to other styles if asked. His buildings at Sweet Briar, for example, are a suitably Virginian red-brick Georgian Revival. And faced with planning for the Rice campus, he decided that Europe offered no suitable model for a Texas institution. As architectural historian Paul Venable Turner wrote, Cram then “invented a style which he considered appropriate to a Mediterranean-type climate”, including what Cram said were “all the elements that I was able to find southern France and Italy, Dalmatia, Peloponnese, Byzantium, Anatolia, Syria, Sicily, Spain.
How did such a daring architect come to work in Huntingdon? It’s an interesting story. What is now the Abbey Church congregation descends from the congregation of a German Reformed Church which dedicated its first building in 1818. It was on Mifflin Street at Fifth, where the First United Methodist Church now stands. In 1858 the German Reformed congregation completed a tall and somewhat austere building on the present site of the 6th and church, replaced in 1899 by a larger building with a massive Romanesque tower overhanging the same corner.
In 1924 the congregation had a new pastor, Hobart McKeehan, described as “young, capable, ambitious” by one of his successors, Robert K. Nace. At the same time, the church had a prominent lay leader, John B. Kunz, a former J.C. Blair employee who had built a successful passbook manufacturing business. McKeehan and Kunz began campaigning for a new church building. “They wanted the best,” Nace recalled in 2008, which to them meant “better than the Presbyterians.”
In 1927 the congregation agreed to demolish the 1899 building and Cram was offered to design the replacement as he had recently completed a spectacular Gothic chapel for the Mercersburg Academy, long affiliated with the Reformed Church. Nace noted that McKeehan and Lunz let Cram come up with a new name for the church, which otherwise would simply have been called the Reformed Church (the congregation had dropped “German” from its name in 1871). Cram suggested Abbey Church, named after abbeys in the English countryside.
Whether McKeehan and Kunz ended up with a better building than the Presbyterians, I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves, but the abbey church is striking in several ways. Mercersburg Chapel has a steeple so large and elaborate that you hardly notice the rest of the building (indeed, Cram copied the steeple of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, England), but the he slender abbey church the spire looks like a much more modern and confident design element. Set back on the ridge of the roof, it is elegant without being immodest.
Just like the whole building, in fact. Large exterior buttresses support dark wood roof trusses which are a key feature of the interior and contrast nicely with simple white walls. Another key feature are two open chapels highlighted by serene arches on either side of the sanctuary. Both originally had benches, so they could either accommodate small gatherings or serve as additional seating for the main space. A larger arch frames the altar, with the spire bell rope hanging to the right, behind the three-manual Moeller organ console. The pipes are on the left.
Wenner, the treasurer, and Sam Slicker, the chairman of the board, estimate that the building can accommodate 300 people, although the average attendance these days is 30 to 35 people. Mr. Slicker also serves as the congregation’s audio-visual guy, broadcasting live services with a three-camera setup for people who are unwilling or unable to attend in person.
Wenner and Slicker said the church is considering moving the pews a little farther apart, so they’re easier to get in and out of, and are also discussing ways to make the sanctuary more welcoming to contemporary worshippers. The building has been air-conditioned for about a year, so it is no longer necessary to organize services in the basement social room if it is hot. (The social room has a small stage at one end and a substantial kitchen at the other, with a shuffleboard built into the linoleum in between.)
Behind the sanctuary is a three-story structure that houses the church offices, a parlor that doubles as a choir hall, and several smaller Sunday school rooms, some of which have been consolidated into larger spaces. Wenner notes that “that’s a lot of buildings to maintain,” but says the congregation is “in a good place,” thanks in part to bequests and the sale of the longtime parsonage to boost the pastor’s salary.
One final note: to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the congregation in 1956, the church commissioned a number of new stained glass windows. Among the additions are a window showing Lake Raystown, a window depicting Juniata College’s Carnegie Library (now its art museum), and a window featuring a streamlined train, what appears to be an early jet plane, and even an ocean liner that looks a lot like the “United States”. Nace reported that the Boston craftsman who created the windows, Wilbur Herbert Burnham, said he always considered it an honor to add windows to a Cram church.
Buildings & Grounds appears in The Daily News on the first Friday of each month. You can email Lawrence at [email protected]