Father Pitt

Why should the beautiful die?

South Side Presbyterian Church

To Father Pitt’s eyes, the remarkable thing about the interior of this church is how Presbyterian it looks. Later Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh are Gothic cathedrals, or miniature versions for smaller congregations, since the Presbyterians were overwhelmingly the moneyed class in the late 1800s; but this church was built in 1869, and retains the flat-ceilinged simplicity of traditional Presbyterianism. As in several of our churches in crowded city neighborhoods, the sanctuary is on the second floor, reached by either of a pair of flights of stairs in the front (one with an elevator chair for those who need it); the ground floor is the social hall and other rooms. The front was part of an expansion in 1893, built to a grander and wealthier taste.

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6 responses to “South Side Presbyterian Church”

  1. What is the reason for a lack of a center aisle in so many traditional Presbyterian churches? I’ve been told it’s so that “everyone is under the Gospel” (which is read from the central pulpit), but I have to suspect that it is also intended to prevent, or at least discourage, any high-fallutin’, Papist processions that would come down a center aisle.

    How tight is the correlation between ‘No Center Aile’ and ‘Presbyterian’? I’ve seen Presby churches, usually either very small and probably ordered out of a catalog, or very large and ornate that conform to the more common pew-aisle-pew arrangement. And I’ve seen churches of other denominations (even Catholic) that eschew the processional way.

    Do any other denominations intentionally do this? It feels like something that Baptists would do, just to be contrary.

    • Father Pitt replies: A good Presbyterian would have to answer your question from a theological point of view. From a practical point of view, the more traditional sort of Presbyterian church—like this one—tends to be built more on the lines of a public meeting room than a traditional medieval church. The room is broad in proportion to its length, so it is necessary to have more than one aisle simply for safety reasons—in fact, fire codes are usually very specific about the distance between aisles in an auditorium, and the same design principles would hold in a church.

      Why is the shape of the church different? Again, Father Pitt is guessing. In Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches (for example), the emphasis is on the liturgy, which can be followed in a missal or service book. In traditional Presbyterianism, the emphasis is much more on the preaching, so it is desirable to bring the members closer so that they can hear better and enjoy the minister’s carefully worked-out gesticulations to the fullest. The broader sanctuary decreases the distance between the preacher and the most distant pew.

      But there is another force at work in city churches, which is the dimensions of the lot. Clearly this church is designed to cram as much church as possible into the smallest possible lot, and that simple fact may dictate the shape of the sanctuary more than any practical or theological considerations.
      [googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m14!1m12!1m3!1d236.02539564483283!2d-79.97803583760943!3d40.42747432458629!2m3!1f0!2f0!3f0!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!5e1!3m2!1sen!2sus!4v1429801714981&w=400&h=300%5D

  2. This is not a traditional Presbyterian church nor does it look like one, to austere. Traditional Presbyterian churches are very akin to say an Anglican an ELCA or some Methodist churches that are more high church. This seems very low church and non traditional. I do not think I have ever in my 60 years of being a mainline Presbyterian seen one like that inside. Perhaps an offshoot or more influenced by Puritanical Worship. A more high Church Presbyterian that would be traditional would be say Shadyside Presbyterian or East Liberty Presbyterian or St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh Scotland or First Presbyterian Church NYC, Madison Avenue Presbyterian and the list goes on. This is not traditional.

    • Father Pitt agrees with you, but it depends on what you mean by “traditional.” In the late nineteenth century, Presbyterians in Pittsburgh became the richest denomination, and they built churches that showed their wealth. That established a tradition in Pittsburgh, certainly, and the same things happened elsewhere.

      The Wikipedia article on “Presbyterianism” has a section on architecture that describes the change very well (and mentions Shadyside Presbyterian as an example of the newer style of Presbyterian church), and we take the liberty of quoting from it under the usual Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0:

      Early Presbyterian meeting-houses were extremely plain. No stained glass, no elaborate furnishings, and no images were to be found in the meeting-house. The pulpit, often raised so as only to be accessible by a staircase, was the centerpiece of the building. But these were not the standard characteristics of the mainline Presbyterians. These were more of the wave of Presbyterians that were influenced by the Puritans.

      In the late 19th century a gradual shift began to occur. Prosperous congregations built imposing churches, such as Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, St Stephen Presbyterian in Fort Worth, Texas, and many others.

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