Take a look at this old Methodist church on the South Side. Do you notice anything unusual about it? Yes, you do notice, because you already read the title of this article. But just passing by, you might not have noticed that the sanctuary—the main worship space—is on the second floor.
When he was publishing his pictures of the old St. John’s Lutheran Church on the border of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, old Pa Pitt ran across an interesting article about the conversion of that church to apartments, which apparently was done with minimal alteration. In fact the whole “Urban Traipsing” site is worth a long exploration, and you can go there and spend a few hours as soon as you’ve finished here. To stick to our current subject, Father Pitt was struck by the author’s reaction to finding that the sanctuary was upstairs:
This is the only church building I have been in where the sanctuary is a full flight of stairs above ground level. I’m very curious to know if there are any others—please share, if you’ve come across one!
Well, that article was written nine years ago, so Father Pitt will not bother the author with comments now. But this is actually a very common adaptation in Pittsburgh. Churches in dense rowhouse neighborhoods had tiny lots, and they had to make the most of those lots. If you can’t build out, you build up. It would be aesthetic nonsense to have any other facilities above the sanctuary, so obviously the sanctuary goes at the top.
The South Side has a larger collection of these churches than any other neighborhood, so we’re going to stay there for this article. In fact Father Pitt believes that this article will give you a complete census of the remaining churches on the South Side with the sanctuary upstairs; if anyone knows of any others, please step forward.
The grandest of the lot is South Side Presbyterian. It was originally more modest, looking like many of the other churches here, but the congregation prospered and added the impressive front with bell tower.
Here is the sanctuary of South Side Presbyterian, which is reached by a pair of stairways at the front of the church.
The Bingham United Methodist Church is now the City Theatre; the building dates from 1859. Birmingham and East Birmingham, the boroughs that became the South Side, were full of Methodists and Presbyterians in the middle 1800s, and many of the churches on the South Side began as Methodist or Presbyterian churches.
This was also built as a Methodist church, but at some time around the First World War it became St. George’s Serbian Orthodox Church. The onion dome cannot disguise the typically American Protestant shape of the rest of the Victorian Gothic building.
The German Baptist Church on 19th Street is now Holy Assumption of St. Mary Orthodox Church.
First Methodist Episcopal Church, East Birmingham, became a nest of Polish Falcons; then the Falcons moved to a smaller nest a block and a half away, and this building was converted to apartments as “Falcon Court.”
The First Associated Reformed Church of Birmingham was built in 1854.
The Tabernacle of the Union Baptist Church was built in 1881 in a curiously angular style, an abstract machine-age Gothic.
These are eight churches on the South Side alone that have their sanctuaries upstairs. Have we missed any? There were almost certainly others; if Father Pitt recalls correctly, the Walton Church, demolished more than twenty years ago, was one of them, and there are other churches that did not make it into our century.
There are also others in other neighborhoods: we already mentioned St. John’s Lutheran in Bloomfield/Lawrenceville, and we have pictures of Grace Lutheran in Troy Hill and the Union Methodist Church in Manchester. These are all churches built in densely crowded neighborhoods where they had to make do with a tiny patch of land.
Now that you have been alerted to their existence, you will start to see these churches everywhere, and you will have old Pa Pitt to thank for your new hobby.