The idea of building a church that embraces the natural world is, surprisingly, a relatively recent concept. But with the advent of modern architecture and the availability and use of glass in great quantities, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen many churches constructed that have taken the beauty of nature into account. These can be found everywhere, from forests to deserts to oceanside cliffs. In the United States these can be found from coast to coast, and some are counted among America’s greatest architectural treasures. Here are five of the best:
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Web: www.thorncrown.com (official website)
The Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs is a masterpiece of modern construction. Closely associated with the neighboring Great Passion Play, the Thorncrown Chapel has won many awards, including several international, for its innovative design. Thorncrown was the brainchild of Jim Reed, a former school teacher from Pine Bluff. Reed had originally purchased the land to construct a retirement home, but instead he decided to share the property, which had a magnificent view of the Ozarks, and build a public chapel instead.
The result was a completely unexpected architectural masterpiece. Guided by the desire to use only local materials and fully expose the chapel interior to nature, the entire building is said to be constructed of pieces no bigger than two men could carry. It has since received many architecture and travel awards, including the Twenty Five Year Award of the American Institute of Architects. The chapel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, an extreme rarity for a building less than twenty five years old.
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
Web: www.wayfarerschapel.org (official website)
The Wayfarer’s Chapel, also known as the Glass Church, is one of the definitive churches of modern architecture. Often incorrectly attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, it was actually designed by the famed architect’s son, Lloyd Wright. In the late 1940s, he was commissioned by the Swedenborgian Church of North America to construct a chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes. It was completed in 1951, and is possibly his seminal work.
It has since become a very popular destination for weddings, and has appeared in a number of films and television productions. The Wayfarer’s Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
Chapel of the Holy Cross
Web: www.chapeloftheholycross.com (official website)
The Chapel of the Holy Cross is one of the great religious modern architectural masterpieces of the mid-20th century. Built into the side of a butte outside of Sedona, this award-winning church is famous for its magnificent views of the desert and red rock formations of the nearby valley. If the Shrine of the Ages at the Grand Canyon had been built on the canyon’s rim, it might have turned out something like the Chapel of the Holy Cross.
In the 1930s, prominent local rancher Marguerite Staude was inspired to sponsor the construction of a magnificent chapel. It was originally intended for this chapel to be constructed in Budapest, Hungary. However, the outbreak of World War II and subsequent establishment of a communist regime in Hungary made this all but impossible. Instead, the chapel was constructed on the side of a butte in the Coconino National Forest outside of Sedona. The Chapel of the Holy Cross was completed in 1956, and received the American Institute of Architects Award of Honor in 1957.
Baughman Center Chapel
Web: http://performingarts.ufl.edu/venues/baughman-center (official website)
The Baughman Center Chapel at the University of Florida is among the most beautiful churches in Florida, and one of the finest modern-style churches in the country. Named in honor of George and Hazel Baughman, the chapel was built primarily for meditation and private contemplative prayer and as a venue for the performing arts.
George F. Baughman served as a vice president of the University of Florida and was one of its most important benefactors in the postwar years. In the late 1990s the university built the Baughman Center, named in his honor, including a chapel that was completed in 2000. His funeral was held there in 2004.
First Unitarian Society Meetinghouse
Web: www.fusmadison.org (official website)
The First Unitarian Society Meetinghouse of Madison is one of the last and greatest places of worship designed by master American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is also one of his largest religious buildings, and is home to one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in the country.
In the years after World War II, the growing congregation of the First Unitarian Society of Madison engaged Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new meetinghouse. It was completed in 1951. Like others of Wright’s religious buildings, the new meeting house went on to become a milestone of modern religious architecture. The First Unitarian Society Meetinghouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
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