Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

Comments

  1. Thanks for the links, Scott! The first thing that hits me when I look at the two images above is the fear that while the “after” illustration shows the church in a park, the reality is almost certainly going to be a church in a parking lot instead.

  2. Thanks for this outstanding, thought-provoking post. Has the preservation community expressed an opinion?

  3. PlaceMakers says:

    Thanks, Steve and Kaid.

    Kaid, as best I can tell from the preservation community right now, it seems like mixed emotions, depending on where they fall *ideologically* re: preservation. Happy the building won’t slip away into oblivion; mournful it will lose its historic and urban context. Given some of the disinvestment and abandonment issues being faced in Buffalo, they don’t exactly have the luxury of being ideological. It’s either save the building this way or watch it slip away.

  4. The preservation community in Buffalo considers this proposal nothing more than the theft of our cultural heritage. For the struggling neighborhood in which St. Gerard’s sits, the result will be the same, regardless of the future use of its salvaged parts: a source of enduring hope in Buffalo is erased and the potential of a city neighborhood – where the infrastructure to support smart growth already exists – will be diminished. What exactly is sensitive about that? It is preservation by plunder, not preservation by relocation.

    As a Buffalonian, I can say this church will be demolished and moved only over our dead bodies.

  5. PlaceMakers says:

    Wow, Chris and David. Great info, and definitely reflecting a much higher level of passion and devotion on the ground in Buffalo than was presented in the original article that sparked this post.

    If such efforts can gain the necessary traction and, with it, the necessary funding to retain the church in its present location, that is of course the ultimate victory.

  6. Kevin Kuharic says:

    The Catholic archdiocese of Atlanta, the diocese of Buffalo, and St. Gerard’s former parishioners should be encouraged to believe that circumstances DO turn around. Consider forming an alliance between the two parishes to preserve St. Gerard in its original context as well as build a permanent church for Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Norcross, GA. Helping Buffalo, NY retain and sustain St. Gerard’s seems suited to Mary Our Queen’s core value of selflessness. This appears to be an opportunity for Mary Our Queen parish to invent its own history and at the same time spread its message of faith to the north instead of moving history south.

  7. While Atlanta as a whole gets a bum rap in my opinion — in spite of the horrible street / highway system there are some awesome urban “spots” in the heart of Atlanta — this move (pun intended) does fall in line with the very car-dominated and suburban but also overtly grandiose and image conscious attitude of the fringe areas. It is not surprising that an area with more than its fair share of “McMansions” and “Starter Mansions” would plop a building as wonderful as this in an area where it truly does not fit. On a larger topic: it is a shame that the mega-church trend has resulted in churches losing their very important role as community builders and neighborhood anchors and have become much more aligned with Big Boxes than with giving form and uniqueness and dignity to a place.

  8. Jim Eppink says:

    The context of placement in Atlanta is right on target, however it is interesting that an article focused on building and maintaining sustainable neighborhoods makes no mention of what devastation it would do to the Buffalo neighborhood from where the church will be removed. Urban renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s removed the best elements of our downtowns as we came to discover in the 1990’s when we looked around and said “what happened to Main Street?” If this church is removed from Buffalo, I can only assume that the highest and best use for the empty corner that will be left behind will be an even bigger Walgreen’s. What a shame.

    As a town planner who grew up in Buffalo and now lives in Detroit, I am all too aware of Cities that must fight for the few gems that are left. I would rather see this church temporarily converted to condos or another use until a time when it can become a church and the center of the neighborhood again. We will never go back to our old cities if there is nothing left to go back for.

    How do we expect our old neighborhoods to resurrect themselves if we literally steal the civic and cultural icons that we fight so hard for in the new towns that we plan!

  9. PlaceMakers says:

    You’re absolutely correct, Jim. As I noted earlier in the comments, the original newspaper article to which I was responding presented the issue as a sort of “done deal” with which Buffalo was basically resigned. Subsequent comments from passionate folks on the ground there, plus additional time to read more varied accounts, confirms it’s far from over and that locals are rallying to preserve their history.

    If there’s simply no other way to save the structure, relocation might have some merits. But if keeping the neighborhood intact remains a viable option, I’m right there with you. It’s the preferred route always.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] is the sort of repurposing and infill flexibility that form-based codes enable so well. Instead of carting off the church to another city when it was no longer required for its original purpose, local support for [...]

Join the Conversation

*

Confirm that you are not a bot - select a man with raised hand: