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Homepage / Architecture  / Devotion to Form: A Fascinating Look at Midcentury Churches in the Valley

Devotion to Form: A Fascinating Look at Midcentury Churches in the Valley

After World War II, Valley churches went in a new architectural direction.

By Robrt L. Pela | Photography by Scott sandler

There was a time when every place of worship had a front door above which a steeple rose into the sky. You walked up a couple of steps, greeted the pastor (or the priest, or the rabbi), and headed inside to check in with your deity.

But after World War II, according to historic preservationist Roger Brevoort, the architecture of local churches began to change. 

“For decades in Phoenix, our churches had typical Anglican and European Gothic designs with gabled roofs,” he says. “They were massive, ornate cathedral-like structures.”
However, following Phoenix’s post-war population explosion, the need to expand housing meant more architects, many of whom were young and wanted to experiment with residential home designs. 

“Changes in residential design usually lead to similar trends in the conception of public buildings, particularly branch banks and churches,” Brevoort says.

Here in the Valley, those changes took the form of Expressionist designs featuring curves and flowing shapes; peaked roofs; and concrete used to create sculptural and sometimes symbolic figures. 

The location of local midcentury churches also had something to do with their form, says Phoenix preservationist and historian Donna Reiner. 
“Post-World War II designs were more likely to reflect the time and place where the religious building was constructed,” Reiner explains. “The architect and the congregation wanted the building to be an outward symbol of faith, while the interior contained all the symbolic elements and artifacts.”

One commonality among these local churches built in the 1960s and ’70s, Brevoort says, is that, design-wise, they’re all over the map.
“But each one of them is beautiful in its own right,” he says. “They’re like a road map of the trends in local architecture of 50 years ago.”

Shepherd of the Hills Congregational United Church of Christ

5524 E. Lafayette Blvd., Phoenix
Architect Francis A. Schulz designed several local churches in the  ’60s and  ’70s, and this is among his best. Built in 1971, its classic A-frame design (a church template favored in the 1950s) emphasizes the building’s single-pitch, prow-front feature. Tucked behind the narrow pillars that decorate the building’s sides are stained glass windows that reflect colorful light onto the interior walls.

This one’s a perfect example of a late midcentury design trend in church buildings, Brevoort says. “Many churches of this era have entrances in the back or on the side because that’s where the parking lots were located,” he points out.

Reiner agrees. “By this time, people weren’t walking to a neighborhood church,” she explains. “They were driving there from all over the Valley and needed someplace to park.”

Ascension Church of Phoenix

1801 E. Osborn Road, Phoenix
Originally a Baptist church, this house of worship was built in 1955. Architect Richard Britt designed a residential and classroom addition in 1970.

“There are so many styles in this design,” Reiner observes, “but the emphasis is on modernism. Often these churches weren’t designed by an architect, but by committee. The pastor wanted one thing; the “congregation wanted something else, and you end up with all of them. In this case, there’s integrity in the design, but not a lot of continuity.”

Brevoort points out that Ascension’s use of clerestory windows, aluminum awnings and the fact that the entrance faces the parking lot are callbacks to ’50s design. The peculiar boxlike structure flanking the steeple features a Ralph Haveresque reference: a masonry crucifix framed by breeze block.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

5033 N. 38th Ave., Phoenix
This one doesn’t say ‘church’ to me,” Brevoort says with a chuckle. “It looks more like a bank,” albeit a gorgeous one.

Designed in 1964, it has a curved façade of tri-colored red brick. Classrooms and meeting halls, designed by architect Ross Jensen in 1969, are attached and flank the prominent face of the design. The entrance has been slotted into the side of the building, allowing congregants to enter the temple from the parking lot. The defining Expressionist detail is its stunning, free-form steeple. A pair of narrow columns—one masonry, the other red brick—flank a steel spire, all three shooting into the sky in a crafty symbol of ascension.

Phoenix Camelback Seventh-Day Adventist Church

5902 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix
Its low-slung, Prairie-style main building is capped with geometric details that suggest an office building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But it’s this campus’s spaceship-shaped fellowship hall that gives it distinction among Valley churches. Designed in 1963 by Melverne Ensign, the neo-Expressionist round building was the congregation’s main sanctuary space until Stanley Stein added to the property in 1976. The building now acts as its fellowship hall.

“It’s futuristic and has an edge,” Reiner says of the domed structure. “It reminds me of Tomorrowland. I wonder if Ensign took a trip to Disneyland while he was designing this.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Seventh Ward

1835 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix
Built in the 1970s by Mesa-based architectural firm Shill, Judd, Richards and Associates, this Mormon church is dressed in embellishments both modern and contemporary. Classically neo-Expressionist, its ancillary buildings are connected to either side of the temple by glass and brick breezeways. That temple, framed by a wide expanse of lawn, offers a socko tower of louvered masonry columns as its main façade.

“The modern elements are probably there because this building may have been revamped over the years by different architects,” says Reiner. “A prominent steeple attached to the building like this is a characteristic of Mormon churches.”

Living Streams Church

7000 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
This is a real ‘Look at me’ church,” Reiner says of the former First Baptist Church on Central Avenue. Built in the late 1960s, this sand-colored beauty’s unadorned, bare concrete façade, monochromatic palette and simple, graphic lines all reference Brutalist architecture of the era. Its stained-glass-studded, three-bell tower does double duty as a soaring steeple that all but eclipses the building below.

“The design is a bold statement,” Reiner says, “and not at all what one would imagine a Baptist church would look like, especially one built in the late 1960s. It’s one of those buildings where you really want to see what the interior looks like.”


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