National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Religious Structures of Woodward Avenue
Creator: United States Department of the Interior Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service
Subjects: Historic Designation, Corporate Records
Description: A broad description of what the organization discovered in its information collection between 19 different churches along Woodward in Detroit.
Original Format: Other
Contributor: Carlton Rolle
Transcript: Woodward Avenue was first developed during the Civil War era as one of the Detroit's finest residential streets, rivaling Jefferson Avenue and West Fort Street in prominence. As West Fort Street and the downtown faded in residential importance during the late 1860s and 1870s, Woodward Avenue was built-up with the magnificent mansions of Detroit's industrial and mercantile elite. By the 1890s the street was completely developed as far north as today's Ford Freeway with a splendid procession of opulent upper-class mansions interspersed with some-of the city's finest churches.
After the turn of the century, Woodward Avenue experienced a rapid transition to commercial and multiple dwelling use. Many of the original occupants of the mansions died during the first two decades of the twentieth century. With their heirs already settled in their own homes in more fashionable suburbs such as the Grosse Pointes and the north Woodward Avenue subdivisions of Boston and Edison, Arden Park, Virginia Park and Palmer Woods, the old parental dwellings were razed for commercial or institutional use or converted to multiple-occupancy rental properties: The widening of Woodward Avenue in 1935-36 resulted in the demolition of virtually every remaining dwelling on the east side of Woodward between the central business district and Forest Avenue, as well as necessitating the rebuilding of the church facades. During the 1950s and 1960s most of
the remaining mansions that had not been destroyed to make way for new construction were demolished for parking lots.
Today Woodward Avenue from the Fisher Freeway to the Cultural Center is a broad, barren
expanse of asphalt lined with mostly undistinguished early twentieth century brick and terracotta commercial buildings and post World War II strip development such as motels,
gas stations, and fast food restaurants. Only the magnificent churches on the east side of the street, the National Register-listed Orchestra Hall, and two mansions on the west side, the palatial David Whitney House (listed in the National Register) and the Smith House next to the Maccabees Building, are of historical architectural significance.
North of Warren Avenue is the Cultural Center, where the white marble Public Library and Detroit Institute of Arts face each other across Woodward Avenue surrounded by other impressive institutional buildings. Bordering the Cultural Center to the north is the late Victorian residential East Ferry Avenue National Register District which flanks both sides of Woodward Avenue with imposing, turn-of-the-century mansions. North of the East Ferry Avenue District, Woodward is lined with early twentieth century apartment buildings, a few former single-family houses, now converted to commercial use, and modest commercial structures of varying twentieth-century vintages. Woodward's heterogeneous character of mixed uses and non-cohesive streetscapes continues through Highland Park.
In evaluating the Woodward Avenue religious structures against the general National Register criteria, particular attention was given to the following, more specific set of considerations:
1. Architectural and artistic significance of the structure in terms of its period of construction, architectural style, plan and form, and decorative finish.
2. Significance of the structure by virtue of its association with a notable architect and as a significant example of that architect's work.
The Woodward Avenue religious structures exhibit a considerable diversity in age, architectural style, and plan and form. Most occupy large corner lots and--except for those buildings along the section of the avenue from downtown Detroit to Forest Avenue which, because of the 1935-36 widening, now sit directly on the sidewalk line--are set well back from the street line and fronted by at least a narrow fringe of lawn. Many structures have deep front or side lawn areas, mature trees, and shrub plantings.
The nominated Woodward Avenue religious structures date from 1859 to 1930. They comprise three High Victorian Gothic churches, built in the 1859-87 period; two Richardsonian Romanesque structures, built between 1889 and 1896; two Neo-Classical synagogues, dating from 1902 to 1922; five Gothic-style, central-plan auditorium churches, constructed in the 1909-26 period; and seven Neo-Gothic churches, erected between 1908 and 1930. All are of stone or brick construction, the majority having walls of grayish limestone, brown or reddish sandstone, or, in the case of two of the earliest churches, limestone trimmed with dark sandstone. All three of the brick churches have limestone trimmings.
A majority or the nineteen properties are complexes which contain, in addition to the sanctuary itself, a parish house or educational building, chapel, or, in one case, a rectory. The parish house/educational wing structures are appended either to the rear or to one side of the sanctuary building--in the latter case giving the entire structure an L-plan form. Of the separate parish house/educational wing structures which eleven of the complexes contain, two are flat-roof, modern, non-contributing structures. The other nine were either constructed as an integral part of the main building or were added in the early twentieth century. Four of the complexes retain the modest chapels in which their congregations held services prior to the construction of their present sanctuaries; in each case the old chapel is now located directly behind the present church.
Except for those buildings directly affected by the 1935-36 road widening project, the Woodward Avenue religious structures have not suffered extensively from exterior alterations. The alterations that have been made consist mainly of replacements of original entrance doors with modern plate-glass, aluminum-frame ones. In the interiors, too, renovations have been few and have consisted for the most part of pulpit and chancel furnishing and light fixture replacements and, more rarely, the replacement of pews.
The religious structures of Woodward Avenue comprise a superb representation of the changing trends in American ecclesiastical design from 1860 to 1930. St. John's Episcopal Church (church, 1860-61, and chapel, 1859) is the oldest church still standing along the avenue. Built as an auditorium church with galleries on three sides cantilevered out from the walls and with a hammerbeam-truss roof without any intermediary piers for support (the interior retains its auditorium church form despite the fact that piers to support the roof were added when the church was moved back in 1936), St. John's is significant as one of the most fully developed Early Victorian, Gothic Revival, English parish-church-type church buildings in Detroit and Michigan built during and remaining from the brief period before ecclesiological correctness became institutionalized as a fundamental principle of design for Gothic-style, Episcopal churches (Christ Church in Detroit, probably Michigan's first more or less ecclesiologically "correct" Episcopal church, was begun the same year St. John's was completed).
For other Protestant sects, however, the boxlike auditorium church with galleries on three sides was the rule rather than the exception throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century in Detroit and throughout the nation. Two particularly significant examples remain on Woodward Avenue: the Central United Methodist Church of 1866-67 and the Woodward Avenue Baptist Church of 1886-87. Both churches are adaptations of Gothic Revival, parish churches to auditorium churches, designed to accommodate large congregations as closely as possible about the pulpit--in the case of Central Methodist, through the use of galleried, semi-hexagonal "transepts" and, in the case of Woodward Avenue Baptist, through the use of a nearly square, Greek-cross arrangement and the use of thin cast iron gallery and roof piers that blocked very little of the view toward the pulpit. The shortening of both churches in the 1930s affected very little the qualities which give these structures their architectural significance. Central Methodist was at the time of its construction considered Michigan's finest Methodist church; it seems likely that the same place among the state's Baptist churches could be claimed for the Woodward Avenue church.
Richardsonian Romanesque became a national style in the 1880s and 1890s for large buildings of all types. A considerable number of stone churches in that ponderous massive style were built in Detroit and several notable examples remain on Woodward Avenue. Mason & Rice's First Presbyterian Church of 1889, modeled after H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church (1872-79) in Boston, and the First Congregational Church of 1891, designed by Boston architect John Lyman Faxon and patterned after that architect's Newton Center (Mass.) Baptist Church of 1886, are both already listed in the National Register. The First Unitarian Church of 1889-90 by Donaldson & Meier and St. Joseph's Episcopal Church of 1893-96 by Malcomson & Higginbotham are both notable in a statewide context as fine examples of Richardsonian churches and in at least a local context as important works of their designing firms--both of them among the leading Detroit firms in the 1890s. Many of Woodward Avenue's early twentieth-century churches are notable in architectural terms as particularly fine or typical but well preserved auditorium churches of the central or Akron plan. In churches of this type, the room was squarish rather than oblong and surrounded on three and, often, four sides by broad galleries. The main floor often sloped slightly downwards toward the pulpit and the pews were almost invariably arranged in concentric arcs radiating out from the pulpit. With its beautiful, almost purple-colored, stone exterior and octagonal, domed sanctuary, the 1910-11 Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church is one of Michigan's finest central-plan, auditorium churches. The 1909-1910 First Baptist Church is notable for its broad auditorium which is built on a plan that represents the ultimate expression of the auditorium church ideal in that the gallery entirely encircles the room and the choir and organ are centrally located in the gallery above and behind the pulpit. The 1916-17 Highland Park First United Methodist Church has a true Akron-plan arrangement in which the main auditorium perimeter is ringed by two tiers of Sunday school classrooms/seating which could easily be converted from one use to the other as the circumstances required.
The same spirit of reform and missionary zeal that led to developments in church planning--such as the central-plan auditorium church--designed to centralize all the elements of the service in one location and gather the congregation about this worship center as closely as possible resulted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the development of institutional churches in urban areas. Urban Protestant churches, suddenly faced with the challenge to traditional Christian values posed by urban life, began to create a new type of church to minister to the mental, physical, and social, as well as spiritual, well-being of their own communicants and their neighbors. In Detroit the Metropolitan United Methodist Church became one of the leading institutional churches. Its enormous complex, built 1922-26, housed not only a sanctuary, bible school auditorium, and chapel, but also club meeting rooms, dining rooms, class¬rooms, and a gymnasium. Metropolitan is an unusually large, elaborate, and handsome example of this peculiarly early twentieth-century phenomenon.
While the central-plan, auditorium church represented one end of the spectrum in Christian church design at the turn of the century, Gothic churches continued to characterize the other end. At the end of the nineteenth century the Gothic Revival was infused with new life. Under the pioneering efforts of such architects as Henry Vaughan, William Halsey Wood, Ralph Adams Cram, and Bertram G. Goodhue, a new strain of Gothic evolved which, although based on medieval prototypes, developed from, rather than copied, them. Although the movement first aroused the interests mainly of the Episcopalians and Catholics, it gradually took on a broad-based, interdenominational appeal. Seven architecturally significant examples of this new Gothic stand on Woodward Avenue. The earliest, the 1908-1911 St. Paul's Cathedral (Episcopal) by Ralph Adams Cram, is a key landmark in the early development of the movement. The other six churches--the North Woodward Congregational Church of 1910-1911, the Catholic Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament of 1913-15, Trinity United Methodist Church of 1922-23, St. Joseph's Episcopal Church of 1926-27, the Central Woodward Christian Church of 1926-28, and the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church of 1929-30--are significant together as an illustration of the architectural diversity which characterized the movement and of its broad inter¬denominational appeal (the six churches housed congregations of six different denominations).
Two former synagogues of Congregation Beth-El located on Woodward Avenue occupy important places in the history of American synagogue design. Built in 1902-1903 and 1921-22 as successive homes of Michigan's oldest Jewish congregation, they were both designed by the Detroit architect Albert Kahn who, best known for his pioneering work in reinforced-concrete factory design, was a member of the congregation. Both Detroit temples, like many synagogues around the country built from the 1890s to the 1920s, reflected in their planning a certain kinship to the Protestant, central-plan, auditorium churches of that era. In the 1902-1903 Temple Beth-El, the broad auditorium was furnished with radial seating. It and an assembly room--with classrooms adjoining it separated from it by folding doors--were located on the same floor and separated by a lobby/corridor. The building also had men's and women's parlors and a library. The 1902-1903 temple is significant in that it was one of the first American synagogues planned as a total unit to accommodate the specific requirements of modern-day, Jewish worship and the cultural and social uses to which a modern synagogue would be put. The 1921-22 Temple Beth-El, a massive, square structure having a broad, domed auditorium with a sloping floor and radial seating, is notable as a major monument of early twentieth-century, Classical Revival, synagogue architecture in the United States.
A number of Woodward Avenue churches possess significance as notable works of architects who made important contributions to the development of the art of church design in Michigan, the Midwest, or the nation as a whole. Among the Woodward Avenue churches are structures by two architects who played significant roles in the transformations that took place in American church architecture around the turn of the century: Sidney Rose Badgley and Ralph Adams Cram. Badgley (1859-1917), of the Cleveland firm of Nicklas & Badgley, designed the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church of 1909-1911 and the Highland Park Presbyterian Church of 1910-11. A Protestant church architect of national prominence from the 1890s to the 1910s, Badgley was best known for his auditorium churches crowned by centrally positioned, steel-frame, octagonal, lantern domes which, unsupported by columns, rest on ribbed vaults projecting inward from piers at the corners or sides of the auditoria. The Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church exemplifies this innovation, which Badgley seems first to have used in his 1891-93 Epworth Memorial Methodist Church in Cleveland; with its symmetrical, two-towered form and Collegiate Gothic styling, the Woodward Avenue church is the direct descendant of Badgley's Washington Courthouse, Ohio, Methodist Church whose design, published in 1897 in William Wallace Martin's Manual of Ecclesiastical Architecture, served as the model for numerous churches in the Midwest and as far distant as Rhode Island. Badgley's Highland Park church, while not of the central-dome type, is also significant as a well preserved ex¬ample of a more standard auditorium church built along modified Akron-plan lines.
Ralph Adams Cram's St. Paul's Cathedral of 1908-11 is a major monument in the early career of its architect. The cathedral was designed and built during the period when the Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson firm was acquiring its national reputation for its Gothic churches. The firm was working to create a new and high style of Gothic architecture which, based upon the Gothic of the Middle Ages, began where it left off; St. Paul's is a large and important specimen of the firm's experimentation. Cram himself was highly pleased with the design.
Detroit architect Gordon W. Lloyd, designer of the Central United Methodist Church of 1866-67 on Woodward Avenue, was well known throughout a wide area of the Midwest in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s as a specialist in church architecture. Coming to Detroit in 1858, the English-born and -trained Lloyd (1832-1904) became Michigan's most prominent, nineteenth-century, church architect. Best known for his numerous Gothic-style.
Episcopal churches—examples of which still stand in Ann Arbor, Grosse Isle, Marshall, Kalamazoo, Holland, Saugatuck, Allegan, Marquette, and other Michigan communities, and in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg, Buffalo and Milwaukee--based loosely on the English parish church model, Lloyd designed churches for many other Protestant bodies and for Catholic parishes as well. Even in its current, somewhat truncated state, Central re¬mains one of Lloyd's key churches.
In the field of church architecture in Michigan, William E. N. Hunter of Detroit may be to the early twentieth century what Gordon W. Lloyd was to the late nineteenth. Hunter (1858-1947) designed a great number of Protestant churches for communities throughout every part of Michigan. He seems not to have been a pioneer in the field of church architecture, but rather one who adapted current developments in church planning and the current vocabulary of architectural styles to fit church buildings of relatively modest size. The Arts-and-Crafts-influenced, modified-Gothic-style Highland Park First United Methodist Church of 1916-17, with its Akron-plan auditorium, is a fine example of Hunter's early twentieth-century work. Hunter was a member of the Metropolitan United Methodist Church and Metropolitan, built 1922-26, is his masterpiece. It is said to have been the first million-dollar church in Methodism.
Woodward Avenue has significance as the premiere thoroughfare of Detroit and Highland Park. Fire destroyed the village of Detroit on June 11, 1805. Some months before, on January 11, 1805, Congress had created the Territory of Michigan, with Detroit as its capital. Governor William Hull arrived on July 1 and promptly appointed three territorial judges who, together with himself, constituted the executive and legislative authority.
Judge Augustus B. Woodward (1774?-1827) saw the fire as an opportunity to plan a new city. An attorney with a lively interest in urban planning, Woodward drew his vision from Pierre L' Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. Woodward had known the Frenchman as a client in his Washington law practice before moving to Detroit. The Woodward plan of 1807, while spiritually related to L' Enfant's, was generically quite different. The plan repeated six sections within an equilateral triangle or twelve sections with¬in a hexagon, while permitting unlimited expansion in any direction. Five wide, straight avenues radiating from five-and-one-half-acre, circular parks formed the heart of the plan. Woodward Avenue became the principal north-south thoroughfare in this early plan. Originally named Court Avenue since officials planned to build a courthouse at its northern terminus, the avenue was renamed "Wood-ward," it is said, not after the judge, but after the direction of the avenue "wood-ward" toward then existent forests a mile north of the river.
From 1807 until the 1850s commercial and residential growth in Detroit occurred mainly east and west of Woodward Avenue, particularly along Jefferson and Gratiot avenues and Fort Street, near the Detroit River. In this same time period Protestantism reared its head in heretofore predominantly French Catholic Detroit. Protestantism had first arrived in the city in 1764 when members of the British army forces stationed in Detroit, along with a few interested civilians, established Masonic lodge Zion No. 1. Following the American capture of Detroit in 1796, and for several years thereafter, Roman Catholic Father Gabriel Richard preached to local Protestants from a collection of non-denominational texts. Detroit's first organized Protestant church was a Methodist church which, established in 1810, served a wide area, including Detroit, from a church building located a short distance out of town "at the Rouge" in what is now Dearborn. In 1817 Detroit Protestants founded the non-denominational "First Evangelistic Society" (reorganized in 1825 as Presbyterian) and in 1819-20 built Detroit's first Protestant church building. The Methodists established a Detroit church in 1821, the Episcopalians in 1824, and the Baptists in 1827. Twelve German Jewish families established Temple Beth-El in 1850. Originally an Orthodox congregation, Beth-El soon began to adopt Reform practices which proved distasteful to tradition-oriented members. Dissidents formed the Orthodox Congregation Shaarey-Zedek in 1861. Until the time of the Civil War, the homes of all these religious bodies were located in and around the downtown.
After the Civil War, however, with the rapid growth of Detroit, the area north of Grand Circus Park along and near Woodward Avenue became established as the city's finest residential area -- a distinction it retained into the twentieth century. Several of Detroit's oldest religious bodies and a number of younger, second-generation bodies -¬Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish -- followed the migration of their memberships north¬ward out Woodward Avenue, the core artery for these northside neighborhoods. Other churches established missions or new churches for their members living north of downtown. The Woodward Avenue religious structures included in this nomination are the result of the continuation of this suburban growth from the 1860s to about 1930.