From the Undercroft to the Chancel, Again




Archival research consists of long stretches of accretion of information, punctuated by exciting avalanches of discovery.  Shadyside Church’s Acting Senior Pastor, Reverend Jim Tinnemeyer, has been present at two such avalanches of architectural revelation.  The first involved the surfacing of drawings related to the end of the chancel design process for the church’s 1938 sanctuary remodeling.  (See Undercroft Find) The second avalanche provided much wider historical revelation, but in this article, we will look at documents related to the beginning of that remodeling process.

Jim’s recent find, once again in the church undercroft, is a metal file cabinet that had been pushed aside with its doors against a wall.  The contents consist of church records dating to its founding, apparently accumulated as research for the 1966 Centennial History of Shadyside Church.  Some material from the 1980s indicates it was accessed in the last three decades.


Proposed Shadyside Chancel, J. Steen, architect 1930 or before

Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives

A number of architectural documents surfaced, including two preliminary designs of the sanctuary chancel from the architect, Wilson Eyre & McIlvaine of Philadelphia.  They both eliminate the then-existing preaching platform and open the space formerly occupied by the pipe organ and offices.  Neither design was adopted as shown, but there are some tantalizing clues on one copy of one drawing that point toward the exquisite chancel we know today. *

Full size renderings of these two options were in the cabinet along with more formal architectural drawings that show the adopted design.  These two renderings appear to be a step between a drawing (above, of 1930 or earlier) from the James Steen architecture firm (Pittsburgh) and the arrangement as built. **  (See  Date of Origin) Several sets of letter size monochrome copies were also found, along with documents explaining the proposed architectural modifications.


Proposed Shadyside Chancel, rectangular apse, polychrome wall, wooden furnishings, Wilson Eyre & McIvaine, architect, 1936

Both alternatives include the low, open chancel, limestone walls, and leveled nave floor of the Steen proposal.  Steen’s drawing does not seem to show a pipe organ.  Both of the Wilson Eyre alternatives show tower-like structures for the organ at either side.  The towers claim a large portion of the newly-opened chancel.  Neither alternative shows the organ console.  Both indicate a low chancel rail (which was adopted).


Proposed Shadyside Chancel, semicircular apse, monochrome wall, stone furnishings, Wilson Eyre & McIvaine, architect, 1936

The most significant change from the Steen proposal is the addition of a raised apse to terminate the chancel.  Between Wilson Eyre’s two alternatives, a significant difference is the form of the apse – one, rectangular with a polychrome wall; the other, semicircular with a domical ceiling and monochrome walls.  It is interesting to note that the apse as we know it combines the two – semicircular, yet polychromatic in the form of the stunning Sheffler mosaic.  The rectangular version shows a wooden communion table, located perhaps just outside apse.  The semicircular version indicates a stone table within the apse, as built.  Stone seem to be shown for the chancel rail, pulpit and lectern.  For the subdued-color semicircular apse design, the rendering itself is monochrome.  (It also has a rather awkward depiction of the circular/domical apse interior, which might relate to a straight and curved apse wall.)

Both of Wilson Eyre’s proposed chancels seem quite crowed.  The organ “towers” only allow room for a choir stall on the pulpit side.  In both versions, the only direct access to the chancel is a stairway behind the lectern from the undercroft.  When a church does not employ a procession, the worship leaders often enter the chancel directly rather than through the nave.  In our present chancel there are entrances on each side (one of which connects to an undercroft stairway).  In the early alternatives, the pastors ascending the stairs might have appeared to be levitating through the floor of the chancel.  A more practical problem would have been the safety hazard of this open stair.


Detail, Wilson Eyre Chancel, showing stairway behind lectern from chancel to undercroft

Today’s chancel stems from the Steen design, with important elements culled from each Wilson Eyre alternative.  A crucial feature, the intermediate arch between the great arch at the east end of the nave and the apse, seems to appear on a pencil-marked, small copy of the semicircular apse drawing.


Wilson Eyre Chancel with pencil marking (emphasized here, enlarged view below ), Chancel as built

If we take the pencil line as showing its author’s intent drawn to approximate scale, the intermediate arch pushes the organ spaces to each side, effectively widening the chancel.  If the principal arch recedes a bit toward the apse, space is made for side entrances, like those that exist today.


Enlarged – pencil-marked copy of semicircular apse chancel

Pencil lines emphasized here for clarity

There are intriguing, if ambiguous, pencil marks in the apse.  A tentative interpretation is that they depict a reduction in the size of the apse – closer in proportion to the apse we have, which (aside from its more pleasing proportions) allows more room for choir stalls.  We should keep in mind that the high regard for excellence in worship music at Shadyside Church is a long tradition, extending from its very earliest days.

There are also some pencil marks at the right side of the intermediate arch space.  We might speculate that they indicate the organ console.  They correspond in location, although not in size, to the present console.  Neither Wilson Eyre alternative shows a baptismal font.  Both have a lectern with the traditional Eagle, emblematic of the Evangelist John, as the reading desk support.  The actual lectern is an inspired design in which the symbolic beasts of all four Evangelists support the Bible. (See Beasts of the Evangelists)

Detail, Wilson Eyre Chancel, St. John Eagle lectern, actual lectern

A case can be made that it was an architect who made these actual pencil emendations.  The intermediate arch clearly starts equidistant from center on both sides.  It also rises to the same height as the arch depicted on the rendering.  These might be intentional design features and they closely approximate the chancel as executed.

Another element of the information avalanche is a plan view of the chancel that is very close to the executed design.  We note that it finally indicates a baptismal font (octagonal in shape) with two alternate locations.  The location in the north transept (almost like a chapel) is less compatible with the Reformed tradition of Baptism as a corporate act.  The proposed alternate and the actual location, near the lectern, both place the celebration closer to the center of the gathered congregation, a continuing reminder of the sacrament even when it is not being observed.


Detail, plan view, Wilson Eyre Chancel, 1937  ***

Following the architectural documents that describe a new chancel for the church*** confirms the wisdom of Marty Powell, long-time Shadyside member and respected architect.  During the recent Building Community capital campaign, Marty reviewed early architectural ideas with Session.  He advised the elders, “If there are elements you don’t like in a preliminary design, don’t be alarmed.  The final result almost never looks like it.”

*This project began prior to 1930 as an improvement in sanctuary lighting and cleaning the walls, estimated at less than $90,000.  By the time construction started in 1937, it included a new chancel and offices, projected to cost at least $150,000.  At completion in 1938, the cost was recorded at almost $250,000.

**Church archives make reference to another set of chancel drawing by Dwight G. Wallace in 1930, which have not been found.

***We note that the date of the plan view above is February 9, 1937.  Significant changes to the chancel rail and furnishing are shown on drawings from late January 1938 by Charles Marcus Osborn, only  three months before the sanctuary was completed.  

Shadyside Church trustees' minutes record that Howard Heinz offered to have his architect for Heinz Chapel, Charles Z. Klauder, make suggestions for the remodeling and perhaps suggest an architecture firm.  This may have led to the selection of his fellow Philadelphians, Wilson Eyre & McIlvaine.  Later minutes may be inaccurate in the note that Messrs. Eyre and McIlvaine personally presented the renderings.  While they might have appeared for such an important commission (the firm is not noted for church architecture), both were apparently retired from active practice in 1936.