A Shadysider born after the mid 20’s remembers only our present sanctuary.  In 1937-38, the church undertook a major remodeling of the space, and just a handful of photos exist of the former arrangement.  The sanctuary as built in 1890 was very much of its time, in fact quite similar to the predecessor church. 


1890 Sanctuary                                                 Sanctuary After 1937  

(all 1890 interior views courtesy of Shepley, Bullfinch, Richardson & Abbot, Boston ) (5)

Before the mid-nineteenth century, the two predominant sanctuary arrangements were the nave-chancel and the meetinghouse.  The former, an ancient arrangement, is well suited to worship that is liturgical, processional and centered on the eucharistic rite.  Clergy perform the rite within the chancel and the congregation observes from a long, narrow nave.  By comparison, the meetinghouse shape is adapted for preaching and hearing.  The room is wide and the depth of the room short – to minimize the distance from pulpit to listener.

Two seemingly incompatible trends – revivalism and a liturgical movement – combined to create a worship space not terribly different than a theater.  The Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s was driven by emotional preaching from a stage-like structure with the people arrayed around it.  Conversion of lost souls predominated over participatory worship.  Later in the century, some congregations came to consider this insufficiently sophisticated for their needs and status.  Churches favored more structured worship orders with greater reliance on music and ritual, while still stressing preaching.

A theater arrangement resulted.  A stage with a modest pulpit offered the preacher a prominent platform, with freedom of movement.  A pipe organ and choir or quartet served as back-drop and satisfied the desire for more formal music.  The seating was arrayed in a semi-circle in a proportion neither narrow as a nave nor broad as a meetinghouse.  The auditorium floor was often sloped up from front-to-back to promote good visibility and hearing from each seat. (1)


1875 Church                                      1875 Pews & Chancel

Shadyside’s churches of 1875 and 1890 both made use of these features.  A variation on the semi-circle, the 1875 seats were set out on an octagonal pattern.  They sat on three distinct levels, giving the sight line advantages of a sloping floor.  Shadyside retained a meetinghouse proportion, with its width nearly twice the depth, unlike some churches choosing theatre seating.  This shape was touted in local newspaper accounts, which also noted that all seats faced the preaching position.

1875 Floor Plan

The diagram here was to aid in the process of purchasing pews.  Although still a common practice in the late 1800s, many of the churches who chose theatre-style sanctuaries discontinued it (and some later resumed it).  It is interesting to note that pew prices at Shadyside ranged from $10 to $150 (a few at the back were free), the choice seats were two-thirds back on the center aisle.

And so, while the original seating arrangement of the 1890 structure (Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, Boston ) did not break new ground, the photos show that the lantern-great arch arrangement suited the layout well.  The lantern tower defines a cubical space for the main portion of the church.  This combines with short transepts and a short extension toward the entrance to accommodate the seating arrangement.  The pews now clearly curved, but the radius was large and not all seats face the pulpit directly.  Natural light into this cubical space from the clerestory windows avoids a cavernous feeling, a notable improvement on most churches of its day.

1890 Sanctuary enlarged

The more reflective color of the inside of the great arches enhanced natural light.  We do not have information on the interior color of the church.  The walls appear to be plastered, painted and perhaps stenciled.  It seems doubtful that the church was as vibrant Boston ’s Trinity Church , on which its general form was patterned.  Trinity used blue, rose and gold and was specifically termed a “color church.”  These might have been in Shadyside’s palette, with less predominance of rose and gold

    1890 Wall detail


Trinity Church , Boston   interior color (courtesy Trinity Boston Preservation Trust)

The focal point of the sanctuary – the stage – must have seemed dark, certainly compared to the clerestory and transepts.  There was no significant light under the front arch and dark wood was used for the stage and paneling.  The organ pipes may have been the only relief in this view.

1890 Sanctuary toward entrance(west)

A close inspection of the photos indicates that the sanctuary floor may have been sloped only in the section toward the entrance.  (The column bases appear to be the same height at the front and the back of the central area.)  This is logical, since the elevation of the stage would provide line-of-sight to the seating in the main section of the sanctuary.

 1890 Sanctuary door detail

It might surprise some to see pointed arches above the round arch doors at the corners of the sanctuary.  It is true that this shape is mainly associated with Gothic architecture.  However the door arrangement is not an anachronism, as pointed arches were known and used during the Romanesque era (1000 – 1150 AD).  Were the architects striving for variety, confident in their historical grounding?


             1890 Interior frieze and modillions         Corresponding exterior grotesque-modillions

The internal detailing of the original sanctuary was slightly more elaborate that the remodeled one.  Visible on the walls above the great arches are bands of moldings and a series of modillions.  These modillions correspond to an analogous feature on the exterior of the tower.  The carved grotesques (alternating faces and foliage) are similarly located below the window arcade.

1890 Sanctuary Chancel detail enlarge

A somewhat later photo indicates some changes in the stage platform.  A new organ is apparent (the former one having been brought from the previous building) with clearly Romanesque detailing to match the church.  The stage front finish has been changed from bead board to raised panels.  A more imposing pulpit (possibly built-in) replaces a somewhat modest pulpit/lectern.  The centrality of the preaching position is maintained.

A change is also noted in the communion table.  The original, located on the floor in front of the stage, has four simple legs.  The later table, similarly located, has eight legs.  A low rail or modesty screen can be seen to either side of the communion table in the older photo.  Inside this rail are ten chairs immediately in front of the stage, presumably for Church Elders.  The rails and chairs are absent in the later picture.  The location of the baptismal font cannot be discerned with certainty in either photo.

Chancel ca. 1918 enlarge

We are fortunate to have a commentary on this photo from the late Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr., professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and son of Hugh Thomson Kerr, pastor of Shadyside from 1912 to 1945. (2)  In about 1981, Dr. Kerr, Jr., wrote:

The old picture of the inside of the Church prior to 1938, is especially meaningful to me for I grew up in this Church and knew it inside and out!  My guess is that the photo was 1917-1918, as indicated by the two “service flags.”  One hangs over the central pulpit and was, of course, red, white and blue – the blue (not showing up in the photo) was made up of about 100 stars for the enlisted men and women. The flag on the far right contained a few gold stars on a white panel with a very large red background.  Over the choir loft are five flags.

The flowered arbors and potted ferns, were always put up for the “commencement” exercises of the Sunday School, probably in May.  Children and teachers sat in the front row of pews and came up in and through the wicket gates to receive citations, awards, Bibles, etc.  My father always preached a special children’s sermon, much to everyone’s delight!

The organist sat with his back to the congregation, except for the sermon.  The heads and shoulders of choir and organist were visible to the congregation, so they were very much “on the spot.”  In those days it was a quartette.

There were doors to the pulpit area, one behind the American flag to the minister’s study, and the other behind the gold service flag to the choir dressing and music room.  But, there was also a door from this music room directly to the choir loft.  And there was a small door just to the right of the organ, hidden within the wooden panel, that led into the organ machinery – a place that fascinated small boys.  The organ pipes were dull gold in color, and bets were sometimes waged, I used to hear, as to the exact number.

Note the two eagles on either side of the small register of pipes.  The eagle can be the symbol for John the Fourth Evangelist, a general emblem of the soaring intermediary between earth and heaven, an image of the fugitive human soul, or, in Pittsburgh , just a reminder of the American Eagle triumphant!

Church histories note the refurbishing of the sanctuary in 1919, mainly the addition of the Wallace H. Rowe memorial narthex screen and the marble laid aisles.  Since the aisles in the photo are obviously carpet, we can fix the date of the picture as sometime before 1919 and probably either 1917 or 1918.

Dr. Kerr’s observation that the musicians were “on the spot” points up what has what has been seen both as an advantage and problem with the arrangement.  The prominent position of the choir and organist suited the growing mid-nineteenth century emphasis on music.  Through much of the twentieth century, a skepticism about “performance” in worship moved choirs away from front and center.  (In some quarters, this has reversed again, with praise bands playing and singing from stages in “contemporary” worship.)

And so, for the present building’s first half century, Shadyside’s sanctuary had many features of the theater style arrangement.  These were also present in the predecessor church.  By the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, ideas about worship space were changing in the United States .  Many “mainline” churches responded to yet another liturgical impulse.  A more archeological correct neo-Gothic movement in architecture prescribed a nave chancel-arrangement. (3)

Shadyside at worship today

Shadyside responded in 1937-38. (4)  That change placed a greater specific emphasis on worship in both Word and Sacrament.  Four specific liturgical centers (pulpit, lectern, table and font) are in prominent view.  It accords well with the present order of worship, increased frequency of communion and high standard of preaching.  In fact, a case can be made that the architecture has influenced worship as well as responded to it.

(1) See “ When Church Became Theatre”  Jeanne Halgren Kilde   Oxford University Press 2002

(2) Dr. Kerr letter to Shadyside’s newsletter, ca. 1981

(3) See “Building The House Of God”  Elbert M. Conover   The Methodist Book Concern  1928

(4) See


(5)  SBRA is the successor firm to Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge and to H. H. Richardson see