Shadyside Presbyterian Church Architectural Tour



Just two decades after its founding, Shadyside Presbyterian Church began planning its third building at the corner of Amberson and Westminster.  A growing congregation, a water related foundation problem and (in no small part) an admiration of the latest architectural style led the church to decide, in 1888, it wanted "a Richardson church."  Henry Hobson Richardson, America's leading architect of the nineteenth century, had designed the Allegheny County Courthouse & Jail in his signature adaptation of the Romanesque Revival.

Romanesque, the style of monumental buildings of Western Europe from the eleventh into the thirteenth century, was characterized by heavy masonry construction, sturdy round arches, horizontal bands of fenestration and a combination of Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine features.  The Revival of Romanesque made its way  to the United States in the 1840s and was sparked to wide popularity by Richardson, starting in the 1870s.

Richardson died very young in 1886, before the Allegheny County buildings were finished.  Even Shadyside Church could not get a Richardson design from beyond the grave.  And so, they engaged his designated successor firm, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge to build their new church (1890) and chapel (1892).  A basic pattern was Richardson's Trinity Church in Boston, a "lantern church."

The square central tower with its pyramidal roof is known as a lantern, a feature found in medieval churches - often to admit light to an otherwise dark interior.  Shadyside's lantern is surrounded by gabled transepts and similarly shaped narthex and eastern extension.  The combination forms a Greek cross in plan, resulting in a broad and compact preaching hall.  The composition aims successfully for Richardson's often-articulated goal for such buildings - repose.

On the site of Shadyside Church's original worship building, the Chapel originally included a small worship space, a place for the congregation to gather and a kitchen.  [The upper floor was transformed into a more formal worship space and a parlor in the early 1950s.]  This basic complex remained intact until the 1930s, with the exception of a Chapel extension in 1908 (below, left).  The Pastor's Study (below, right) is original construction.

The original sanctuary was an ideal setting for the nineteenth century emphasis on preaching and connection among worship leaders and congregation members.  The Reformed tenet of the Lord's Supper as a participatory celebration placed the communion table on the centerline of the nave, below the speaking platform and central pulpit.

In 1937-38, Shadyside Church made a radical change to its worship space, using the divided chancel design.  This refers to a division between the nave and chancel - a division which, at Shadyside, is clear but does not represent a sharp distinction between worship leaders and worshipers.  Four worship centers are clearly defined:  the pulpit, lectern, communion table and baptismal font.  These speak to a balanced view of worship in Word and sacrament - the Word proclaimed, the Word read and the Word made visible in the Lord's Supper and Baptism.

After the intimate and worshipful shape of the sanctuary, first time visitors are surprised to see the obviously Byzantine mosaic of the Transfigured Christ.  It is installed in the apse which was extended, in 1938, from the chancel (itself carved from the space previously devoted to the church organ and to office space.

On the congregations right, a much-beloved Tiffany window (a feature of the original sanctuary) depicts in stained glass Corregio's Nativity.  The balance of the windows, from the late teens and early twenties, show Christ's life and ministry in a more archeologically correct - if less dramatic - stained glass design. 

Explicit Christian symbolism is found throughout the 1938 sanctuary - unusual for a Reformed church, but consistent with Byzantine execution of the redesign.  The conception of the furnishings and symbols is firmly rooted in a focus on Jesus Christ, as revealed in God's Word.

Surprisingly, the use of carved symbolism and ornament inside the church followed that used outside on the original construction.  Before there was the Winged Lion symbol of St. Mark (above left), worshipers were greeted at the front door by the regal visages of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Far above on the lantern tower, purely ornamental grotesques looked down on visitors.  A lovely by-product of the 1938 construction was the cloister formed between church and chapel by the addition of office space on the north.

Shadyside Church has been fortunate to be able to add to the structure in the same style and with compatible materials.  New construction has been done to the north of the original buildings.  In 1953, the Parish Hall was completed with a combination gathering hall-gymnasium, stage, classrooms and kitchen.

Needing more meeting and classroom space for a growing ministry,  the church built a near mirror-image of the original South Porch to the North (below) in the early 1980s.  A decade later, the soot from Pittsburgh's former smoky years was removed from the original buildings.

For several years the theme of Shadyside Church's ministry has been "Building Community" within the congregation, in Pittsburgh and in the world.  In 2009, after years of prayer and planning, the church started construction to make its home more welcoming, a warmer place to gather with better facilities for learning and serving.  Renovations were complete in the Fall of 2010.

A recognizable entrance on Amberson Avenue invites visitors on weekdays.

The cloister courtyard within the new entrance has been transformed into a warm gathering space for fellowship, The Sharp Atrium.  The exterior of the sanctuary apse makes an intriguing architectural feature.

The Chapel interior has a lovely new finish, consistent with its Romanesque Revival roots and the pews have been replaced with movable seating to add versatility to the space.

A new stairwell allows direct access to the Parish Hall from the Atrium & Sanctuary - in the process re-establishing an axis of circulation used by horse-drawn carriages arriving at the porte-cochere in the cloister.

The wainscoting and exquisite stone trim were unusual features when the Parish Hall doubled as a basketball court.  The gym floor was refinished, new lighting a coffered ceiling and fireplace were added to make this a comfortable space for larger gatherings.

At the north end of the Parish Hall a stage was converted to the Hulme Room for meetings and classes.  The windows duplicate those which formerly only lit the stage.

Other renovated spaces are used for Sunday School, the Nursery, Youth along with the Parlor and staff offices.

All of the renovations are within the existing footprint of the historic structure, so the familiar building continues to be an integral part of its neighborhood.

Blessed with this wonderful home by the foresight and generosity of preceding generations, the present congregation is looking ahead to make the renovations a gift to future Shadysiders and those they serve.  And, while the architecture is precious and beloved, worship of the Triune Living God is central to everything at Shadyside Church.