Taking A Step Down


When a significant change is made to something as substantial as a Romanesque Revival building, we expect some clues to be left behind.  Sometimes those clues are not easily discerned.  We know that Shadyside's original 1890 sanctuary floor was sloped at the back to improve visibility from the pews there.  The 1938 remodeling of the worship space removed this slope, a common feature of so-called theater-style preaching auditoriums.  We can assume that the reconstruction also lowered the narthex floor to suit. 

View toward back of 1890 sanctuary.  The floor from the arch forward was level, contrary to the illusion in this view.

1938 remodel in progress.  The original slope of the floor is apparent to the right of the arch column.

The lowered floor elevations necessitated a taller front entrance door.  This and associated changes were carried out so seamlessly that memory of them has faded.  A comparison of early and recent photos of the church's front facade reveals this dramatic modification.

Facade composite view, 1890 and 2011.

The lower edge of the 1938 door aligns with the bottom of the water table, two courses of smooth-faced stone that slope out to widen the base of the building.  The original door was two feet shorter, lining up with the top of the water table.  Obviously, the change reduced the number of steps at the front entrance.  Steps up to the South Porch entrance were eliminated.

Composite view detail

1890 view of South Porch with steps, 2011 view without steps

These exterior changes  do not attract attention because the landscape grade accommodates them and the opening sizes maintain reasonable proportions.  Since the beautiful Rowe Memorial Narthex Screen (1920) predated lowering of the floor, hiding the changes inside the church required careful design.  The photograph below reveals panels at the narthex ceiling to accommodate the taller room.  The screen walls rest on a limestone pedestal.  Since the doors extend to the floor, it is unclear whether they were lengthened in 1938.  The perfect detail match of the doors and walls indicates a masterful work of modification or replacement.

Rowe Memorial Narthex Screen

The photo-edited view below of the narthex floor shows that the window placement and scale differed in the original vestibule space.

West wall of existing narthex, with photo-edit simulation of pre-1938 arrangement.

The exquisite carving of the narthex screen continues on the sanctuary side and up to the balcony, including the staircases.  In the view above, it seems that three steps and probably the turn in the stairway were added to reach the lowered floor.  With the turn, the baluster rail also would be new to the 1938 remodel.  The "jump seat" pew, on the left above, is a functional way to disguise the extension of the stair paneling


Left:  Balcony staircase and "jump seat" pew


Composite showing relative viewing elevation of sculpted faces.

The change to the exterior entrance elevation also bears on a continuing small mystery of the 1890 design.  Two carved faces, to either side of the door, are thought to represent the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, symbolic of the Church and Jesus Christ, respectively.  The use of such imagery was somewhat unusual for a congregation in the Reformed tradition during the nineteenth century.  Although not at eye level even before 1938, they would have been more readily noticed to those passing the doors for worship. 

An analogous but more dramatic change took place at the Allegheny County Courthouse, a model for many features at Shadyside Church.  At what was the original main entrance elevation of the Courthouse, two sculpted lions greeted visitors.  The lowering and subsequent widening of Grant Street moved the entry to far below the lions, which patrons had sometimes touched for good luck in their legal matters.

Photo Courtesy of Shane Henderson


At Shadyside, the faces of the Queen and Solomon display no surprise at the changes which for some time were unrecognized, even to admirers of the church's architecture.