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Park Street Church by Daniel Rollet

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

In an age of the mobile church, with a growing number of congregations meeting in theaters and school gymnasiums, few 19th Century churches have been able to maintain the use and appeal of their historic facilities.  Church buildings around the world are adaptively reused as coffee shops, book stores and art galleries.  Yet deep in the heart of historic Boston lays a vibrant church community which has served its city for over two hundred years.

Erected in 1809 on the corner of Tremont Street and Park Street, Park Street Church’s steeple rises 217 feet above the east corner of the Boston Common.  Architect Peter Banner designed the church in a style similar to those of Christopher Wren in London.  Once the tallest building in America, Park Street Church exists at the center of an urban wheel, with spokes branching into the surrounding neighborhoods and towns by way of the oldest underground transit system in the United States.  The churches exterior projects a sense of place, anchored on one side by the Boston Common, and the other by the Historic Granary Burial Ground, the resting place of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.

As a member of Park Street for over three years, I often find myself marveling at the resiliency of this church.  With religious culture transforming at an astonishing rate, and Boston church attendance among the lowest in the country, it is easy for one to regard this historic church as a relic of the past.  One of the first stops on Boston’s Freedom Trail, I once found myself next to a tourist who, rising to leave, apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I thought this was a reenactment.”

Far from a reenactment, this landlocked building is a living and active community.  A cross-section of congregation shows generational and ethnic diversity, while the buildings cross section tells a story rich in beauty and depth.  

On Sunday morning, visitors are greeted with open doors atop a flight of steps rising from Tremont Street.  Through the doors is a formal vestibule with two elegantly curving stairs leading up to the meeting room.  This two-story space has a balcony on three sides, and with limited ornament, displays simplicity and focus with a wooden cross at the center.  Sitting in the balcony during worship, the space lifts the soul as the organ pipes echo behind and a sea of voices resound below.   In recent years, such sanctuary and focus is often set aside for flexibility and performance, found in the mega-church culture of America.

Below the sanctuary, the recently renovated lobby functions as a multi-use space equipped with movable partitions for ease of division.  A library flanks the lobby, serving as a place for quiet rest and reflection.  In the basement below, a kitchen and reception hall provide valuable function space and display an array of flags representing the church’s commitment to global missions.

During the week, visitors are greeted from Park Street, by means of the church’s accessible entry, and a modern gasket which links the historic church building to the rectory and staff offices.  The design of this gasket is meant to disappear, linking a stepping site from front to back, as well as the church’s four properties along Park Street.  Although in need of better internal accessibility, the church strikes a wonderful balance of transparency and solitude.

Transparency and solitude are the tools by which the church continues to operate in a world of change.  Established on two hundred year old foundations, Park Street Church survives in large part by acting as a conduit for a transient city.  Expanding and adapting with time, the building has worked well to bridge many generations of use.

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