Disappearing Steeples? Not These Churches!
By: Ben Heimsath
How did I miss the eulogy for church steeples? Apparently, in 2011, a reporter from US News and World Report noticed lots of disappearing steeples and penned an article to mark the trend.
While thereís no question that some congregations have difficulty maintaining older buildings, our experience is that steeples, and similar structures, are increasingly important for churches and places of worship.
I noticed recently while driving along the outer loop in San Antonio that several churches have built massive steeples and are using them like billboards to get noticed. I believe this is just one of many ways the traditional steeple is evolving and adapting to modern culture.
A sampling of some of our recent project illustrates that the steeple is far from dead. Itís being restored or recreated, on older buildings. For new projects, the desire for a soaring vertical structure is still strong. And these sky-reaching, spiritual-connected forms arenít just for churches.
So, why do people think the church steeple is threatened? There is a well-reported trend of churches struggling to keep up their historic buildings. Steeples are one part of the church building where maintenance is easily deferred or overlooked. So, itís no surprise to see churches with heart-wrenching losses on the local, even national news.
Several of our church clients have made the restoration of their historic steeples a high priority.
For one client, the University United Methodist Church, the steeple was the featured element of a major preservation program.
This landmark church, a distinctive southwest adaptation of Richardsonian architecture, conducted a full exterior restoration program in 2010. The tower, with its tile roof, crafted limestone walls, and ornamental wood details, should now last well into the next century.
Designing a new steeple that fits the many styles and forms of contemporary churches is a difficult but exciting challenge. Too many new churches simply go to a catalogue or supplier to buy a pre-designed steeple with little regard to scale or style.
While these roof ornaments can signal the presence of a church, they do little to indicate the seriousness or importance of the steeple as an integral part of the worship environment or its design.
For the First Baptist Church in Dripping Springs, the Muns Company worked with us to adapt one of their pre-manufactured steeples to fit our design for an updated hill-country church. The congregation re-built a new and bigger building after a tragic fire destroyed their sanctuary. One of the few things saved was the original church bell. The steeple design features the bell hanging proudly within the structure.
St Albert of Trapani presented a different challenge. We designed a major expansion of their original sanctuary, built originally in the 60s in a modernist style.
The old building didnít have much of a presence on the main street, so for the redesign, congregation members suggested a steeple. Modernist architecture is characterized by bold, simple forms. The new steeple is a freestanding wall-type structure with a cut-away that features a simple cross.
A soaring architectural form that marks a worship space isnít limited to church design.
The new Austin Hindu Temple project gave us a chance to work with the traditional architects and artisans who specialize in the highly ornamented temples prescribed for the Hindu faith.
The main entry to the temple is the traditional Rajagopuram, or grand entry tower. Priests and worshippers leave their shoes outside and may even wash themselves before proceeding through the portal.
We completed the requirements for the structure and layout of the building, based on the requirements of the Sthapathi the architectural expert from India. His craftsmen, or Shilpis, will be working for the next several years in completing the sacred ornamentation.
A similar structure in California shows the intricate quality of this construction.
Ben Heimsath is principal and managing partner of Heimsath Architects, www.heimsath.com.