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American Sanctuary

Understanding Sacred Spaces

Edited by Louis P. Nelson

Publication Year: 2006

This volume examines a diverse set of spaces and buildings seen through the lens of popular practice and belief to shed light on the complexities of sacred space in America. Contributors explore how dedication sermons document shifting understandings of the meetinghouse in early 19th-century Connecticut; the changes in evangelical church architecture during the same century and what that tells us about evangelical religious life; the impact of contemporary issues on Catholic church architecture; the impact of globalization on the construction of traditional sacred spaces; the urban practice of Jewish space; nature worship and Central Park in New York; the mezuzah and domestic sacred space; and, finally, the spiritual aspects of African American yard art.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This volume found its genesis in two iterations of a graduate research seminar entitled “American Sacred Space” taught in 2001 and 2002 in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Between the two iterations, the seminar drew students not only from my home department of Architectural History but also from Religious Studies, History, English, Landscape Architecture, and even from other universities. Students in those seminars read...


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pp. xi-xiv

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-14

What do we mean by sacred space? Consider for a moment scenes in an American city. Most mornings, Chicago’s elevated trains—the “El”—carry me downtown from my North Side apartment. On my way to the train, I pass an unassuming frame house with an ever- changing array of plastic and concrete yard ornaments ranging from St. Francis and doves to Mickey and Santa. A mailbox on the fence offers blessings to the passerby. A block later, ...

I. Inscription

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pp. 15-16

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2. New England Orthodoxy and the Language of the Sacred

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pp. 17-36

The writers of this book all want to know what places mean. We are interested in what they look like, certainly, and look at them very closely. But the complexity of meanings is not fully evident in the form of a place, no matter how thoroughly and intently we examine it. How much better if we were there to witness a ritual event, watch the actors move and interact, and sense the emotion. But would even this be enough? Suppose that we could talk to...

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3. God in Gotham

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pp. 37-64

Following a visit made to Central Park at the end of the nineteenth century, author Annie Nathan Meyer wrote of the rich sensory experience offered by the Mall—one of the most frequently visited spaces in the park (Fig. 3.1). She declared, “It is here that I worship. My cathedral sweeps majestically before me.” The Mall takes its form from an allée of trees arranged in parallel rows 1,200 feet in length outlining the nave and side aisles of Meyer’s “cathedral.”...

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4. The Urban Practice of Jewish Space

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pp. 65-86

In 1959, Rabbi Tzvi Eisenstadt, acting on behalf of the Jewish residents of Manhattan, contracted to rent the five boroughs of the city of New York—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island—for the token sum of one dollar for a period of forty-nine years, until 2008.1 This unconventional exchange activated a type of space—known by its Hebrew name, eruv—which would serve a practical ritual purpose for a segment of New York’s...

II. Identity

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pp. 87-88

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5. Salvage/Salvation: Recent African American Yard Shows

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pp. 89-102

Yard art is virtually ubiquitous in America. Decorated wagon wheels and tractor-tire planters, painted rocks and antlers, whirligigs and intricate mailboxes turn up from sea to shining sea, skipping only over the most relentlessly high-style neighborhoods: that the phenomenon is known as yard art rather than garden art is itself a clue to its social origins and to its place in vernacular culture. But among African Americans—and especially in the South—yard art has...

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6. Spaces for a New Public Presence

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pp. 103-127

On the road to the Goddard Space Center just inside the Capital Beltway, nine golden finials atop an ornate white tower of a grand Hindu temple shimmer from the rolling Maryland countryside (Fig. 6.1). In June of 2002, the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham formally consecrated the Rajagopura (tower-gate) and the new Vasantha Mandapa (entrance hall), ending an ambitious building program that began in 1988. I witnessed the steady completion...

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7. Getting beyond Gothic

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pp. 128-154

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I made a pilgrimage tour of the two hottest downtown architectural sites: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Despite the obvious differences in function, the buildings are surprisingly alike in their commanding size, boldness, unusual materials, enormous cost, and utopian aspirations. Gehry’s muchheralded stainless steel concert hall pointedly ignores local traditions and the...

III. Instability

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pp. 155-156

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8. Word, Shape, and Image

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pp. 157-181

Not long after the death of her nineteen-year- old son Benjamin on January 17, 1718, Sarah Seabrook sent for a stone to mark his grave near their church in the South Carolina plantation parish of St. Paul’s (Fig. 8.1). Like many of her contemporaries, Sarah ordered a stone from New England, since South Carolina had neither the raw materials nor the artisans to produce headstones. Standing little more than fourteen inches tall, the stone followed the...

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9. The Mezuzah

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pp. 182-202

“I go to High Holiday services, and I’ve always had a Passover seder. I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue regularly, but I feel like I identify really strongly as a Jew,” Jill explained to me.1 Jill Rappoport, a 26 –year- old Jewish woman living in Charlottesville, Virginia, reflects the reality that to define oneself as a Jew is to define the specific religious practices one does or does not choose to observe. Michael Fishbane, in...

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10. Mythic Pieties of Permanence

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pp. 203-222

Successful monumental architecture has “presence,” an arresting quality that seizes the attention of the viewer/participant. More than sheer size, it must also express a certain relationship to past history and future hope. With regard to the past, the monument must establish its own authenticity by showing its justification in a mythic foundational idea or event. And for the future, it must create a sense of permanence, a feeling in the beholder that it, and the...

IV. Toward a Method

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pp. 223-224

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11. Reading Megachurches

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pp. 225-250

Visitors from over seventy zip codes attended the opening services of Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, in 2002, according to congregation sources (Fig. 11.1, 11.2). The new building, consisting of a worship auditorium seating some 4,500 people and containing state- of-the- art audio and video projection technology, backstage and rehearsal spaces for musical and dramatic performances, cafeteria, coffee shop, bookstore, and accompanying...

Select Bibliography

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pp. 251-268


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pp. 269-270


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pp. 271-280

E-ISBN-13: 9780253111968
E-ISBN-10: 025311196X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253346995

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 47 b&w photos, 1 index
Publication Year: 2006