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The Episcopal Church Welcomes You...if you can find your way in. (Part 2 of 2)

In the previous post, I looked at the way the reconfiguration of worship space inside St. Mark's, Capitol Hill, affects the visitor's experience of arrival. In this post, I turn to Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, the church in which I was baptized, to consider ways in which decisions about the use of space create different arrival experiences for different constituencies. (Now is the time to repeat what I said in the last post: that I write about these churches out of great affection, not to reproach them but to explore the relationship between architecture and the experience of arrival.)


Though it shares political, theological, and liturgical orientations with St. Mark's, Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, remains a somewhat more formal space. It has more buffer zones between inside and outside, which allow the visitor safe points of access and a degree of choice about how far to join in the celebrations within. On the other hand, as a very informal and progressive community that worships in a large, formal space, Trinity has made accommodations to its space that end up reinforcing some of the divisions it intended to erase.

Inside, the pews have been removed and chairs are configured in different arrangements for different seasons and occasions. For Sunday services from fall through Pentecost, the chairs are arranged as the pews once were, in rows the length of the nave, facing liturgical east. The altar is in the crossing, so the people can gather round for communion, but their attention is focused in the direction of the original high altar beyond. In summer, when the fewer people come to regular services, and for weekday evening services, the chairs are turned around to form an in-the-round seating arrangement similar to St. Mark's. Trinity has enough space (notably, wider side aisles and a longer nave) that the in-the-round arrangement does not block entrances and still allows for a discreet approach by the newcomer. The central aisle is left open, which helps make the interior space legible, while movement up and down the side aisles provides access to seating without stepping into the altar space.

Trinity Cathedral, with nave arranged for summer worship (looking from liturgical west towards east).


Trinity sits on the eastern edge of downtown Cleveland, in an area that was depopulated by white flight and stripped of almost all its historic fabric by postwar urban renewal. Unlike St. Mark's, Trinity is now surrounded by surface parking lots and the brutalist and modernist buildings of Cleveland State University, an entirely commuter campus. Almost no one lives within walking distance of the cathedral. A freeway cuts through the city grid two blocks away. Like St. Mark's, however, Trinity has rebuilt its congregation by appealing to people from all over the Cleveland metro area, who are drawn there by its progressive politics and the welcome offered to LGBT people. That kind of welcome is rarer in conservative Ohio than it is in the Washington area, so people travel a long way to come to Trinity – literally, from the distance suburbs, and metaphorically, from other churches, especially the Catholic church, which has traditionally been dominant in the city of Cleveland.

Trinity's main doors (liturgical west) front Euclid Avenue, which at the time Trinity was built in 1907 was Cleveland's grand boulevard, lined with shops and mansions and leading from the heart of downtown east to the then-new suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. Trinity's land backs onto Prospect Avenue, which runs more or less parallel to Euclid, and E. 22nd Street runs perpendicular to the avenues along Trinity's west (liturgical south) side. A megablock obscures where E. 23rd Street once ran on the other side.

Trinity's main doors, seen from Euclid Avenue and E. 22nd Street (from Google Streetview)Today, Euclid Avenue is no longer a destination in its own right, but it still bears traffic from downtown along a bus route. Trinity has made valiant efforts to reactivate the streetfront by leasing space fronting Euclid Avenue to a café and a few small shops. Its great west doors are well marked and stand defiantly open, proclaiming a welcome to the few passers by (emphasis on few).

A newcomer following directions to the cathedral's Euclid Avenue street address and entering for Sunday services might be surprised not to find a flood of people streaming up the steps to the great west front, and might well not be greeted by an usher inside the narthex. That is because regulars, those in the know, enter at the back of the building, via a parking lot off Prospect Avenue. At the back of the Prospect Avenue lot is the entrance to Trinity's rotunda, the central space in a new complex of gathering, classroom, meeting, and office spaces completed in 2002. 

Prospect Ave. entrance to Trinity's parking lot. Yellow arrow = cathedral's central tower; purple arrow = entrance to 2002 addition, the main entrance for Sunday worshippersA glance at the map reveals another reason why this entrance makes sense: the exit from the freeway sends traffic onto Prospect Avenue, not Euclid.

Road access to the Trinity campus. Yellow box = Trinity campus, with cathedral at upper left and parking lot at lower right; blue arrow = Euclid Ave. from downtown Cleveland to "liturgical west" doors, by bus or car; red circle = Prospect Ave. interchange with I-90 ("Innerbelt") highway; red arrow = route from highway interchange to parking lot entrance.

Regular attendees arrive by car, enter the rotunda, and mingle with others over coffee between services. They then make their way down a corridor and turn into an even smaller corridor that leads past the vesting room and debouches into the church at the angle where the (liturgical) north transept meets the chancel.

Above: In the gathering space between services. Below: Hallway from annex into church. Chancel at left; sacristy just out of frame to right. Photos by Gayle Cratty.

In the current arrangement of space, this is effectively behind the altar. Hierarchies of space and the clerical-lay divide are thus erased as much by routing the laity into the church via a path formerly reserved for clergy – a "backstage" route – as by the movement of the eucharistic celebration into the nave. (See the route marked by red arrows in the plan below.)

Plan of Trinity Cathedral, ca. 1907, annotated with current uses. (Source: The American Architect and Building News 92 (July-December 1907): 140.) Yellow rectangle = main altar in normal position for worship, fall to spring; blue oval = normal summer worship space; red arrows = normal route for parishioners from 2002 addition into cathedral; yellow arrow = entrance from garden at E. 22nd and Prospect Ave. into Cathedral Hall, where lunch for homeless is served


There is a third way into the cathedral complex. Trinity provides a robust program of meals and services to the homeless, and prides itself on being a place where the homeless are welcome to worship with the regular Sunday congregation. Once everyone is in the church, it carries out that mission admirably. The homeless, however, are effectively segregated via their own entry door. In all but the worst Cleveland weather, homeless men congregate in the cathedral's garden off E. 22nd Street. From there, they can move directly into Cathedral Hall, the large space in which meals are served. From Cathedral Hall, it is a short walk down the hallway into the Cathedral itself, and there the homeless may join the regular congregation making their way into services. They generally do not, however come out into the rotunda or other parts of the 2002 addition for coffee hour. From the outside, their presence is completely hidden from people entering either on the Euclid Avenue side or through the Prospect Avenue parking lot. The erasure of hierarchy is thus, to a certain extent, real for those who make it inside the cathedral and join the service, but the experience of entering differs depending on which of the three public entrances one uses.

Trinity Cathedral, Garden on E. 22nd St., with entrance to Cathedral Hall at left.


The decision of churches like Trinity and St. Mark's to route worshippers into the church via an annex or side door rather than the formal, obvious entrance is not simply an unintended consequence of the reordering of interior space. It is the result of a conscious decision about where community is formed. These churches have either created new "gathering spaces" or pressed subsidiary parts of their complexes into service in that role. Richard Kieckhefer, reporting the views of a number of theorists of modern church design, says of the gathering space:

It is designed to be inviting, as a space that helps to create a sense of community before entry into the worship space. The evident assumption is that people are gathering from different parts of the workaday world, where they may have relatively little contact with each other. They belong to a mobile and highly differentiated society, and when they gather for worship their assembly is not simply the neighborhood or village at prayer. When they meet, they are first constituted socially as a community, then they proceed to the worship space for prayer, then they may move back out into the social space for coffee hour...

Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 56.

It is debatable whether church communities are best formed informally and personally in this way, or through the medium of the formal act of worship. If a parish decides in favor of the former, but must implement that decision within the constraints of an inherited building planned on the latter assumption, it needs to be conscious of the kinds of compromises it is making in the process.

The crucial, unpredictable element is that the church building will continue to speak to the people in ways not fully under the community's control. Outside, it will resist attempts to reroute people to a secondary entrance. Inside, whatever steps are taken to flatten or erase the hierarchy of holiness within the church, both visitors and regulars will continue to perceive the special quality of circumscribed space and attempt to respect it.


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Reader Comments (1)

This calls to mind for me how old this issue must be. My church in Indianapolis (All Saints) is just over 100 years old. The original renderings actually illustrate people entering the church primarily through one of the side chapels, despite the presence of two sets of double doors at the west end of the nave, on the main drag. It's hard to know if the side chapel was ever really used that way, since the property is arranged such a way today that attempting to enter those doors would never make sense.

In any event I'm impressed by the thoroughness of your analysis here -- down to the traffic patterns. One of the things I'd be interested in at this place is how long it takes a newcomer to figure out the insider's way in. Is the parish aware of this issue?

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrendan
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