By Lane Rick
The St. Luke Fire Baptized Holiness Church sits at the corner of an otherwise unremarkable intersection in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. A short row of townhouses separates the church from a bright orange Popeye’s, and a supermarket spans the block across the street. Repointed brickwork and arch-shaped concrete appliques above each opening distinguish the first floor church from the rest of the building, which resembles the apartment buildings down the street but actually holds a banquet hall and living quarters for the reverend. The only other evidence that this is in fact a church are the crosses mounted to the sanctuary doors and colorful contact paper affixed to the window, mimicking stained glass.
As architecture, St. Luke FBH is hardly outstanding. Like countless other storefront churches in Bedford-Stuyvesant, this one hosts a couple dozen, primarily African American congregants every Sunday in its small adapted sanctuary. The interior is modest and personal. Wood grain vinyl walls and a dropped ceiling enclose half a dozen rows of aged wooden pews. A framed print of Da Vinci’s Last Supper hangs on the wall next to a drum kit, and prints of dancing people in African dress are pinned to the walls above the pews, reminding congregants to give “praise to the King.” A table of trophies won by the congregation’s youth contingent sits proudly next to bouquets of fake flowers that flank the pulpit.
But considering that the space was a beauty parlour before church leaders bought the building in 1946, St. Luke FBH certainly looks and feels like a church. This transformation, which countless storefront churches across the world have undertaken, makes explicit use of some basic characteristics of commercial space. The storefront is highly visible and accessible; it is located in proximity to a number of residents; the exterior is zoned for signage; the interior is an open plan, amenable to any number of uses. The conversion from beauty parlour to church is a thriving exercise in the vernacular, both as a functional, planimetric organization and as a symbol-driven language of signs and references. The compromise between historic ritual and contemporary urban culture produces the unique adaptations and signs of storefront churches.
In the United States, the typology is based in the American South, where storefront churches including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Church of God in Christ, and the National Baptist Convention serve a number of historically black, primarily Protestant denominations, as well as black congregations within historically white denominations, including Baptist and Episcopal churches. The storefront churches of Bedford-Stuyvesant likewise reflect the wide variety of congregations that comprise African American churches. The Great Migration of the twentieth century brought millions of African Americans to northern cities as they fled the oppressive Jim Crow laws of the American South. With them, southern black communities brought traditions, habits, and churches, resulting in a boom of black churches with small congregations and limited resources concentrated in storefronts and formerly vacant buildings. Many remain today, further bolstered by a second wave of storefront churches that were established alongside the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, as it took root and spread among church communities in predominantly black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The architectural and decorative elements that identify storefront churches both in Brooklyn and elsewhere are varied in their permanence, reference, and scale. Without steeples, arched windows, and gabled roofs to announce their presence, storefront churches in the neighbourhood approximate the symbolic cues of American church architecture, often through signage, image, and colour. Once repurposed, the façades are unmistakably churches, though vestiges of their former uses remain. This navigation between the existing commercial context and the symbolic opportunity is site-specific, and produces a remarkable variety of compositions, material palettes, signs, and other visual cues. A similar adaptation occurs in the interior; without a long, tall nave, vestibule, and raised pulpit, the arrangement of pews, position of the pulpit, and demarcation of a vestibule make the space function as a church, regardless of its proportion, orientation, or material.
This tension between secular form and religious symbolism is especially apparent in those churches that take over old theatres and cinemas. Around the corner from St Luke FBH, the Beulah Church of God in Christ has occupied the old Marcy Cinema since 1944—before that, Beulah’s small congregation met in a brownstone around the corner. Today, the cinema’s lobby serves as an ornate narthex that leads into a nave bearing the gentle slope of a movie theatre’s floor. The decor of the theatre has been preserved behind the pulpit, and its centerpiece, a rectangular alcove, still bears the shape and metal frame that once supported the movie screen. On each side, a shallow niche and balustrade resemble theater balconies more than church or cathedral apses. Unlike the religious themes in the ornament of gothic cathedrals, the molding in the Beulah Church is floral, with garlands and egg-and-dart patterns circling chandeliers and mirrored wall panels. This is particularly apparent in the narthex, formerly the front of house and ticket window. At one end of the shallow foyer, a mirrored panel approximates the proportion and position of a ticket window; the panels on either side enumerate the church founders, though they could just as easily have listed show times for Marcy Cinema decades ago. In each instance, the theatre’s formal presence is adapted to a religious use as much as necessary and no more.
In his Jacob Riis-inspired book about the patterns and places of worship in poor American communities, How the Other Half Worships, Camilo José Vergara relays discussions with pastors and church leaders about their decision to make their churches in existing buildings look more like churches. Church leaders rebuffed Vergara’s suggestions that a need to replicate Christian symbolism was involved, and instead attributed their churches’ transformations “to maintenance needs, to chance, to crime, or to the advice of the Lord.” (1) As with the obscure genesis of each design decision, its execution is often a roundabout effort, driven by found materials and available funds. Larger design implications are rarely considered. No individual or architect professes to own the symbols and designs, but the resulting façades generally reference elements of a platonic American church: bilateral symmetry, stone walls, arched or peaked windows, stained glass, a steeple, and a yard in front. In each storefront church, these elements reappear as signs and references in various interpretations. In lieu of actually building arched or peaked windows, a pastor may paint triangles above the existing double hung windows. Without a real steeple, a tall triangle might be painted onto a façade. Stained glass is approximated with patterned contact paper. These are not formulaic strategies, but trends that emerge piecemeal over time, as each façade develops uniquely to accommodate its existing condition.
There is a long history of churches in adapted space, beginning with early Christian house churches, and the form continues to appear around the world today. In rural China, small Christian communities often establish themselves in house churches, congregating out of the public eye in wealthier members’ homes. (2) Just as not all storefront churches are in Brooklyn, not all storefront places of worship serve Christians. In Northern Italy, mosques hidden in unmarked buildings allow Muslims to pray outside the watchful eye of their distrustful neighbours. (3) The buildings’ signless façades and paper-covered windows obscure stark interiors laid with carpets oriented to a qibla that is often on a side wall or in a corner of a haphazardly oriented building. Polish Jewish immigrants in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century established storefront synagogues, many of which are still standing and active behind the same humble façades of a century ago. Buddhist communities in Toronto transform strip mall storefronts into temples, expanding into basements to create flexible banquet halls that serve food after services.
Yet despite its functional transformation, the storefront place of worship remains intransigently in discourse with its surroundings. A few blocks from St Luke FBH, Masjid At-Taqwa occupies a former corner bar. On Fridays, it attracts over 1,000 worshippers to the single story, green marble-clad building. Speakerphones mounted on the building’s parapet broadcast the muezzin’s daily calls to prayer, and an iron fence demarcates a shallow area in front of the mosque that functions as a transitional space between the secular outside and the religious inside. The mosque once occupied the storefront next door, and as its congregation grew, it moved into the larger space and re-clad the building, which still bears the undeniable chamfered form of its original commercial architecture. Here, as at St. Luke FBH, the use of available resources and improvised symbolic references appear alongside vestiges of former tenants, highlighting an often discordant juxtaposition between religious space and the capital-driven retail space around it.
In these storefront places of worship, either ceremonies are altered to adapt to their surroundings or, where possible, the space is changed to accommodate the ceremony. The flexibility of both retail space and ritual allows for this compromise. The breadth of an existing language of symbols and signs available for the repurposing of the interior provides the worshippers with a means of creating a place of worship within a secular context. Any remnants of previous functions intersperse a formal reminder of the space’s historical and commercial identity among religious symbols and signs. This juxtaposition sets the tone of the storefront place of worship: a mutable, intimate sacred space within an evolving and growing world. By operating within a commercial urban condition, the storefront place of worship calls attention to the shifting roles of religion and capital in a globalized market. The establishment of sacred space in a storefront undermines the economic forces that created the space, instead reinforcing the vernacular religious language that typifies other similar institutions. The congregation is no less devout, the reconfigured space no less functional, though the sacred is made apparent not through formal composition, but through vernacular sign and symbol.
(1) Camilo J. Vergara, How the Other Half Worships (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 39.
(2) “Underground, Overground,” The Economist, April 9, 2016.
(3) Nicoló Degiorgis, Hidden Islam (Bolzano Bolzen, Italy: Rorhof, 2014).
Lane Rick is a designer, illustrator, and writer in New York City. She designs small spaces and immersive environments, which have been built in the U.S., Canada, and China. Lane also writes and draws about urban idiosyncrasies and their aggregated transformation over time.