“Is God dead?” was the question posed by Time magazine in 1966. The answer could have been: “If He’s still alive, he sure isn’t paying much attention to the architecture being committed in His name.” The general descent in quality of religious buildings in the West after World War II reflected the trauma their builders had just endured; a conflict that left even the faithful with many doubts. Rather than try to inspire awe or mystery or rapture, post-war houses of worship seemed content to take their cues from stripped-down residential and commercial buildings.
In that context, the Methodist church designed by Donaldson Ray McMullin Associates of Cambridge (that’s one man’s name, not a three-person firm), built from 1958 to 1960, was a remarkable achievement. Its compelling nave, with arresting redwood parquetry and steeply-pitched, exposed roof beams, tends very much to direct one’s eyes and thoughts upward, while exuding warmth and a connection with the natural world and to the craft of boat building.
It would have been even more remarkable in its early years, when the central bay of the facade — now a solid wall with a cut-out cross — was almost entirely glass, with a hand-hewn cross suspended within it. I’m imagining how the redwood interior must have glowed on a winter night when seen through an enormous window wall; like a great, beckoning, modernist hearthside. This was architecture in the service of mission and message: “Welcome. Please come in.”
Advertisement in The New Beacon, 3 December 1958. [Link]
The adjoining church complex is no less commendable. McMullin made extensive use of clerestory windows, both exterior and interior, giving the ensemble a great feeling of transparency, permeability and luminosity. I’m hoping to find out more about him than I know now, which isn’t much. To judge from his brother’s obituary, he was born in Newton Center, probably in the 1910s, to Roy Alexander and Crete Kimball McMullin. He designed the Parkhurst School in Winchester, just as the Provincetown Methodist Church was nearing completion, and even in a construction photo, one can discern similarities between the two.
Hard as it is to believe now, there were two Methodist churches in Provincetown through the mid-1940s: the Center Methodist Church at 356 Commercial Street, now the Provincetown Public Library, and the second Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church at 170 Commercial Street, which was torn down and replaced by a bank building that now houses Joe Coffee & Cafe and the Bravo! swimwear shop.
In 1958, the Center Methodist congregation was hard pressed enough to maintain the old building and sick enough of trying to find parking spaces downtown that it undertook to build a new home on acreage owned by Florence Waldin along the recently named Shank Painter Road. (Althea Boxell commented wryly in one of her scrapbook pages that the link between Bradford Street and Route 6 had nearly been called Hell Town Road, which would have posed an interesting problem for the congregation when giving the church address.) The complex assured the church that it could accommodate 200 worshipers and its Christian education school, its choir, two youth groups, the Women’s Society of Christian Service, the Married Couples Club and a Boy Scout troop. A lounge was included, as was a prayer garden and a parish hall with a kitchen. And there was parking, too. Lots of it. “We face the future — a new church is born,” the congregation declared in The New Beacon on 3 December 1958.
As it began to rise in an open field, four enormous inverted Vs laced together, the nave first looked like nothing so much as the contemporary Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy, another rare example of distinguished post-war religious architecture (leaving aside the paradox of a great church at a military school).
Photograph in The New Beacon of 26 August 1959 shows the laminated lumber wood beams and connecting trusswork. The evergreen is a symbol of topping off. [Link]
While the new building was under construction, the congregation worshiped at King Hiram’s Lodge, 2 Masonic Place, and at what is now the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House but was then the Church of the Redeemer, 236 Commercial Street. It seems that one of the most critical design moves was made while the project was well under way, to judge from this Advocate clipping of 19 November 1959: “The decision has been made by the trustees-building committee, with the approval of the architect, to maintain the beautiful redwood interior work of the nave in its natural beauty.” I’m presuming this meant everyone agreed not to paint it, thank goodness.
The church was built during the pastorate of the Rev. Gilman Lewis Lane (b 1926), pictured here, a Gloucester native who came from Madison, Me. Lane was active in King Hiram’s Lodge, which he served as master in 1961, and in the Fire Department and the Rescue Squad. The other members of the building committee were George Baker; Sivert J. Benson, founder of a predecessor to the Benson, Young & Downs Insurance Agency, 56 Howland Street; Elizabeth Carlos, one-time owner of 566-568 Commercial Street; Margaret Crawley; James Daugherty; Wesley G. Felton, proprietor of the Sandbar Grill, 77 Commercial; William W. McKellar; George F. Miller, of 82 Commercial; Clarence M. Nelson, proprietor of Nelson’s Market, 150 Bradford Street, whose brother ran Nelson’s Stables; John R. “Powerful” Patrick, of 35 Court Street; Alton E. Ramey, one-time owner of the Gifford House, 9-11 Carver Street; and Eugene Watson.
The church opened on Easter Sunday, 17 April 1960. Before the decade was out, it played an unlikely role as the setting of the Provincetown premiere of Eat Your Makeup (1968) by John Waters, who had persuaded the pastor to approve the screening without reviewing the film in advance. “He probably thought it was a hippie-flower film,” Waters wrote in his memoir, Shock Value (2005), “and I was afraid he’d react to negatively to scenes of kids sniffing glue, eating makeup and torturing models.”
The ‘premiere’ was sold out, and the reverend seemed to get over the initial shock of seeing hundreds of lunatics dressed in movie-star outfits stagger into his church, stoned out of their minds. I watched his expression throughout the film, and he only looked faint once or twice.
In its 1958 prospectus, the congregation declared: “With these various groups using the church building nearly all of the time, we are a seven-day-a-week church.” That’s still true. Thank God.