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Religious Architecture of Orlando

The following piece was written by Richard Reep for a local periodical but not published.  It is offered here for your reading enjoyment.

In this era of late capitalism, nearly all activities seem driven by profit.  For architects, money makes most of the decisions about what things should look like.  Office space should be functional and cheap; retail stores are billboards for their brands, and houses are all about resale value.  If you’re looking for refuge from this tyranny of the pocketbook, and are getting that old time religious feeling, then you might enjoy this collection of sacred space that is about something other than profit.  Here in Central Florida, the standouts contribute a great deal of spice to the bland diet of meat and potatoes that so many of our neighborhoods have become.

In the leafy, green older neighborhoods, the religious structures are embedded so deep that it is easy to miss them between beautiful old houses and tree-lined streets.  What is cool about religious structures is their other-ness, as remarkable in new buildings as it is in the old.  Sanctuaries are generally open, and it is always a nice gesture to leave a small donation in return for experiencing these marvelous spaces. This purely anecdotal tour accentuates the unusual, the unique, and the special within our city, and begins with faraway Celebration, Florida.

Founded amidst a lot of hoopla, Celebration has settled down, and become the grandparent to many designed suburbs in the region.  Black cape architects like Philip Johnson, Cesar Pelli, and Charles Moore authored its 1990s downtown, when neotraditional flavor was considered futuristic.  One of our area’s best new religious structures, Sacred Heart Catholic Church by Tampa architect Don Cooper, exquisitely fits into this architectural pantheon.

Sacred Heart anchors Celebration Avenue in a solid way that is lacking in the town’s other, more showy architecture.  It elevates both mission and craftsman styles to a high art form with astonishing thickness and mass, a counterpoint to so much of the empty, hollow spaces we frequent.  When entering the sanctuary, raise your eyes to the dark timber symphony o f trusses not seen since the Catholic and Episcopalian church interiors built in the early 1900s.  The carved stonework is from Italy and the beautiful wood detailing, including  a life-sized crucifixion dangling from the ceiling, comes from Spain.  Gorgeously muralled sculpture niches of Mary and Jesus hide off to the side of the church.  Cooper’s nicely proportioned church is a complete, closed system of beauty and power, befitting Christianity’s oldest sect.

Heading east, orientophiles will discover the Guang Ming Buddhist temple, finished a few years ago on Hoffner Road near south Semoran. With upturned eaves and the exaggerated, heavy rooflines of a Buddhist temple from China, Guang Ming is a pleasantly peach-painted masonry structure.  The vermilion tile roof is finished with terra cotta miniature birds, scholars astride donkeys, and dragons climbing up the points.  Foo dogs greet visitors, who enter a beautiful worship space with a supersized porcelain Buddha seated on a lotus blossom.  The somewhat fierce exterior, like a General Tzo chicken, contrasts with the peace and stability within, but it communicates the core values of Buddhist philosophy.

Downtown Orlando’s religious institutions are pretty standard Christian fare for southern towns, but if you need a gold-dome fix, duck out of the heat on Rosalind Avenue across from Lake Eola into the exotic world of St. George’s Orthodox Church.  The artwork is sumptuous:  gold-leaf icons in the eastern tradition, carved marble statues tucked into stone niches, and a small sandbox holds prayer candles.  The main sanctuary is accessed by either of two small stairwells leading up into an authentic Eastern Mediterranean space.  Lit by large stained glass windows on three sides, the pews on a raised floor are all centered around an elaborately decorated altar.  To one side, a red velvet chair is elevated three steps, and gated off from the crowd.  For a sensuous visual experience, few churches compare to St. George’s.  You’ll want to go out and get some baklava and coffee right after.

In contrast to the bland god-boxes that dot so much of our landscape, the best architectural expressions of religion tend to be unique and special places.  A good many of these were built in the fifties and sixties:  St. John’s Lutheran Church on 17-92, with its sculptural white bell tower; the dramatic, upswept roofline of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints on West Par Street at Formosa, and Orlando’s venerable architect Nils Schweitzer’s Asbury United Methodist Church on Jackson Street in Maitland, an inspired gesture towards Wrightian organic architecture.   Some are gone, like the heroic, fifties military chapel at the old Naval Training Center which was demolished to make way for Baldwin Park.

One of the area’s newest religious structures is the modernist Congregation Ohev Shalom, a Conservative Jewish synagogue designed by Orlando architect Cam Hogue.  The circular, almost Space Mountain-ish form is topped by a colored glass ring.  A trumpet-like porte cochere brings the visitor into a lobby, and the drum-like sanctuary is gorgeously lit by the fused glass clearstory.  Stained glass from previous synagogues are found in the walls, some going back to 1918 when it was founded on the corner of Central and Terry Streets in Downtown Orlando. The restrained, contemporary style is comforting and warm, like a bagel, in contrast to the cold harshness of which modernism is so often confused.

For the final stop on your tour, brace yourself for the truly exotic to visit the Hindu Society of Central Florida’s collection of temples off of Lake Road in Casselberry.  Older structures around the temple have a touch of South Asia in their rooflines.  But the magnificent corncob-shaped stupa forms rising from the main temple will make your heart beat a little faster, especially if you’ve visited India.  The intricate carved stone figures read vividly in the strong sunlight.  Dancing girls, or apsaras in the best tradition of Hindu architecture, flank the main entry into the temple, marked also by a magnificent gold kodimaram, or flagstaff, in the front.  In contrast to our dull, monotheistic society, the Hindu religion is full of gods and goddesses, eternally warring and pranking.  This rich narrative is hinted on the outside, but the sanctuary is beautifully austere, with smooth marble floors and a red-cushioned bench. Walking the meditation pathway (Eagle Scout Project – Troop 787), one views the temples and starts craving a bit of curry.

These are just a few of Central Florida’s religious structures, and they do not even cover all forms of worship we have.  Along with our government, religious institutions are meant to hedge our quest for wealth with a sense of authority and an inspiration of faith, and these structures, each in their own way, does just that for its followers.  When a sacred piece of land has been properly magnified by the manmade structure put upon it, a sense of awe can be felt, and this is true of more than one place found around Orlando.

–Richard Reep

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