Peter W. Williams, Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 344 Pages.

      In a recent article, historian Jon Butler observed that while architecture is "a seemingly frivolous topic," it is in fact "a topic of immense symbolic importance." If Butler offers this remark in passing, Peter W. Williams serves up the proof in his recent book Houses of God, in which Williams leads the reader on a whirlwind guided tour of America's religious architecture. Informative, packed with fascinating anecdotes and vignettes, and thoroughly charming, Houses of God does what a good tour-guide of a historic home aspires to accomplish: locate a building in its wider historical context. And it does that better than most in-the-flesh tour guides I've encountered.

". . .although Williams on a few occasions refers to his task as painting the country's "churchscape," he in fact presents a much richer picture of religious life than can be captured in churches alone."

     Carving the United States into seven regions, Williams weaves regionally distinct religious history into his discussion of America's houses of God. Significantly, his title is Houses of God, not Houses of Worship; although Williams on a few occasions refers to his task as painting the country's "churchscape," he in fact presents a much richer picture of religious life than can be captured in churches alone. Williams includes such philanthropic organizations as Philadelphia's Friends Asylum for the Insane and the Walnut Street Jail. In California and New Orleans, we visit cemeteries, and in Pennsylvania and Indiana we learn about colleges and universities. Less traditionally "religious" stops on our tour include Tennesse's Rugby colony, and Ryman Auditorium, of Grand Ole Opry fame (although it was built in 1892, some five decades before the Grand Ole Opry took it over). And no tour of religious architecture would be complete without passing through the South's religious theme parks, among them Christus Gardens in Gatlinburg, Tennesse, Christ Only Art Gallery in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Holy Land USA in Bedford, Virginia.

     In choosing to discuss such a wide variety of buildings, Williams has necessarily sacrificed depth for breadth. In his discussion of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, for instance, Williams observes that "to comprehend its richness, the viewer must circumambulate the great nave, looking into the side chapels, studying the stained glass, and contemplating the great rose window that links it to the tradition of French Gothic." (68) The reader, however, will have to leave such an extended tour for his next trip to New York; Williams does not offer it here. Sometimes one does question Williams's criteria for discussing one building rather than another. To be included on this tour, Williams claims, a building must be architecturally interesting--but he occasionally departs from that standard. For example, Williams delineates two Washington, D.C.s: the permanent residents, mainly poor African-Americans, and the other Washington, "populated by the affluent and the powerful and examined daily by thousands of sightseers and political and business visitors." (73) To the former, Williams devotes only four sentences, since their "houses of worship are socially but not architecturally significant." (72) Fair enough, perhaps, in a book about architecture. But then, only a few pages later, Williams takes us on a "walk up Sixteenth Street," where we find First Baptist and Foundry Methodist, the Clintons' churches. Although they are not "architecturally distinguished," Williams singles them out for special attention because they "share the aura generated by First Family patronage." (75-76)

     Accompanied by over 100 black-and-white photographs (snapped by photographers ranging from the author himself to Walker Evans and Delta chronicler Tom Rankin), Williams's eloquent wordsmithing brings these buildings to life. About St. Patrick's Cathedral, for example, Williams writes: "[I]n its splendor, it seems like a great wedding cake, somewhat excessive in its unnuanced intricacy." (69) Nonetheless, the reader with a passing familiarity with architecture, or at least architectural lingo, may have the advantage; at times, the novice stumbling through Williams's unexplained reredos, narthexes, and transepts feels no less bewildered than the first-time customer trying to decode the short-hand speech of the waitresses at her nearest greasy spoon.

     Peter Williams has written a lucid and entertaining introduction to American religious architecture. The next step is for others to incorporate his insights about the relationship between religion, region, and architecture into their broader studies. Certainly, some scholars have begun to do just that; for example, Christine Leigh Heyrman's analysis of seating arrangements in Southern churches, and Sylvia Frey's recent discussion of Southern burial practices both shed light on the accomodations evangelicalism made with Southern culture in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As a scholarly community, however, we are far from having integrated material culture fully into our studies. As someone drawn to, but not trained in, material culture, I find Williams's work invaluable, as both and example and a tool. But Houses of God will also speak to us as travelers. I, for one, plan to leave it in my car with my maps and my AAA card, so I don't miss Williams's insights next time I'm on the road.

Lauren F. Winner, University of Cambridge

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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