First Unitarian Church of Rochester

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First Unitarian Church of Rochester
First Unitarian Church of Rochester NY North Side at West end 1227-8.jpg
North facade
First Unitarian Church of Rochester is located in New York
First Unitarian Church of Rochester
Location in New York
Location220 S. Winton Road., Rochester, New York
Coordinates43°08′28″N 77°33′26″W / 43.1410°N 77.5571°W / 43.1410; -77.5571Coordinates: 43°08′28″N 77°33′26″W / 43.1410°N 77.5571°W / 43.1410; -77.5571
Area8 acres
Built1962, 1969
ArchitectLouis I. Kahn
Architectural styleModern
NRHP reference #14000537[1]
Added to NRHPSeptember 2, 2014
Sanctuary of First Unitarian Church of Rochester

The First Unitarian Church of Rochester is located at 220 Winton Road South in Rochester, New York, U.S. The congregation is one of the largest in its denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association. The non-creedal church conducts programs in the areas of spirituality, social concerns, music, and arts. This church is one of two Unitarian Universalist congregations in Monroe County, the other being First Universalist Church of Rochester.

The church was organized in 1829. Associated with social reform movements from its earliest days, it began attracting a group of reform activists from Quaker backgrounds in the 1840s, one of whom, Susan B. Anthony, became a national leader of the women's suffrage movement. After the first women's rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, a follow-up convention, the Rochester Women's Rights Convention, was organized two weeks later at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Abigail Bush was elected to preside at this convention even though the idea of a woman chairing a public meeting was considered too daring even for some of the leaders of the emerging women's movement who were present.

Concern with social issues has been a recurring theme in the church's history. In the late 1800s the church provided evening classes and other activities for children in the church's low-income neighborhood. At the turn of the century, church members played leading roles in the campaign to open the University of Rochester to women and in the local, state, and national campaigns for women's suffrage. In the 1930s the church provided office space for Planned Parenthood when other accommodations were difficult to find. In 1988 the church began providing classroom support to Rochester city schools. In 2006 the church initiated a program to improve the quality of life in a small township in Honduras. In 2009 it established a talk line to offer non-judgmental support to women who have had abortions.

First Unitarian's building was designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1962. It was described as one of "the most significant works of religious architecture of the century" by Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning architectural critic.[2] Its exterior is characterized by deeply folded brick walls created by a series of thin, two-story light hoods that shield windows from direct sunlight. The sanctuary's complex ceiling has light towers in each corner to bring in indirect natural light.

The story of the design process that Kahn followed at First Unitarian has been described as "almost classic in architectural history and theory".[3] Kahn began by creating what he called a Form drawing to represent the essence of what he intended to build. He drew a square to represent the sanctuary, and around the square he drew concentric circles to indicate an ambulatory, a corridor, and the church school. In the center he placed a question mark to represent his understanding that, in his words, "the form realization of Unitarian activity was bound around that which is Question. Question eternal of why anything."[4]:66

Congregation, beliefs, and programs[edit]

The First Unitarian Church of Rochester in Rochester, New York, U.S., is one of the largest in its denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association.[5] Its senior minister is Shari Halliday-Quan.[6] The church conducts two weekly worship services on Sundays and an occasional Saturday service.[7]

The church is non-creedal, having, in the words of its web site, "No single religious text. No ten commandments. No creed to which you must agree ... This respect for individual particularity and openness to diverse sources of wisdom means our community is packed with a wide array of perspectives and beliefs."[8] The church's mission statement is: "Creating connection by listening to our deepest selves, opening to life's gifts and serving needs greater than our own - every day!"[8] The church school has a stated goal of encouraging children "to seek their own truths, to clarify their values, and to live lives of meaning inspired by those values."[9]

The church operates on a Policy Governance system by which the board of trustees focuses on the long-term goals of the church while the parish minister oversees its operation. The board specifies the results expected from the parish minister and sets limits for his or her activities. The board does not specify how those expectations should be achieved, but it does evaluate the results.[10] Officers of the church are elected by annual congregational meetings.[11]

In the 1970s the church developed a task force system to coordinate its activities in the area of social concerns. Members interested in a specific activity gather signatures to qualify as one of the church's task forces, which, if approved by the congregation, will be eligible to receive funds from the church budget. Oversight is provided by the Social Justice Council, which is composed largely of representatives from the task forces. Through this system, the church sponsors projects that provide classroom support for Rochester schools, temporary shelter within the church for homeless families, free Sunday suppers at a Catholic Worker program, improvements to the quality of life in a small township in Honduras, and other projects that focus on such issues as peace, reproductive rights, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender concerns. The Council also oversees grant programs that provide financial support to community organizations.[12][13]

The church's music and arts programs include a choir, a house band, a handbell choir, a drama group, a chamber music series, a coffee house, and an art gallery.[14][15] Interest groups sponsored by the church include Soul Matters groups that focus on monthly worship themes, several types of meditation groups, Wellspring groups with programs of daily spiritual practice, Buddhist groups, qi gong, tai chi, book discussion groups, and several types of support groups.[16]


Early years[edit]

The First Unitarian Church of Rochester was organized in 1829.[17]

The city of Rochester, located in western New York, was a young frontier boom town at the time, having been incorporated in 1817 and boosted by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.[18] The American Unitarian Association, the Unitarian national body, was also young, having been formed in 1825 by Christians who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.[19]

Myron Holley

Rochester Unitarians operated in the early years without a settled minister and, except for a brief period, without a church building. Informal leadership was provided by Myron Holley, a former Commissioner of the Erie Canal and one of the founders of the Liberty Party, which advocated the abolition of slavery. An early church history gave Holley primary credit for the church's establishment.[20][21]

In 1842 Rufus Ellis, at the age of twenty-two, agreed to come to Rochester to be the congregation's minister for a one-year period. Ellis lodged at the home of Dr. Matthew Brown, president of the congregation.[20] Brown, who earlier was a member of the First Presbyterian Church, was one of Rochester's founders.[22] Along with his brother, he had developed Brown's Race, the canal that delivered water power to Rochester's factory district. He also served as the first chairman of the board of supervisors of Monroe County, in which Rochester is located.[23] Brown was an opponent of slavery; on the day in 1827 when slaves in New York State were emancipated, a delegation of African Americans visited Brown to thank him for his work to secure that legislation.[24]

Funds were raised under Ellis' leadership for a new church building that was dedicated in 1843. In a letter to his brother, Ellis noted that "Forty-five of the pews are already sold or rented, and are occupied by 'correct' people."[25]:46 During Ellis' ministry the church approved a seal that contained an image of the Bible and the words "our Creed".[20] Membership grew partly as a result of the Finney revival movement, which generated a wave of religious enthusiasm so strong in western New York that the area was sometimes called the "burned-over district." Not all churchgoers were comfortable with the new atmosphere in their congregations, however, and some transferred to the less doctrinaire Unitarian Church.[25]:52

Frederick Holland, who became minister of First Unitarian in 1843, helped to stabilize the new congregation and increase its membership. He resigned in 1848 to assume leadership of the American Unitarian Association.[20]

Dissention within the Quaker community eventually led some of its members to First Unitarian. When objections were raised to abolitionist activities, about 200 people withdrew from the regional Hicksite Quaker body in 1848 and formed an organization called the Congregational Friends.[26] This group soon changed its name to the Friends of Human Progress and ceased to operate as a religious body, focusing instead on organizing annual meetings in Waterloo, New York[27] that welcomed anyone interested in social reform, including "Christians, Jews, Mahammedans, and Pagans".[28] In July 1848, a month after the split, four women associated with the Quaker dissidents met in Waterloo with anti-slavery activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and issued a call for a Women's Rights Convention to be held a short distance away in Seneca Falls, thereby launching the modern women's rights movement. Organized on short notice, it nonetheless drew about 300 people, largely from the immediate area.[29]

Plaque commemorating the Woman's Rights Convention at First Unitarian in 1848

Momentum from this event led to the organization of another women's rights convention two weeks later at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, about 50 miles (80 km) west.[30] The Rochester Convention took the significant step of electing a woman to preside, an idea that seemed so radical at the time that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two organizers of the Seneca Falls convention, opposed it and left the platform when Abigail Bush took the chair. She performed her duties without incident, and a precedent was established.[31]

The convention at First Unitarian was organized mainly by a circle of activists in Rochester led by Amy and Isaac Post, who had resigned from their Hicksite Quaker congregation in the mid-1840s when opposition to the Post's abolitionist activities was raised in the Quaker congregation. Several members of this circle had participated in the Seneca Falls convention, including Mary Hallowell, Catherine Fish Stebbins, and Amy Post, who convened the meeting at First Unitarian.[32][33]:119,207,211 Some of the organizers of the Rochester convention were also associated with First Unitarian, including Hallowell, Stebbins and Post.[32]

A church history written in 1929 said, "Our church was probably by strong majority abolitionist, an earnest group of Hicksite Quakers having attached themselves to the church as their own meeting grew inactive and faded out—the Anthonys, Hallowells, Willises, Posts, Fishes, etc."[32]

Of these families, the Anthonys were particularly significant for First Unitarian. Daniel Anthony was born a Quaker but married Lucy Reid, a Baptist, a violation of Quaker rules for which he was required to apologize to his congregation in central New York.[34]:10 The congregation later disowned him for allowing a dance school to operate in his house.[34]:37 Despite this patchy relationship, the Anthony children were raised as Quakers. After the Anthonys moved to Rochester in 1845, their homestead became the Sunday afternoon gathering place for progressive Quakers and other social reformers in the area. Both Daniel and Lucy Anthony attended the Women's Rights Convention at First Unitarian along with Mary, one of their daughters. Sarah Anthony Burtis, a relative, served as its acting secretary.[35]:1–5

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony, another Anthony daughter, was teaching school in central New York at the time and had little involvement with any of these activities. When she returned to Rochester in 1849, she found her family attending worship services at First Unitarian.[34]:55,58 She joined her family there, making it her church home[36]:1491 and her most significant source of local connections until her death more than 50 years later.[35]:5 Susan B. Anthony was listed as a member of First Unitarian in a church history written in 1881.[20] Although she no longer attended Quaker meetings in Rochester after the 1848 split, she never relinquished her membership there.[37]

Susan B. Anthony is best known as an organizer and campaigner for women's rights, but she promoted other social reforms as well. In 1851 she helped sponsor an anti-slavery convention at First Unitarian. In 1852 she helped bring 500 women to Rochester to create the Women's State Temperance Society, of which she became the state agent.[35]:6 In 1853 she organized a Women's Rights Convention in Rochester with the assistance of the minister of First Unitarian.[34]:104 In 1857 she served as clerk of the Friends of Human Progress, the social reform group created by dissident Quakers[38] and also became upstate New York agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.[35]:9 She helped organize two more anti-slavery conventions in Rochester, one of which was so threatened by mob violence that she and her associates had to be escorted from the building by police for their own safety.[39] Anthony's reform work, especially in the national campaign for women's right to vote, led her to spend most of her subsequent years on the road until advancing age required her to cut back on traveling and settle once again in Rochester.[35]:8

After Rev. Holland's departure from First Unitarian in 1848, the congregation entered a period of discord and short-term ministries that lasted until after the Civil War.[17] A history of the church written in 1881 notes that some of its members during that period "were persons of extreme and pronounced opinions, sharply opposed to each other on political and social questions," with slavery a key item of contention.[20] There was also tension between the membership and some of the ministers of that period, not all of whom were as liberal as the congregation[40] and one of whom went on to become a chaplain in the Confederate Army.[20]

William Henry Channing

A prominent minister of First Unitarian during this unsettled period was William Henry Channing, who served from 1853 to 1854.[20] Nationally known as a supporter of social reform, he attended the first National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 and served on the central committee that coordinated national conventions and other women's rights activities in the following years.[41] In Rochester he worked closely with Susan B. Anthony, writing the call for the Women's Rights Convention she organized there in 1853 and playing a leading role in it.[34]:104 At the 1854 New York State Women's Rights Convention in Albany, which Anthony also organized, he, along with Ernestine Rose, presented petitions to the New York State Assembly that the movement had gathered.[42]:78–80 He wrote one of the two appeals that Anthony circulated as part of her women's suffrage work in New York state.[34]:110

Channing wrote a brief inspirational text that has become known as "Channing's Symphony," which reads: "To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common – this is my symphony."[43]

Channing was important to the Anthony family. Mary Anthony said "The liberal preaching of William Henry Channing in 1852 proved so satisfactory that it was not long before this was our accepted church home."[36]:1491 Susan B. Anthony's sense of spirituality was influenced by Channing. Her friend and co-worker Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in 1898, "She first found words to express her convictions in listening to Rev. William Henry Channing, whose teaching had a lasting spiritual influence upon her. To-day Miss Anthony is an agnostic. As to the nature of the Godhead and of the life beyond her horizon she does not profess to know anything. Every energy of her soul is centered upon the needs of this world. To her, work is worship ... Her belief is not orthodox, but it is religious."[44] Anthony expressed the latter thought in these words: "Work and worship are one with me. I can not imagine a God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling him 'great.'"[45]:859

Channing had little success with his factionalized congregation. Finding that he could attract larger audiences when he spoke outside the church than within it, he even considered making a fresh start by forming a movement separate from the church. Instead he left the city for other posts, serving as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives during the Civil War.[20][46]

The church declined afterwards, sometimes finding it difficult to pay its ministers, none of whom served for long. In 1859 the church's building was destroyed by fire. Rochester Unitarians were once again without either minister or building, a situation that was not resolved until after the Civil War."[20]

After the Civil War[edit]

Frederick Holland, who had served as First Unitarian's minister in the 1840s, returned in 1865 as minister for an additional three years to help the congregation band together and construct a new church building, which was dedicated in 1866.[17]

The ministry of Newton Mann, who served from 1870 to 1888, was a period of stability and growth.[17] Mann was interested in science. He owned a telescope,[47] served a term as president of the Rochester Academy of Science[48]:19 and was especially interested in evolution. Mann discussed the religious significance of Charles Darwin's recently published book on evolution in a sermon delivered in Cincinnati just before the Civil War which, according to the Rochester History journal, was the first such sermon in the U.S.[48]:14 In 1872 Mann initiated the first public controversy over evolution in Rochester by inviting a professor to give a series of lectures on that topic at First Unitarian, which were extensively reported.[48]:13 In a sermon in 1874 that was also reported in the press, Mann extended the concept of evolution into the realm of religion, asserting that evolution operates on the soul as people become increasingly aware of their spiritual environment and respond by developing their spiritual capabilities.[48]:14

Mann supported the idea that the Bible has a human rather than a supernatural origin in A Rational View of the Bible, written in 1879, saying that a rational approach to the Bible makes it more appealing by giving it "a purely human quality which quite atones for all the mistakes it contains."[49]

In 1870 Mann was invited to give an evening lecture at Temple B'rith Kodesh, Rochester's oldest and largest synagogue. This interfaith event, the first of its type in Rochester, contributed to a formal split between reformers and traditionalists within B'rith Kodesh and, according to The Jewish Community in Rochester by Stuart Rosenberg, "shook the Jewish community in America and even had reverberations abroad."[50][51]:85,86 First Unitarian and B'rith Kodesh held a joint Thanksgiving service in 1871, and Rabbi Landsberg and Rev. Mann began the practice of exchanging pulpits, with each delivering the sermon for the other's congregation. A history of B'rith Kodesh describes the relationship between the two congregations during this period as "extremely close".[52]:83 In 1874 First Unitarian, B'rith Kodesh, and the First Universalist Church of Rochester began their continuing tradition of holding annual Union Thanksgiving services.[51]:114 In 1883 Mann helped Landsberg with part of his project to translate a new prayer book from Hebrew to English.[51]:94 Their translation of the song "Yigdal" has been included in the Union Hymnal of Reform Judaism and in hymnals of other denominations, including the Presbyterian Hymnal (1990).[53] In 1884 Landsberg occupied the pulpit at First Unitarian for seven weeks while Mann was ill, attracting visitors from other denominations and, according to an early Rochester history, leading to speculation about the development of a universal church.[54] The congregation of B'rith Kodesh used First Unitarian as a temporary home in 1909 after their building was destroyed by fire.[50]

In 1872 Susan B. Anthony convinced the election inspectors in her ward in Rochester that the recently enacted Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection to all citizens, implicitly gave women the right to vote. When the news spread that Anthony and her three sisters had succeeded in registering to vote, other women in Rochester also registered. Of the two dozen or so whose names are known, at least three worshiped with Anthony at First Unitarian. Mrs. Mann, the wife of First Unitarian's minister, attempted to register in her ward but was refused. On election day, only fifteen of those who had registered, including Anthony, were actually permitted to vote, and then only because the election inspector in that ward, a long-time abolitionist, defied orders and allowed them to do so. Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting and found guilty in a widely publicized trial that generated protests across the country.[35]:11–14[55][56]

In 1878 the annual meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association, which was founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, convened at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester on the thirtieth anniversary of the first Women's Suffrage Convention in Seneca Falls.[57]:14

In 1883 First Unitarian vacated its building to make way for the construction of a new post office. To replace it, the congregation purchased an existing church building from the Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, which had moved to another location.[17]

Gannett ministry[edit]

William Channing Gannett served as minister from 1889 to 1908.[17] He came from a prominent Unitarian family, his father, Ezra Stiles Gannett, having written the constitution for the American Unitarian Association and served as its first secretary.[58] William Channing Gannett himself had gained prominence as a leader of the successful movement within the denomination to end the practice of binding it by a formal creed, thereby opening its membership to non-Christians and even to non-theists.[59] While pastor of a Unitarian church in Wisconsin before coming to Rochester, he had served as vice president of that state's women's suffrage association.[60]

Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett, Rev. Gannett's wife, was "very nearly his co-pastor," according to a church history.[17] Coming from a Philadelphia Quaker background, she never relinquished her membership there, attending Quaker meetings whenever she visited Philadelphia.[61] In Rochester, however, she was active in the First Unitarian Church and assisted in the formation of several community organizations.

The Gannetts focused their energy on social issues. Urging the congregation to be "a seven-day instead of a one-day church",[62]:8 Rev. Gannett encouraged it to become more involved with its downtown neighborhood of low-income immigrants.

Advertisement for Gannett House, the church's parish house and the home of the Boys' Evening Home

The Gannetts accordingly initiated the Boys' Evening Home, which opened in 1890 in the church's parish house.[17] Within three months its membership had grown to 95 even though some of its members had to leave because they had been sentenced to the State Industrial School. By 1893 the Home had a paid superintendent and was teaching classes in manual arts and drawing, and by 1898 its offerings had expanded to include such subjects as current events, zoology, literature and journalism. A small newspaper produced by the boys campaigned against penny slot machines, which were illegal gambling devices that could be found in candy stores. The neighborhood boys came largely from Polish and Russian Jewish immigrant families.[62]:8–11 When they reached their late teens, several members of the Boys' Evening Home formed the Judean Club in Rochester, which eventually became, according to Rosenberg's The Jewish Community in Rochester, "the most important cultural forum in the Jewish community of that time."[51]:75 At least four members of the Boys' Evening Home went on to become rabbis, one of whom credited Rev. Gannett with helping him choose that profession. Benjamin Goldstein, another member, became executive secretary of Temple B'rith Kodesh. Another former member, Meyer Jacobstein, was elected to the House of Representatives in Washington.[62]:12 Volunteers from B'rith Kodesh assisted the work of the Boys' Evening Home.[40]

Mary Gannett

From 1889 to 1908 Mary Gannett led First Unitarian's Women's Alliance, through which "much of the church's activity was organized and executed".[62]:5 About 1902 the Women's Alliance opened the Neighborhood Friendly for Girls, which provided classes in housekeeping, cooking, and sewing for girls in the church neighborhood.[40]

The Gannetts sponsored the formation of the Unity Club in 1889, which was initiated by the Women's Alliance but was open to anyone in Rochester. With as many as a hundred members, it was divided into small classes under the tutelage of the Gannetts for the intensive study of such thinkers as Thoreau, Hawthorne, George Eliot, and the Fabians.[62]:6,7[63] The secretary of the Social Topics class, which examined social problems of the day, was Emma Sweet, a member of First Unitarian who was Susan B. Anthony's secretary.[62]:7[64]

In 1889 Mary Gannett established the Woman's Ethical Club, an interfaith organization that discussed the ethical aspects of social topics and campaigned for the admission of women to the University of Rochester. By the middle of the 1890s, the Ethical Club was attracting several hundred women to its meetings.[62]:13

Other members of First Unitarian engaged in social and political work during the Gannett years. Mary Anthony, sister of Susan B. Anthony, was active in many aspects of church life[36]:1490 and was also deeply involved with the campaign for women's rights. In 1885 a group of women gathered at her home to establish the Women's Political Club, later known as the Political Equality Club. This group of about forty women achieved several breakthroughs, including the appointment of Rochester's first police matron, the placement of women doctors on the city's health staff, and the appointment of women to state institutional boards.[57]:15 Mary Anthony became president of the club in 1892 and served in that capacity for eleven years.[65] Mary Gannett was a member of the club for over twenty years and held various offices.[62]:14

In 1891 African American activist Hester C. Jeffrey moved to Rochester. She joined Rochester's AME Zion Church and helped organize women's clubs in the African American community. She also developed strong ties to First Unitarian, often attending services there and forming close friendships with Susan B. Anthony and Mary Gannett. She joined the Political Equality Club and created a suffrage club for African American women called the Susan B. Anthony Club. In 1895, while keeping her membership in AME Zion, she also became a member of First Unitarian.[66][67]

In 1891, at the age of 71, Susan B. Anthony decided to limit her work that required travel and to settle into the house she shared with her sister Mary in Rochester.[35]:17[68] She resumed routine attendance at First Unitarian,[35]:22 formally signed its membership book,[50] and deepened her friendships with Rev. William and Mary Gannett.[69]:303 Later that year she was invited to speak at the annual Union Thanksgiving service, which was held that year at First Unitarian. Its theme was "The Unrest of the Times a Cause for Thankfulness". Anthony spoke on the women's movement.[45]:714

Mary and Susan B. Anthony

In 1893 Susan B. Anthony became the main force behind the formation of the Rochester branch of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, which worked for the educational and social advancement of women. Mary Gannett presided at the founding meeting and became the chair of its Legal Protection Committee, often becoming personally involved in protecting working women from dishonest employers. In 1911 she became president of the organization.[62]:15[70]

In 1893 Mary Anthony became corresponding secretary of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association. During the statewide drive that year for the right of women to vote in New York elections, the Anthony home was converted into campaign headquarters, with public offices in the parlor and other activities throughout the rest of the house.[65] The campaign for women's suffrage in New York state eventually succeeded, becoming law in 1918 and providing momentum for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment nationally in 1920.[57]:21

In 1898 Susan B. Anthony called and chaired a meeting of 73 local women's societies to form the Rochester Council of Women, later known as the Rochester Federation of Women's Clubs.[35]:22 At its first meeting it renewed the campaign to elect a woman to the local school board even though women were still not allowed to vote. Mary Gannett, speaking for both the Council of Women and the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, played a major role in this campaign, which succeeded when both major parties were convinced to nominate the same woman.[57]:18[62]:16 The Council of Women's consumer's committee, headed by Mrs. Max (Miriam) Landsberg of B'rith Kodesh and Mary Gannett, developed into the local chapter of the National Consumers League.[57]:19

The long campaign to open the University of Rochester to women students involved several members of First Unitarian and organizations they had helped to create. The Democrat and Chronicle, a local newspaper, writing several years after the event, said that next to Susan B. Anthony, Mary Gannett was chiefly responsible for the success of this campaign.[62]:20

Susan B. Anthony had formed a committee as early as 1879 to pressure the university to admit women, but without success.[42]:333 In 1889 the Women's Political Club renewed the campaign with a series of articles in local newspapers. During a meeting in 1891 at the Anthony home, university officials agreed to admit women if $200,000 could be raised to defray costs. The Women's Ethical Club initiated a fund-raising drive, and Susan B. Anthony and Rev. William Channing Gannett appealed for contributions at a public meeting at the Chamber of Commerce. This drive, however, was unsuccessful.[62]:18–19

In 1898 the university once again agreed to admit women if enough money could be raised and in 1899 lowered the necessary amount to $50,000. Most of that amount had already been raised, with Mary Gannett playing a leading role in that effort. Just after Susan B. Anthony returned home from a trip to Wyoming, however, she was informed the evening before the deadline that the drive was still $8000 short. With seemingly no possibility of raising additional money, and with renewed opposition among the university trustees, this drive seemed to have failed also. Determined to succeed, Susan B. Anthony, at the age of 81, rode the next morning in a carriage in a last-minute push to close the funding gap, which she accomplished by raising the entire amount from members of First Unitarian, including herself and her sister Mary.[36]:1221–1229[50]

Although Susan B. Anthony worked on several local projects during this period, she remained deeply involved in national activities as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, working for an amendment to give women the right to vote.[69]:260 Generally known as the Anthony Amendment, it became the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.[71] When the Anthony sisters traveled to Berlin in 1904 for the founding of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Susan B. Anthony was declared its first member and Mary Anthony its second.[65]

Early to mid-1900s[edit]

Edwin Rumball

Edwin A. Rumball, who served as minister from 1908 to 1915, continued the orientation toward social service that had been established in the Gannett years.[40] In 1910 the church's parish house was expanded to provide better quarters for the Boys' Evening Home and was named Gannett House to honor Rev. Gannett, who had retired two years earlier.[32]

From 1910 to 1914 Rumball edited The Common Good,[72] which "emerged as Rochester's leading journal of progressive reform" according to Affirming the Covenant: A History of Temple B'rith Kodesh by Peter Eisenstadt.[52]:102 The magazine began in 1907 as the house bulletin of the Baden Street Settlement House, which was founded by the Temple B'rith Kodesh Sisterhood to serve a neighborhood of mostly Jewish immigrants. When Rumball became editor in 1910, it expanded into a monthly journal devoted to social betterment of the city. Campaigning for such things as cleaner milk supplies and better conditions for factory workers, the publication was fatally weakened when a strike in the local clothing industry created an atmosphere of bitterness that led to a sharp decline in advertising revenues, which in turn led to the magazine's demise in 1914.[52]:91[72]

Rumball became the secretary of the Rochester City Club when it was formally organized in 1910 to provide programs for weekly luncheons at a downtown hotel. Membership grew to be in the hundreds, and the programs, which included such speakers as Jane Addams and Felix Frankfurter, often made headline news. Women, who had their own Women's City Club, were expected to listen from the balcony. Mary Gannett created a stir by inviting two African American men to sit with her in the balcony who later joined the club as regular members. She was also invited to accompany two speakers to the platform: anarchist Emma Goldman and African American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. She joined the club herself when membership was opened to women in 1937.[73]

Frank Doan became the minister of First Unitarian in 1922. Formerly a professor at the Meadville Unitarian seminary, he was one of the originators of the religious humanism movement within the denomination. He retired in 1925 at the age of 48 because of ill health and died two years later.[74][75]

David Rhys Williams was minister from 1928 to 1958.[17] He served as president of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice, advocated Soviet-American cooperation, promoted the American Civil Liberties Union and supported several national legal defense campaigns.[76] In 1933 Williams became one of the 34 signers of the Humanist Manifesto, which, among other things, declared the universe to be self-existing and not created, rejected the duality between mind and body, and called for religion to be reformed in light of the scientific spirit.[17][77]

Williams was an advocate of family planning and served on the executive committee of the local Birth Control League.[76] The federal Comstock laws made it difficult at that time to be closely associated with any aspect of birth control. When Margaret Sanger, a national leader of the family planning movement, spoke at Temple B'rith Kodesh in 1932, she was arrested for answering a question from the audience about where birth control devices could be obtained.[52]:146 Williams preached a sermon on "The Spiritual Significance of Voluntary Motherhood" and invited Sanger to speak from the pulpit at First Unitarian a few weeks after she was arrested. A group of eight women, including Wilma Lord Perkins from First Unitarian, subsequently formed an organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood of Rochester/Syracuse. When the organization found it difficult to obtain office space elsewhere, First Unitarian provided them space in Gannett House from 1934 to 1937.[76][78]

In 1933 a group of Quakers began meeting in the home of Mary Gannett for the purpose of reestablishing a formal presence in Rochester, where the last Quaker organization had disbanded in 1915. The new Quaker group began holding worship services the following year in Gannett House, First Unitarian's parish house. Gannett encouraged the new organization while continuing to devote her support activities to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester.[79]

In 1940 Time magazine gave the church national publicity with an article about its ordination of James Ziglar Hanner as a Unitarian minister in an unusual ceremony that included two rabbis. Rabbi Phillip S. Bernstein of B'rith Kodesh gave Hanner his pastoral charge, basing it on the Hebrew text The Ethics of the Fathers. The service closed with the singing of Yigdal, the hymn that had been translated from Hebrew to English in 1883 by Rabbi Landsberg of B'rith Kodesh and Rev. Mann of First Unitarian. Ziglar began his ministry in Massachusetts.[52]:130[53][80]

In 1953, during the McCarthy period, Williams' brother, Albert Rhys Williams, was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of having supported the Communist Party from 1919 to 1929. Rev. Williams supported his brother and criticized his attackers. Thirteen members of the congregation accused Williams of being soft on Communism and attempted to have him dismissed from the pulpit. When the issue was put to a congregational vote, the only votes against Williams were the thirteen who had made the accusation, all of whom subsequently left the church. A prominent member of First Unitarian who supported Williams during this controversy was Frank Gannett, founder of the Gannett newspaper chain, who had campaigned for the Republican nomination to run against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential elections.[17]

In 1957 several members of the congregation formed the Rochester Memorial Society, later called the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Rochester, to encourage simple rather than ostentatious funeral services. By 1975 its membership had grown to over a thousand families. As of 2011, its mailing address continued to be the same as that of First Unitarian.[17][81]

New building by Louis Kahn[edit]

Louis Kahn's First Unitarian Church building

In 1958 Williams announced his intention to retire after 30 years of service. Three months later, while searching for his replacement, the church was informed that a project to build a downtown shopping mall would require the space occupied by their building, forcing the church to deal with two major issues at the same time.[17]

The existing building had several deficiencies, and the church had been wrestling with problems of growth. Church committees had been investigating several alternatives including expanding the existing building, constructing a new church school, establishing daughter congregations, and purchasing the building that Temple B'rith Kodesh was vacating.[82]:49

The church voted to sell their building to the Midtown Plaza developers in January 1959 with the understanding that they could continue to occupy it until July 1961. Construction activity nearby, however, soon weakened the building, forcing the congregation to move in September 1959. The church held Sunday services at the Dryden Theatre of the George Eastman House until a new building could be constructed.[17]

The congregation voted to hire Louis Kahn in June 1959 to design their new building, which was completed in 1962.[83]:340 Details are below under Architecture.

Mid-1900s to present[edit]

In 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.[19] The possibility of merging Rochester's First Unitarian and First Universalist churches, which had conducted a joint church school in the 1950s and whose buildings had been only a block apart before the old Unitarian church was demolished two years earlier, was considered but not acted upon.[17][40]

William Jenkins was minister from 1959 to 1963 and also served as president of the newly merged Unitarian Universalist Ministers' Association. Robert West was minister from 1963 until 1969, when he resigned to become president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.[17]

In 1963 the church's Social Action Committee played the key role in creating Community Interests, Inc, an organization that provided minority families with housing loans. That organization was later absorbed by the Monroe County Housing Council.[50]

In 1964 rapid growth in membership led the church to begin offering two Sunday worship services and church school sessions, with classes for older children relocated to the Harley School to ease crowding.[17] Despite having originally informed Kahn that there would be no need to design the church to accommodate future enlargement, the church trustees decided in September 1964, less than two years after it was completed, to expand the building. Louis Kahn was hired once again as architect, and the addition was completed in May 1969.[83]:340,344

Richard Gilbert served as minister from 1970 until his retirement in 2002.[50] Gilbert became one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II in 1973.[84] During the 1970s Gilbert was a member of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a group of ministers and rabbis who helped women find safe abortions at a time when it was still illegal.[78]

In 1980 Gilbert wrote The Prophetic Imperative: Unitarian Universalist Foundations for a New Social Gospel, a book used in seminars given by the denomination's Social Justice Empowerment Program.[50] In 1983 Gilbert published the first of three volumes of Building Your Own Theology, a guidebook for examining and clarifying personal values and beliefs in a group setting.[50] It became the most widely used adult education curriculum within the denomination.[85]

In 1982 church member Joyce Gilbert called a meeting that led to the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network. She and Ed Schell, First Unitarian's Minister of Music, served first as members of the organizing committee and then as presidents of the new organization. With a membership of several hundred, the organization played a major role in producing the denomination's new hymnals.[50][86]

In 1988 the church volunteers began providing classroom support to Rochester city schools in a program called the UU/Schools Partnership.[87]

Kaaren Anderson and Scott Tayler arrived as Parish Co-Ministers in 2004.[50] In 2006 the church began its Greater Good Project, which asks members to cut their usual Holiday spending in half and contribute the other half to community projects. In its first year the congregation contributed $79,000,[88] part of which was used to initiate the church's Honduras Project, which works to improve the quality of life in a small Honduras township.[89]

In 2007 the church originated Wellspring, a program of spiritual deepening that has since been adopted by other Unitarian Universalist congregations.[90]

In 2009 the church's Reproductive Rights Task Force began the process of establishing a talk line to offer "support without judgment" to women who have had abortions.[78] Staffed by church volunteers and others in the community, the talk line, which is called Connect and Breathe, began operating in 2011. It operates in the eastern part of the U.S. in conjunction with a similar talk line that was already serving the western time zones.[78]

Because of growth in membership, in 2010 the church began offering a Saturday worship service in addition to the two Sunday services.[50]


Choosing an architect[edit]

First Unitarian's previous building was architecturally significant, having been designed by Richard Upjohn, a prominent nineteenth-century architect and the first president of the American Institute of Architects. The church decided in 1959 to replace it with a building designed "by a leading 20th century architect, giving the community a notable example of contemporary architecture."[91] Details about the decision to replace the existing building are above under New building by Louis Kahn.

The search committee, formed of church members who were knowledgeable about architecture, decided to focus on prominent architects who had established relatively small offices and did most of the creative work themselves.[82]:52 They contacted six architects. Frank Lloyd Wright expressed little interest and his fees were high. (Wright died shortly afterward at the age of 91.[92]) Eero Saarinen was considered but was unable to take the job because of his time constraints. The committee also met with Paul Rudolph, Walter Gropius, and Carl Koch.[82]:52 They spent a day with Louis Kahn in May 1959[93]:138 and were impressed by his philosophical approach, the atmosphere in his office, the assurance that he would personally be in charge of the design, his respect for the integrity of materials, and the perception that his architecture, while modern, had an emotional depth and a connection to the past.[82]:52

Robin B. Williams, writing in Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, says Kahn appealed to them also because of "the high compatibility of his philosophy with Unitarian ideas".[83]:340 Robert McCarter, one of Kahn's biographers, notes parallels between Kahn's ideas and those in the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendalist[94]:444 who was an important figure in Unitarian history.[95] Committee members said they were convinced that Kahn was "a natural Unitarian."[93]:138 Kahn, who came from a non-observant Jewish background,[93]:13,91 was spiritual in a way that been described as "pan-religious" by Carter Wiseman, one of his biographers.[96]:116 When working on projects in India and Bangladesh, for example, he developed an affinity with the spirituality he found there.[93]:179 Kahn's architecture reflected his spirituality. David Rineheart, who worked for Kahn, said, "for Lou, every building was a temple. Salk was a temple for science. Dhaka was a temple for government. Exeter was a temple for learning."[96]:180

Kahn's social and political outlook also was compatible with that of the Rochester congregation and its history of concern with social issues. During the Great Depression Kahn worked with labor unions and civic agencies to design inexpensive housing. He worked as assistant architect on the Jersey Homesteads, a project to resettle Jewish garment workers from New York City and Philadelphia to a kibbutz-like rural collective that combined farming and manufacturing.[93]:14–19[97] During the presidential election of 1948, Kahn worked with the third-party campaign of Henry A. Wallace, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket.[93]:39

Kahn gave a philosophical presentation of his ideas to a congregational meeting in June 1959, after which the church commissioned him to design their new building. During that same visit Kahn helped choose the site to be purchased for the new building.[83]:340 The church hired Kahn just as his career was entering a new stage that would bring him increased attention.[83]:340 Later that year Kahn was chosen to design the Salk Institute, and in 1962 he was selected to design the National Assembly complex for what would become the capital of the new nation of Bangladesh.[83]:330,374

Design process[edit]

The story of the design process at First Unitarian, including Kahn's creation of what he called a Form drawing, "is almost classic in architectural history and theory"[3] according to Katrine Lotz, a professor at the School of Architecture of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Kahn's approach was to design each building as if it were the first of its kind.[83]:73 August Komendant, a structural engineer who worked closely with Kahn,[98]:96 said that during the initial design stages Kahn wrestled with questions like "How would one design a Unitarian Church? What is the Unitarian religion?" and studied Unitarianism thoroughly.[99]:35 The result sometimes confounded expectations. When the completed First Unitarian Church was shown at an architectural exhibition in the Soviet Union, the mayor of Leningrad commented that it did not look like a church. (Kahn jokingly responded, "That's why it was chosen for exhibition in the Soviet Union.")[100]:310

The church's building committee provided Kahn with information from questionnaires filled out by church members to indicate what they desired from their new building. These questionnaires went beyond normal fact-gathering about functional requirements to include aspects of the Unitarian faith that the building should express.[82]:50,55 Among other things, they said, the new building should be supportive of the broader community and should express "the dignity rather than the depravity of man."[93]:147

The congregation's broad approach to the statement of requirements was similar to Kahn's philosophical approach to architectural design. Kahn explained this approach in Form and Design, an article he wrote while working on this project. Using the First Unitarian Church of Rochester as an example, Kahn said, "A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable ... But what is unmeasurable is the psychic spirit."[4]:69 Kahn associated the unmeasurable with what he called Form, saying that, "Form is not design, not a shape, not a dimension. It is not a material thing."[4]:120 "Form ... characterizes a harmony of spaces good for a certain activity of man."[4]:64

When Kahn addressed the congregational meeting that voted to hire him, he explained his approach by creating what he called a Form drawing, which, he said, was not to be understood as an architectural design. He drew a square that represented the sanctuary, and around the square he placed concentric circles representing an ambulatory, a corridor and the church school. In the center of the square he placed a question mark that, he explained on another occasion, represented his understanding that "the form realization of Unitarian activity was bound around that which is Question. Question eternal of why anything."[4]:66

Kahn delivered his first design in December 1959, proposing a square building three stories high with four-story towers in each corner. The sanctuary was a square area in the middle of a large twelve-sided room at the center of the building. The remainder of the near-circular room was an ambulatory space that was to be screened from the sanctuary.[83]:341[93]:139 Kahn said, "The ambulatory I felt necessary because the Unitarian Church is made up of people who have had previous beliefs ... So I drew the ambulatory to respect the fact that what is being said or what is felt in a sanctuary was not necessarily something you have to participate in. And so you could walk and feel free to walk away from what is being said."[4]:110 Kahn had developed the idea for this type of ambulatory prior to his work on First Unitarian, referring to it during a talk in 1957 in the context of a university chapel.[93]:142 The central room was to be capped by a complex dome and encircled by a corridor outside its walls that would provide connections to the three-story church school on the periphery of the building.[83]:341[93]:139 Pupils in the school would be able to observe church services from open spaces above.[101]:55

Prompted by complaints about the cost, which was several times the amount that had been budgeted, Kahn quickly dropped one story from the proposed building. The committee, however, was also unhappy with other aspects of the design, such as its inflexibility and shortage of useful classroom space,[83]:341 the irregularly shaped rooms on the periphery created by the placement of a large, near-circular room within a square building,[102]:82 and the potential for services to be disturbed by children listening above and by people drifting in and out of the sanctuary.[101]:55 In February 1960, Helen Williams, the chair of the building committee, wrote to Kahn saying "we are not in any measure happy with the present concept which you have given us,"[82]:52 and a week later she wrote, "We remain steadfast in the conclusion that we must have an entirely new concept".[83]:342 Stating that "Kahn has failed us miserably",[82]:53 Williams resigned in frustration from the building committee shortly afterward.[83]:342

Kahn agreed to create a new design, much to the relief of the building committee, who feared that he would demand payment for work performed and walk away from the commission.[83]:342 For his new design Kahn proposed a building that was loosely elongated rather than rigidly square. He resisted suggestions to place classrooms in a separate wing to reduce the potential for services to be disturbed by boisterous children, retaining the concept of surrounding the sanctuary with the church school.[93]:150 Kahn eliminated the ambulatory space inside the sanctuary walls but retained the corridor just outside to provide access to the classrooms.[102]:88,91

Sanctuary, with choir loft, ceiling structure, and light towers

The roof over the sanctuary was one of the last aspects of the design to be completed.[83]:343 One option would have been to span the sanctuary with a steel frame, but Kahn had decided in the early 1950s that he would no longer use such structures, preferring the more monumental appearance he could achieve with materials like concrete and brick.[103] Not entirely satisfied with the roof design he had developed, Kahn asked August Komendant for suggestions. Komendant, his most important collaborator, was a structural engineer and a pioneer in the use of pre-stressed concrete, which can be used to create lighter and more graceful structures than regular concrete.[98] Komendant kept Kahn's general layout of the roof but redesigned it as a folded-plate structure of pre-stressed concrete that would be self-supporting, eliminating the need for the massive concrete beams that Kahn had been planning to use as supports for the roof structure.[99]:36

During the design process, Kahn and the church developed a relationship of close collaboration.[93]:136 The congregation sometimes contributed to the process at a detailed level. One member built a scale model of the building and used it to conduct photometric studies of light levels in the proposed sanctuary.[101]:54 Kahn initially planned to bring natural light into the sanctuary through light slits in an array of concrete caps on the roof, but the building committee calculated that each cap would weigh 33 tons (30,000 kg), creating problems of support. The light towers in Kahn's final design are glazed only on their inner sides, a suggestion that originated with the committee.[83]:343 The committee notified Kahn that their calculations of acoustical resonance in the proposed light shafts indicated the possibility of problems in that area.[82]:53

The new design was overwhelmingly approved by the congregation in August 1960. At the dedication of the new building in December 1962, Kahn talked about the relationship between architecture and religion.[83]:343 Komendant said, "He told me that in his speech he described the cathedrals, whose size and height was intended to show God's greatness and might and man's lowness, so that men would be frightened and obey His laws. For this church he used atmosphere and beauty to create respect and understanding for God's aims, kindness, and forgiveness."[99]:40


The exterior of the building is characterized by deeply folded brick walls created by a series of thin, two-story light hoods that help shield windows from direct sunlight. Between the light hoods on the ground floor are projections of the building that enclose bench seats in the interior. Small windows on each side of the bench seats allow additional indirect light into the rooms.[94]:174 These projections impart a dual character to the light hoods, giving the upper part of each the appearance of an object, a light hood, and the lower part the appearance of a void, the space between two projections.[104]:274 The light hoods create a series of shadows on the exterior wall that are reminiscent of a row of columns, their vertical lines adding to the impression of height.[93]:157 The main entrance to the building is not visible to people passing by on the street.[101]:58

Light towers in each of the four corners of the sanctuary rise above the building's outer walls, making the shape of the sanctuary easy to visualize from outside. The impression that Kahn created of the sanctuary imbedded within the larger building is similar to the "box within a box" approach he used in several other buildings, notably the Phillips Exeter Academy Library.[105]:24–25

Northwest corner of First Unitarian

The building echoes the design of the Scottish castles that fascinated Kahn, particularly Comlongon Castle, whose floor plan is reproduced in two different scholarly discussions of First Unitarian.[83]:68[94]:176 Comlongon Castle has a single large room in its center surrounded by walls that are 20 feet (6.1 m) thick. Those unusually thick walls made it possible to carve entire secondary rooms from within them, in effect making them inhabited walls.[94]:169 In the case of First Unitarian, the large central room is the sanctuary, and the "inhabited walls" can be perceived as the surrounding two floors of rooms.[94]:176 The windows of these rooms are recessed so deeply as to be unnoticed when viewed from an angle, and the building's indented corners spaces are windowless, all of which adds to the perception that the sanctuary is surrounded by massive, rugged walls.[105]:24 In Kahn's words, "the school became the walls which surrounded the question."[4]:110

The church hired Kahn in 1964 to design an addition, which was completed in 1969. Its exterior is relatively unarticulated, in contrast to the sculpted walls of the original building.[83]:344 Built on a slope, it has two main floors and a lower level at its easternmost end, with complex windows on the two main floors.[91][94]:171

The building's footprint is 14,900 square feet (1,380 m2).[93]:136 According to scale drawings, the irregularly-shaped building is approximately 230 by 115 feet (70 m × 35 m) at its longest and widest points. Of that length, approximately the easternmost 75 feet (23 m) is the 1969 addition.[94]:166


Instead of a grand entrance at the front of the building leading straight into the sanctuary, entry into First Unitarian is by way of a doorway at the side of the building that requires a right turn past other spaces to reach the sanctuary.[93]:150,158 The sanctuary is entered beneath the low ceiling of the cantilevered choir loft, creating a sequence from shadow into light.[93]:140[94]:171

First floor plan. The 1969 addition begins at the left edge of the lobby. The north side of the building is at the bottom. The street is to the right.

"Civilization is measured by the shape of your ceiling," said Kahn.[94]:133 The complex ceiling of the sanctuary rises above both floors of surrounding rooms and extends over the sanctuary wall to the outer walls of the corridor outside. Light towers in the four corners of the sanctuary bring in indirect natural light from areas that are not typically well lit. The ceiling's layered outer edges and light-filled corners give the room "an expansive, boundless character", according to Kahn biographer Robert McCarter.[94]:171–172 Kahn said, "If you think about it, you realize that you don't say the same thing in a small room as you do in a large room."[4]:272

Between the light towers is a cruciform concrete roof structure with a shape something like the underside of a ship's hull. Its outer edges do not sit directly on the sanctuary walls but rise above them, relieving what could be a perception of oppressive weightiness, according to Carter Wiseman, one of Kahn's biographers.[96]:115

The massive ceiling structure is partly supported by twelve slender columns embedded in the sanctuary walls, three columns per wall. Square brackets on top of the central column in each wall support the lower folds of the slab. The brackets are split in the middle to allow the fold to be perceived as passing through to the outer corridor walls, which provide much of the ceiling support. Each central column is braced to the columns on either side by horizontal beams. The ceiling is lowest and darkest in the center, the opposite of classic church domes that are highest and brightest in the center.[94]:172–173 The cruciform shape that Kahn used for the ceiling is one that he had used in previous works, notably the Jewish Community Center of Trenton, New Jersey.[94]:89

The tapestries on the sanctuary walls were designed by Kahn and, like the building itself, contain no literal symbolism.[102]:65 They were woven by Jack Lenor Larsen.[91] At Kahn's request, the panels span the full color spectrum and yet were constructed entirely from one red, one blue, and one yellow yarn, with the remaining shades created with blends of those three yarns. The panels were designed not only for visual effect but also to correct a problem of sound reverberating from the concrete walls.[106]

The primary building materials of the interior are concrete block, poured concrete and wood. Kahn left the natural surfaces of these materials exposed rather than applying an additional finish. This was Kahn's first extensive use of concrete and wood together, a combination he used in most of his later projects.[91][93]:159

The sanctuary walls are 2 feet (0.61 m) thick and are built of concrete blocks. Hollow spaces within the walls function as ventilation ducts. The roof support columns embedded in the sanctuary walls are made of poured concrete, as is the roof and the outer walls of the corridor around the sanctuary. Left visible are patterns made by the thin strips of wood that composed the forms into which the concrete was poured.[94]:172–173 Kahn procured unusually long strips of wood to construct the forms for the sanctuary ceiling.[93]:159 As he had done earlier with the main stairwell in the Yale University Art Gallery, Kahn also left visible the pattern of circular holes created by the devices that held the forms together while concrete was being poured for the walls, letting the marks of construction serve as the "basis for ornament".[83]:171,200[98]:69

Sherri Geldin, writing of Kahn in the prologue to Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, said: "He attached almost mythic significance to the 'meeting place,' to any setting where communal interaction occurs ... His religious buildings and projects ... aspire to evoke a state of grace that is without dogma or sectarian distinctions, underscoring instead that which is universal and transcendent."[83]:16

During the initial design discussions, Kahn asked Komendant, "What is most important in a church?" and then answered that question himself by saying "the essence of atmosphere for a church is silence and light. Light and Silence!"[99]:35 Silence and Light later became the name of an essay that Kahn wrote in 1968 in which he explained concepts crucial to his philosophy. Robert Twombly, an editor of Kahn's writings, said that by silence, Kahn meant "the desire ... of every person to create, which for Kahn was the same thing as being alive ... To the silence of humanity's innate urge to create comes the sun's life-supporting power, giving to silence the ability to act."[4]:228 Architectural historian Vincent Scully said of the church, "You can really feel the silence he talked about, thrumming as with the presence of divinity, when the cinder block is washed silver by the light that floods down upon it, while the heavy, heavy slab is lifted overhead."[100]:309

Exterior and interior views of the ground floor projections with bench seats

In the classrooms, bench seats with small side windows are placed in projections of the outer walls. These spaces create the impression of little rooms carved from the outer walls, and, according to Robert McCarter, they continue Kahn's architectural theme of the classrooms themselves appearing as rooms imbedded within thick, castle-like walls.[94]:174

In the 1969 addition, the rectangular gallery on the first floor is designed so that it can be used either as an extension of the lobby or separated into smaller rooms by massive doors. Church offices are located on both sides of the gallery. The second floor has a loose arrangement of spaces that can be combined into a large room or used separately. The two main floors of the addition have fireplaces at the end nearest the sanctuary and large windows at the far end that reveal the natural world outside.[91]

Monumentality and authenticity[edit]

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, author of Louis Kahn's Situated Modernism, says that Kahn was troubled by the socially corrosive aspects of modern society.[93]:201 He believed, in her words, that "architecture must foster people's ethical formation. People who are anchored in their community, morally obligated and psychologically connected to the people surrounding them, make for better citizens."[93]:203 Because his social agenda was compatible with Unitarian ideals, he was in a good position to manifest his vision of community in architectural form at the Rochester church.[93]:146 According to Goldhagen, Kahn used two architectural approaches to situate his buildings' users both in society and in themselves. One is monumentality, which anchors people socially and promotes a feeling of community. The other is authenticity, which fosters self-awareness and promotes individual responsibility.[93]:207

Kahn's first major essay as sole author, published in 1944, was called "Monumentality," a concept he defined as "a spiritual quality inherent in a structure which conveys the feeling of its eternity".[4]:21 Sonit Bafna says that in the early 1950s Kahn "had begun to develop a distinctive approach to architecture. An overriding concern for him from this period on was to instill a sense of permanence into his buildings, so that his work could match the dignity and poise of the ruins he had seen in Italy and southern Europe."[104]:268 Goldhagen says that Kahn used monumentality to strengthen the sense of community among those who used his buildings: the massiveness of a Kahn building instills the feeling that both the building and the institution it houses will last for a very long time.[93]:208 At First Unitarian, says Goldhagen, the column-like rhythms of light that Kahn sculpted across the facade are among the devices that increase the impression of massiveness and give the building an air of monumentality.[93]:157

Secondly, according to Goldhagen, Kahn strove for "an architecture of authenticity."[93]:62 Authenticity is a concept popularized by the existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who, in Goldhagen's words, believed that "To live authentically, one has to strive for a heightened awareness not only of oneself but also of one's place in a specific historical moment and place. This requires acute perception of one's social and physical environment, which is difficult because a person tends to apprehend the objects and buildings that surround her as instruments".[93]:61 Authenticity encourages people to focus "not on the instrumentality of the everyday world but rather on an object's shape, texture, and materiality."[93]:61 In contrast to other modern architects like Mies van der Rohe, Kahn shunned "the diaphanous and the transparent so that he could press the viewer up against materiality, substance and weight."[93]:62 Goldhagen notes that "It is all but impossible to enter one of Kahn's buildings and not to notice it, not to inspect it or look intently at it."[93]:212 Kahn strove for an aesthetic of authenticity at First Unitarian, says Goldhagen, by designing with a blunt honesty of materials and by laying bare the process of construction.[93]:159 Kahn said, "I believe in frank architecture. A building is a struggle, not a miracle, and the architect should acknowledge this."[93]:41

Kahn had partially achieved these two aspirations in earlier works, according to Goldhagen. The Yale University Art Gallery, for example, with its emphasis on process over finish, promotes authenticity, situating people in themselves, while the Richards Medical Research Laboratories were designed to reinforce group cooperation. Goldhagen says that it was with First Unitarian that Kahn first succeeded in situating his building's users both in themselves and in society, an agenda that he was later able to develop more fully at the Salk Institute and National Assembly Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which had much larger budgets.[93]:62,204–205

Importance to Kahn's career[edit]

According to Goldhagen, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester was "the first building Kahn built that gave an indication of his mature style".[93]:136 Vincent Scully, in his Modern Architecture and Other Essays, similarly says "the experience of designing the church at Rochester seems to have brought Kahn to a confident maturity and confirmed him in his method of design."[100]:255

Kahn worked primarily for institutions that advanced the public good, including schools, museums, research institutes, government bodies, and religious organizations.[93]:4,204 Goldhagen says that at First Unitarian Kahn developed a philosophy for creating architecture for such organizations: "Kahn's philosophy of the 'architecture of institutions,' developed while designing the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, stipulated that the architect's first and highest duty was to develop an idealized vision of an institution's 'way of life' and then to give that vision form—or, as he would have put it, Form."[93]:164

Robin B. Williams, writing in Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, says the design approach that Kahn followed at First Unitarian, particularly the introduction of his Form drawing, was important to the development of his process for transforming an intangible architectural idea into an actual building:

Kahn made his enthusiasm for the First Unitarian Church evident even before it received final approval from the building committee. As early as October 1960, in a lecture in California, he had chosen it to illustrate a pair of terms—"form" and "design"—that were becoming key tenets of his philosophy. He used these words to describe his conception of architecture—and in particular his design procedure—as the translation of the intangible into the real. It was at this time that Kahn mythologized the way the design of the church had evolved, composing an account (accompanied by the now-famous diagram) that, since its publication in April 1961, has been seen as the clearest illustration of his design approach.[83]:343

Kahn worked on this lecture for several months and published it as an essay called Form and Design. A colleague described it as the best embodiment of his ideas at that time and said that when people requested examples of Kahn's publications, he most often sent this essay.[83]:71


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b National Park Service. "Weekly List of Actions Taken on Properties: 9/15/14 through 9/19/14". National Register of Historic Places Program: Lists of Weekly Actions 2014. National Park Service. Retrieved Sep 26, 2014.
  2. ^ a b Paul Goldberger (December 26, 1982). "Housing for the Spirit". The New York Times. Retrieved Nov 1, 2011.
  3. ^ a b Katrine Lotz (2007). "'Architectural Gaits' – Architectures as Technologies and Techniques". Nordic Design Research. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kahn, Louis (2003). Twombly, Robert (ed.). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-73113-2.
  5. ^ "The Largest Congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association" (PDF). Unitarian Universalist Association. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
  6. ^ "Church Staff". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Retrieved September 21, 2019.
  7. ^ "Worship Services". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Retrieved September 21, 2019.
  8. ^ a b "Beliefs and Values". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Archived from the original on February 17, 2015. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
  9. ^ "Children and Youth Religious Education". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
  10. ^ "Governing Policies of the First Unitarian Church" (PDF). First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 18, 2015. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
  11. ^ "Bylaws of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester" (PDF). First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 18, 2015. Retrieved February 17, 2015.
  12. ^ "Social Justice". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  13. ^ "A Social Justice Council Guidebook" (PDF). First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-11-26. Retrieved Nov 17, 2011.
  14. ^ "Worship". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  15. ^ "Music and Arts Groups". First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Archived from the original on February 20, 2015. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
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