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Rev. Doom and the Design of Post-World War II Southern Churches

March 13, 2020

--by Douglas McVarish

The Presbyterian Church, as with other Protestant denominations, has long been active in the design and construction of its church buildings.

In 1844, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) directed its Board of Missions to appoint a Church Extension Committee. The purpose of this committee was to help less prosperous congregations build houses of worship. Similarly, in 1853, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (New School) appointed its own Committee on Church Erection. In 1870, these two extension agencies consolidated to form a Board of Church Erection. Beginning in 1875, the Board began to publish architectural drawings of Presbyterian churches in its annual reports. By 1920, it had assisted nearly 12,000 congregations in building churches and manses.[1]

Following a period of inactivity between the First and Second World War, the Board of Church Erection became involved in new facility planning as the denomination sought to accommodate post-war growth. Between 1948 and 1957, investments in Presbyterian church buildings totaled over $151 million. Much of this new construction took place in the Southern states, where the growth in population was occurring in response to industrial relocation. Additionally, as the population shifted from rural areas to suburban and urban areas, it spurred demands for new and improved church facilities.[2]

The post-War boom in the design and construction of Southern Presbyterian churches, including manses, education buildings, and fellowship halls, is documented in the papers of Rev. James L. Doom and the records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States Board of National Ministries, Department of Church Architecture. These sets of historic Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) materials are stewarded by the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Many of the local church building committees in the Southern states consisted of members who had never built a church before. The Southern Church, realizing the need for expert advice on the various, complicated aspects of building design and funding, established the Department of Church Architecture, which it nested under the Board of Church Extension. Funds became available for this initiative in 1953 and Rev. O.V. Caudill was appointed secretary.

Rev. O.V. Caudill

Caudill, who had previously served as a building consultant for the Synod of North Carolina for eight years, described the functions of the Department of Church Architecture as follows:

The Department does not offer free architectural service. It does not compete with the architect, nor does it try to prejudge design decisions for him.

The Department does try to prepare the church to tell the architect clearly what the church wants to build. Stating the problem is the church’s responsibility. Designing the solution is the architect’s responsibility. He is trained for design. Decisions in his field should be left to him! [3]

Doom (center left), Caudill (center right)

Caudill soon realized that the demands of the job were more than he could independently assume. Just three years later, in 1956, he established an Advisory Council for Church Architecture. This Council, which began its work immediately, included such members as a registered architect and acting minister, the Reverend James L. Doom. Caudill went on to serve as the secretary of the Department of Church Architecture until 1960, at which time he was replaced by Doom (1914-2013).

James Lanier Doom was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of James Murphy Doom and Marion Sease Doom. At the age of six months, Doom’s family moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he would later attend public school. Following high school, Doom enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a B.S. in Architecture in 1936. Upon graduation, he was awarded the A.I.A. medal, along with a year’s fellowship to study architecture at Harvard University under renowned émigré architect, Walter Gropius.

Following his year-long fellowship at Harvard, Doom returned to Atlanta where he accepted a job with the Robert and Company, architects and engineers. After three years of practice as an architect, Doom then enrolled in Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1943.[4] He then went on to serve as pastor for several Alabama churches before further assuming the role of secretary for the Advisory Council for Church Architecture.[5]

As a registered architect, Rev. Doom brought a new background to his position with the Department of Church Architecture. He considered it his responsibility to suggest appropriate architects for church-building. He also believed it his responsibility to critique outside-architect-designed building plans and to recommend design revisions. During his tenure as secretary, Doom wrote extensively on the role of architecture in the functioning of a modern church complex, noting that church architecture was changing in response to a “new era of design” as well as a “widely varied program.”[6] Having had Walter Gropius as a mentor at Harvard, Doom was sympathetic to the appeal of an architectural vocabulary that represented its historical moment:

Architecture has entered a new era because new materials and new methods of construction offer better ways to build than other generations knew. Steel and concrete make it possible to span wider spaces than stone or wood could cover. Walls need no longer support the roofs which cover them. Roofs supported at selected points permit future adjustment in walls as the changing program of the church may require.

Folded plate or thin shell design can enclose space with less material, lighter weight, and greater economy. Exposed aggregates and concrete make beauty emerge from the nature of the structure itself. No decorative surface need be added. New forms of glass, many kinds of plastic, and curtain wall construction offer variations in deign no earlier generations could command.[7]

In the 1964 report of the Department of Church Architecture, Doom postulated a connection between the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit and the design of a church building:

Whether a man likes contemporary design or not is an aesthetic question which he may solve as he pleases. But whether a man trusts the Holy Spirit to work with our contemporary problems in church building is a theological matter for which we have a given revelation. Because of our faith in the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit, the church has good reason to face the future with the best wisdom and skill she can command.[8]

Throughout his tenure as secretary for the Department of Church Architecture, Doom maintained regular contact with many of the country’s ecclesiastical architects. His archived files contain clippings on hundreds of architects and firms throughout the country that were originally published in newspapers and architectural journals. Dooms files also contain an extensive number of correspondences with noted modernist ecclesiastical architects, including Pietro Belluschi, Edward Sovik, and Harold. E. Wagoner. Archived materials further reveal that Doom invited architects to speak at several conferences which he coordinated at Montreat and that he displayed little hesitation in recommending specific architects or firms for particular church building projects.

The influence of Doom’s views on the design of Southern Presbyterian churches of the 1960s and early 1970s will be explored in a subsequent blog post.

--Douglas McVarish is a PHS volunteer and member of First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, New Jersey, a congregation in West Jersey Presbytery.


[1] “Sacred Spaces: Building Presbyterian Worship Spaces”: www.history.pcusa.org/history-online/exhibits/building-presbyterian-churches
[2] “For Our Church Buildings: $20 Million a Year.” 
[3] Ibid.
[4] None of the PHS files on Doom yielded information regarding to why Doom chose to abandon his architectural profession and pursue a divinity degree.   
[5]“Rev. James Lanier Doom, 99, Black Mountain, died 10-24-2013,” Asheville Citizen-Times, October 25, 2013.
[6] In this era, churches began incorporating spaces that were not traditionally part of church complexes, like breakfast eating areas and gymnasia.
[7] James L. Doom, “Church Architecture in a Changing Age.” 
[8] James L. Doom, “Department of Church Architecture, Annual Report, December 31, 1964.”