Brother Christopher Stephen Jenks
New York Landmarks Conservancy
Common Bond December 1995

American Religious Buildings


By Brother Christopher Stephen Jenks, BSG, former Consulting Editor for Common Bond, is an architectural historian and preservationist. He is currently an Associate at the firm of Higgins & Quasebarth, consultants in the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties.

Through the clever arrangement of a central rotunda surrounded by individual classrooms-, the Akron Plan Sunday school was adopted by religious institutions throughout the nation.

Though relatively unknown today, the Akron Plan Sunday school was a popular type of religious building that developed in the late 19th century in response to the nation's growing educational movement. The design was named for the city of Akron, Ohio, where the plan was first used in the First Methodist Episcopal Church (Lewis Miller, Walter Blythe, and Jacob Snyder, 1866-1870). Thousands of Akron Plan Sunday Schools were built throughout New York State and the country between 1870 and the First World War.

The main feature of the Akron Plan is a large open space, the "rotunda," surrounded by smaller classrooms on one or two levels. These classrooms open onto the rotunda by means of folding doors or sliding shutters. In large churches, the plan may have included as many as 25 classrooms, contrasted to smaller rural churches with only two or three classrooms on each floor.

Although many Akron Plan Sunday Schools still exist, most have been modified to accommodate contemporary needs. Most frequently, rotundas have been adapted for use as social halls, day-care centers, theaters, or musical recital halls. The numerous classrooms surrounding the central space often house church offices or social service counseling rooms.

During the 18th and early 19th century in England and the United States, religious institutions created Sunday schools to help educate poor and indigent children; often this was the only formal education they received. The Methodist movement was at the forefront of the Sunday school movement, which soon attracted support of other Protestant denominations. With the growth of public education by the mid-19th century, Sunday school consisted primarily of religious instruction for children of the congregation. Sunday school, nevertheless, was promoted as the backbone of the nation's moral character, and its proliferation was encouraged for all children.

The first Sunday school classes were typically held in the church sanctuary or in a chapel-like building adjacent to the church. Children and adults often attended the same classes; this arrangement appealed to many ministers and parents since it allowed the Sunday

School lesson to be discussed among all family members after church. Unfortunately, this system had many disadvantages. Like in the one-room schoolhouse, the teaching style could not be tailored to each age group, and the mix of children of different ages led to discipline problems. Following the model of public education, many Christian educators believed that Sunday Schools should be graded, allowing children of the same age to be taught together in a style and manner suited to their age and temperament.

The Uniform Lesson System reconciled these two concerns, dictating that all children in the Sunday school, no matter what their age, learn the same weekly lesson, but in a manner appropriate to their age group. The weekly lesson usually included the memorization of one or two verses of scripture that related to the worship service. The Uniform Lesson System gained wide popularity in main-line Protestant denominations during the latter half of the 19th century.

The Akron Plan Sunday school was developed in response to the Uniform Lesson System and the need to combine instruction by grade with group recitation and prayer. Unlike any popular secular school arrangement, the Akron Plan merged the physical arrangements found in both the one-room schoolhouse and graded classroom layout.

Akron Plan Sunday Schools were used in the period between morning and afternoon services. After the morning service, teachers and children would proceed to the Sunday school building and enter their respective classrooms. The Sunday School superintendent would then open the day's session with a prayer and a reading from the relevant passage of scripture, speaking from a podium located in the center of the rotunda that was in sight of each student's seat. The teachers would then close the folding doors or sliding shutters, thereby separating each classroom from the rotunda and begin the day's lesson. At the appointed time, the doors or shutters would be reopened and the students would recite the scriptural passage for the day. The session would end in prayer, and the students would rejoin their parents in church for the afternoon service.

The Akron Plan Sunday school is a type of building that was adapted to a variety of architectural and decorative styles. Early examples were usually constructed in the Victorian Gothic style for large urban congregations or in the Carpenter Gothic style for smaller rural congregations. Later in the 19th century, the Romanesque Revival style became popular, followed in the 20th century by the Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical styles. Congregations that had existing houses of worship with auditorium-style sanctuaries often built the Akron Plan Sunday school. This style is compatible with the Akron Plan and contains a square or circular interior with curved or banked seating directed toward the pulpit.

The disenchantment of the Uniform Lesson Plan in the early 20th century caused the decline in popularity of the Akron Plan Sunday school. Christian educators increasingly believed that the content of Sunday school lessons, not just the style and manner of teaching, should be tailored to each age group. Sunday School buildings became more like public school buildings using separate classrooms for each "grade," thereby ending the need for a central rotunda.