If You Don’t Build It, They Will Not Come

Duo Dickinson PhotoReligious institutions across New Haven are adding new, ADA-compliant measures for congregants with limited mobility. But it’s not as architecturally easy as one might think. 

Architects like to think: Built it, and they will come. But sometimes, the case is more like: If you don’t build it, they will stop coming. Think when fast food franchises all added drive-thru windows a generation ago.

There is a quiet wave of accommodations not unlike the fast food drive thru window: its kind of a drive thru window for old souls. As New England loses faith in mass numbers, and those attending organized religious services shrink and age, fewer new places of worship are built. Almost all of the old-school sanctuaries were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) – and as humans age they lose a lot of abilities that make access to those sanctuaries taken for granted.

Despite architectural hubris buildings lead less than they respond. So as congregations age, and their places of worship want to attract new parishioners, old buildings get new access – but old buildings that are poorly modified wreck their historic appeal. Money is also tight as old buildings suck money out of operating budgets to the point where dramatic changes are hard to execute.

All three churches on the Green have subtly made access easier, the Orchard Street Shul is diligently exploring an elevator that will keep its historic interior intact —  as is the Church of Christ Scientist on Chapel Street. St. John’s Episcopal Church (pictured) had a quietly dramatic redo of its side door about a decade ago.

Its not just about taking care of those who attend, these acts of literal outreach of older buildings to a new secularizing population are putting their buildings where their hopes lie. In a part of the country where Faith is not fashionable, these gestures of welcome embody the best of an embattled human endeavor: Religion in New England.

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