Tropic's Mid-Century Modern Monument of the Month | The Sanctuary

This original ink and watercolor drawing of The Sanctuary shows the complex as proposed in 1960. The "moonlander" administration building was built in a more rectilinear fashion.

Tropic's Mid-Century Modern Monument of the Month | The Sanctuary

Text John T. O'Connor

Architect Harold E. Wagoner of Philadelphia doesn't get much recognition in Fort Lauderdale… he only built one structure here, but what he did build is quite significant. Outside of Fort Lauderdale, however, Wagoner was known, in the 1950s and 60s as a premier designer of contemporary houses of worship.

Called "the foremost living church architect in America"at the time, Wagoner – who passed away in 1986 – was educated at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon Engineering) and the American Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Fontainebleau, France in the 1920s and 30s. His first employment was with the Methodist Bureau of Architecture, which started the ball rolling on his love and finesse in the world of ecclesiastical design. By the end of his life, his firm had designed over 500 religious buildings.

Voted a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1968, Wagoner began design on The Sanctuary almost ten years earlier, in 1959. Needless to say, his design for what is the Second Presbyterian Church at 1400 North Federal Highway was a radical departure from his designs – indeed all church designs – from just ten years earlier. As with Modernism itself, Wagoner's design should be noted with its clear break from the past, but in terms of his final product, The Sanctuary clearly is a form of Modernism that belongs completely to Florida. While this space age take on classic ecclesiastical architecture would have been wildly out of place in say, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania or Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, it was perfect for the bright new world of 1960s Fort Lauderdale.

Wagoner abstracts traditional motifs to the extreme on this structure, for instance, flying buttresses made popular in the cathedrals of the centuries old Gothic movement like the Duomo di Milano were simplified to the point of becoming abstract sculpture. But unlike places of worship designed by his contemporary, Eero Saarinen, whose churches were ethereal and sublime, Wagoner's Sanctuary was non-stop, cutting-edge drama when it opened its doors in November of 1961.

The rose window, a traditional, round stained glass window whose use began in Medieval times is here exploded to cover the entire Narthex or front façade of the structure. Sixty feet wide and fifty feet high, it is made of precast and reinforced concrete blocks with over 1,000 openings. These openings are set with thick chunks of "pot metal glass"set into epoxy cement. The entire window was set over six weeks by German craftspeople.

Inside the church, an organic double row of vaulted arches made of raw, cast concrete hold up a mezzanine level singing gallery, separating the Narthex from the main body of the church. Running down either side towards the Chancel are hundreds of narrow clerestory windows in scarlet, deep blue and gold. The effect, on a sunny day is awe-inspiring. But, according to current pastor Dwayne Black, the finest view is actually the view he has looking out toward the congregation toward the giant Narthex window. "This is God's house, and we are welcoming to all."

Enameled panels of extruded aluminum are interspersed with thin slices of stained glass in the clerestory windows that run the length of the church’s nave. Dozens of flying buttresses of steel reinforced concrete run down either side and a shade canopy reinforces the land-hugging, horizontal nature of the structure.

The Narthex window at The Sanctuary is made up of individual concrete panels inset with chunks of "pot metal" glass creating incredible, saturated color and prismatic effect in an abstract, Modernist design spanning sixty feet across and fifty feet high. This window made it through hurricane Wilma without a scratch.


JOHN SPEAR, Associate Publisher

JOHN T. O'CONNOR, Editorial Director At Large

HILARY A. LEWIS, Senior Editor


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