Location: Queens, New York
Built: 1939 (Demolished 1940)
Firm(s): Stein, Poor and Reagan
Academic paper(s): Todd, J. Terry. “The Temple of Religion and the Politics of Religious Pluralism: Judeo-Christian America at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair,” in After Pluralism: Reimagining Models of Religious Engagement. Courtney Bender and Pamela Klassen, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010
While World’s Fairs and exhibitions have a storied history of representing religious plurality by displaying a range of objects, texts, and rituals in a hodgepodge or a “parliament,” the New York 1939 Fair organizers had something quite different in mind. In determined contrast to this storied tradition of exhibiting religion (and to the confusion of many visitors to the Fair), its religion display was an empty modern building that had been dubbed the Temple of Religion. Departing from earlier models that implicitly ranked religions, it sought to show unity and the “brotherhood” of America’s Protestants, Catholics and Jews through the language of architectural modernism. Its main hall included a two-story, abstract stained-glass window, a pipe organ, and could seat 1000 on moveable chairs. Its tranquil garden was filled with flowers and a fountain. As the drums of war and reports of religious persecution in Europe became louder, this “tri-faith” unity was explicitly linked to freedom and democracy. The building, which historian Terry Todd notes evoked “the façade of the Lincoln Memorial crossed with a Depression-era post office,” was emblazoned with the slogan: “For All Who Love God and Prize Religious Freedom.”
The Temple’s organizers had concluded early in their planning that this temple to religion “in general” would be a worthy solution to the clamoring of the numerous religious groups who wished to represent themselves at the fair. Their building, they said, would be open and inclusive: it was free of all “overt” religious symbolism yet at the same time “typified the things of religion.” Its architectural manifest would, they argued, invite the thousands of visitors to the fair to private contemplation, reflection, repose, and prayer.
As Terry Todd notes, however, the Temple’s organizers were anxious that some parties to this endeavor might not quite understand its true purpose. Anxious about offending religious sensibilities in this fraught period, its daily programming was limited to daily organ and choir concerts, and weekly “talks” by approved religious leaders on the values of religious freedom. They were emphatic that the building would not be consecrated or dedicated – by any religion or all three. Likewise, they told the public that there would be no “inter-denominational or denominational services of a ritualistic nature.”
Private prayer seemed safe, however. As the Temple’s booklet stated, “All, irrespective of their beliefs, are welcome to meditate in the garden, to pray privately in the auditorium, and to attend any of the programs.” But in looking back over reports from the Temple’s brief life, it is not clear that Americans were quite ready to take up this invitation. Reports that Catholic and Protestant priests smuggled crosses into the building in order to lead the assembled in prayer caused great consternation among the Temple’s staff. And things were not much better out in the gardens: volunteer hostesses complained in their daily reports that families tried to picnic, men tried to smoke cigars, and children roughhoused in the cloisters. Their calls for more signs, to help explain to the public how they should comport themselves, went unheeded.