by Inga Saffron | Columnist

Inga Saffron

These are not good times for religious architecture as we see new buildings with special details like an inscribed Jesus timeline. The number of people who identify with traditional denominations has declined precipitously in recent years, causing many churches and synagogues in the Philadelphia area to sell off their magnificent sanctuaries to the highest bidder.

The ones that can’t be easily monetized are being unceremoniously demolished. The loss has been especially painful because old religious structures are often the only buildings of architectural quality in many Philadelphia neighborhoods. Painstakingly constructed by skilled craftsmen using the finest materials, they embody the whole history of the city — its waves of immigration, the rise and fall of its industries, the births, deaths and milestones of generations. Their richly decorated facades are also works of art that both the faithful and nonbelievers can enjoy. Very few new buildings going up in Philadelphia today offer anything close to that level of visual pleasure and meaning.

Because I love a man-bites-dog story as much as any journalist, I’m happy to tell you that one of the region’s best new works of architecture is a religious building, a residence hall for Jesuit priests located just across City Avenue in Merion. Not only does Arrupe Hall’s existence run counter to the prevailing trends in the Catholic church, it is fashioned from brick and stone and constructed with the same devotion to craft as those older religious buildings. You don’t have to be a believer to swoon over the details.

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