Aluminum today is the material of sticky storm windows, suburban garage doors, baked potato wraps, cheap cookware, and recyclable beverage cans. But in the 1950s, it was a bright lightweight space-age metal used in airplanes for a new age of travel and in satellites for the emerging “space race.”
When our lower church was renovated for Bishop McShea by Henry D. Dagit and Sons during the postwar baby boom in 1953, a prominent feature of the renovation was the new aluminum-and-glass doors that replaced narrow, dark, inconvenient stairwells known for accumulating slush and puddles. The new arrangement provided a celebrated “three sets of double-entrance doors” on two sides of the church with indoor vestibules for the added convenience of the rapidly-expanding parish.
But why choose aluminum for the doors rather than a more traditional material? Thomas Jester, writing on postwar aluminum in architecture, notes that in that period, “metals were selected not only because they met specific performance criteria and characteristics but also because they conveyed newness, celebrated industrialization, and even highlighted their specific qualities for poetic effect.” The “curb appeal” of shiny aluminum-and-glass doors along 47th street was a sign to the world that our parish was active, modern, and up-to-date.
Use of metal also comfortably bridged old and new: The National Organization of Ornamental Metal Manufacturers proclaimed in 1947 that metal construction offered “strength, utility and permanence, dignity and beauty…” These were important qualities for our church, where the ancient chi-rho symbols (XP representing the first two letters of Christ in Greek) incorporated in the sleek aluminum grillwork provided a thematic link between the time-honored upstairs and the new downstairs; and also between the work of architect Henry D. Dagit — who built the original church — and that of his sons, the next generation, who designed the renovation.
Aluminum began to lose its mystique around the time the easy-opening soda can pull-tab was invented in 1959. At the same time, the rush to the suburbs and the upheaval of Vatican II began the gradual shrinking of our parish population. Over time, the aluminum doors were used less often with fewer masses, and in recent years, we’ve favoured the traditional historical upstairs over the brighter, more streamlined downstairs – which became, for forty-two years, the home of our Vietnamese congregation. Today, the distinctive sound of the lower doors creaking open is a call from the past, drawing us in to an awakening appreciation of our whole parish story.