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Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Holy Nativity

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1863, Edward T. Potter; 1883, Charles M. Burns. 321 Wyandotte St.
  • (© George E. Thomas)
  • (William E. Fischer, Jr.)

Prominently sited at the head of Hill-to-Hill Bridge and across the street from Robert Sayre's house ( NO35), this parish church served Fountain Hill's wealthy families. Its first architect, Potter, produced dozens of churches in the decades following the Civil War, many through connections with his father, Alonzo, and his brother, Henry Codman, both bishops in the American Episcopal Church. Like his colleague Richard M. Upjohn, Potter often charged the Episcopal Church nothing for his services. Potter and his half-brother, William Appleton Potter, were among the most important American architects of their day, their buildings (always produced in separate practices) acting as links between Upjohn's Gothic Revival style and the Romanesque Revival work of H. H. Richardson. In addition to Holy Nativity, Edward Potter was responsible for the first buildings on the nearby campus of Lehigh University ( NO41.1, NO41.2). Holy Nativity was, in fact, the Sunday chapel for the university during its first years. Potter's design for Holy Nativity was based on St. James the Less in Philadelphia ( PH136), replicating its western bell-cote, fieldstone construction, and unplastered stone walls within. It was enlarged in 1883, supposedly—as local legend would have it—at the suggestion of William Sayre Sr. after gazing at it from his son Robert's adjacent mansion. Whether or not that was true (William Sayre Sr. died in 1872, long before the expansion commenced), Philadelphian Charles M. Burns reoriented Holy Nativity, transforming the original church into the transept of a much larger building. The most distinctive feature of Burns's church is the new apse, a north-facing projection surrounded by a sturdy semicircular outdoor ambulatory framed by a series of Romanesque-style stone arches. At $46,000, the new addition was almost three times the construction cost of the original church. A parish house (1897) east of the church and a stone bell tower (1900) attached at the southeast corner of the nave complete the grouping of buildings. A recent graceful structure by Lehigh University professor Christine Ussler of Artefact connects the church with the parish house. The two-story link, a stick-framed glazed long gallery atop a stone round-arched open arcade echoing the apsidal ambulatory, reiterates the precedent of tasteful and innovative addition from the nineteenth century.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas


What's Nearby


George E. Thomas, "Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Holy Nativity", [Bethlehem, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 283-284.

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