Kontor-Style Churches

Watson, Shayne. "Kontor-Style Churches." Architecture, Ethnicity and Historic Landscapes of California's San Joaquin Valley, 2008.

Cross Church photo courtesy of Karana Hattersley-Drayton.

Most of the original “Volga German” immigrants who came to Fresno from Russia beginning in the late nineteenth century derived from the villages of Straub and Stahl, which were located within the Warenberg parish.1 Churches throughout this parish were designed by a single group of architects and constructed during the same period, which resulted in a consistent architectural vocabulary often referred to as the Kontor style.2 The oldest extant church in the Warenberg parish is in the village of Warenberg. Constructed in 1843, the Warenberg Church is remarkably similar in style to the Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church in Fresno, constructed in 1915 (see figure). Historical photographs of churches in the villages of Norka, Jost, and Straub depict comparable church designs.

Church in Warenburg, Russia; photo courtesy of VolgaGerman.net

A typical Kontor-style church was based on a cross-shaped plan.3 A grand, pedimented portico supported by Doric columns distinguished the main entrance. Two secondary entrances at the transept were crowned by pedimented porticos, and an apse extension often projected from the rear. A multi-story bell tower, capped by a dome and a cross, generally rose above the main entrance of the building.

In Fresno one of the first building projects undertaken by the Volga Germans was a church. In 1894 members of the future Cross Church voted to build a church on F Street, which was completed in 1895 at a cost of $1,077.80.4 The church was designed in a simplified version of the Kontor style and included an understated pedimented entrance and bell tower.

Eventually the congregation outgrew the small church on F Street, and a new building was erected in 1915. This building still stands today and is a superlative representation of the Kontor-style, bearing all the distinctive details and hefty massing. The Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church bears a cross-shaped plan, a pedimented portico, and a stately bell tower capped by a dome. The Fresno Cross Church and two Evangelical churches in Lincoln, Nebraska, are often cited as the most outstanding examples of Kontor-style churches in the United States.5

In 1947 the Cross Church faced demolition as it was sited in the path of the future Highway 99. Rather than witness the destruction of their beloved church, the congregation moved the building to its current location at 208 E Street. The new Cross Church was the main Volga German house of worship in Fresno from 1914 until it was sold in 1966. Today the building serves as the Fresno Temple Church of God, an African-American congregation.

1. Fred C. Koch, The Volga Germans in Russia and the Americas, from 1763 to the Present. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978): 215.

2. Serej Terjochin, Deutsche Architektur an der Wolga. (Berlin: Westkreuz Verlag, 1993).(Translated version available at www.VolgaGermans.net.)

3. Carl J. Meier, “80th Anniversary of the Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California.”(Unpublished manuscript from the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia library).

4. Meier.

5. Aaron Gallup, “Supplemental Historic Architecture Survey Report for Highway 41 Construction in the City of Fresno.” (Fresno: City of Fresno Planning Department, 1991).

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