St. Charles Parish Gains New Interest For Unique, Historic Roof

May 3, 2021

St. Charles Parish in Spokane.
Credit Rebecca White/SPR

What do the Pavilion, St. Charles's Parish in Spokane and the Steam Plant have in common? They’re all one-of-a-kind feats of architecture and engineering, says a Gonzaga professor who recently co-authored a paper on an iconic Spokane structure.

Joshua Schultz is a professor of civil engineering at Gonzaga University who recently co-authored a paper about the roof of St. Charles's Parish. Buildings on the church property recently caught fire, but the sanctuary and church structure itself received little damage.

The building was constructed during an architectural and engineering boom. A local  firm with the help of famous structural engineering Berkeley professor T.Y. Lynn delivered a building that was revolutionary for its time. When the church was being envisioned, Schultz said the priest had requested the best they could afford.

“He was inspired by these expos that were happening all around the world and he wanted something that would have a religious purpose, so it would have some liturgical meaning to it. So, it would use all the benefits of advances of engineering and architecture and what you end up with is this thing called a hyperbolic paraboloid. The most common example that listeners would probably be aware of is a pringles chip."

Schultz said that shape uses the same amount of materials as a normal roof, but is much stronger, and doesn’t require as much support or as many columns to keep it aloft.

He and the co-author of the paper, Viktoria Henriksson, noted St. Charles's Parish was one of only a few structures of its kind in the United States when it was completed in 1961. There were only a handful of other examples in the United States at the time, including the JFK International Airport and another building in Wenatchee.

He said another reason these structures were unique, is they were built without the software modern engineers and architects now depend on.

“It was a golden era of engineering where they were doing a lot of remarkable structures that to this day because a lot of engineers did this, and have passed away, we don’t exactly know how they did everything.”

The St. Charles church is one of several structures Schultz plans to study that are unique in the world of architecture and engineering. Others in Spokane include the smokestacks at the steam plant, which are significantly higher than normal smoke stacks, and the most recent iteration of the Sam Guess Division Street Bridge, which has been rebuilt several times.

“There’s a number of Spokane structures that are actually really impressive and are quite a big deal, in a characteristic Spokane, humility way that we don’t make a big deal about them.”

Next on this agenda is the Riverfront Park Pavilion, which was built using a unique cable net structure.