For Weird-Looking Churches, Phoenix Is the Patron Saint of the Odd

It is, as the song goes, that most wonderful time of the year. The weather is mostly bearable; I have an excuse to listen, nonstop, to my vast collection of cheesy 1960s holiday albums; and people are filling their yards with the ugliest Christmas junk imaginable, which always pleases me.

This is the time of year when I find myself taking detours past my favorite churches. I have no personal use for worship, but I am religious about my love for some of the funky architecture of the last century — and nothing is weirder than many of the holy houses in the Valley.

I've written in the past about the Cupcake Church (officially, the Asbury United Methodist Church, 1601 West Indian School Road), which looks like a colossal Hostess snack cake; and the former Capstone Cathedral (4633 North Shea Boulevard), a pyramid-shaped, super-spaceship of a church that defies description. Go see it yourself. And about the astonishing Vietnamese Martyrs Parish (2915 West Northern Avenue) a big, glittering pagoda of a building that must, I am convinced, cause traffic accidents all the time — because who could drive by such a sight and still pay attention to the road?

And I continue to track the seemingly endless construction of La Luz del Mundo's big, shiny dome church at 1516 West Latham. Every time I drive past (it's most visible from the freeway stack that connects I-17 to I-10, and currently is draped with a giant banner reading "Santa Sera!" which has nothing to do with Kris Kringle but reads like a nice holiday greeting, all the same), the builders are piling on another layer of shininess. Just when I think Oh, that bright silver cladding must be the final exterior, or whatever, they add something new on top of it.

For all my love of churches, I admit I didn't know the name of Los Arcos Methodist Church until I set out this holiday season to write about it. For as long as I've known about this fantastical place — which has been most of my life — I've referred to it as "the nun church," because it looks to me like a giant, well-starched wimple. This mid-'60s monolith is linked in name only to the long-gone Los Arcos Mall, a former shopping mecca that once stood where ASU's SkySong now blights the horizon. The building features a circular floor plan wrapped in 12 softly dipping arches that fold over glass doors and around a handsome desert garden. Los Arcos is one of the best round buildings in town.

From Los Arcos (7425 East Culver Street, Scottsdale), I often head over to Saint Maria Goretti (6261 North Granite Reef Road, Scottsdale), which my father, a carpenter, always referred to as "the praying mantis church." In profile, Saint Maria does look like a big burrito being humped by an insect. My dad worked on the crew that built the wooden infrastructure of this building, which was sprayed with concrete on the outside and plaster on the inside, where the real beauty of this unusual structure resides (or used to, anyway, on the day in the early '70s when Dad took me there to show me the mile-high, curved ceilings, studded with stained glass inserts, and the huge mosaics of Christ and his Bible pals).

Last year at this time, I found myself wandering the grounds of the Arizona State Mental Hospital (2500 East Van Buren Street), and not for any of the reasons you might suspect. I was writing a column about how one of the buildings there had been listed in the National Historic Register — I think because Winnie Ruth Judd took a crap there once — and was being restored. But what I really wanted to see was the bughouse Chapel, which hospital CEO John Cooper drove me over to ogle on a little white golf cart.

Cooper confirmed rumors I'd heard that Frank Lloyd Wright designed this hyper chapel, but my pal Walt Lockley — an excellent writer and local architecture historian — reports that the architect of this gem is Willard MacGonigle, who worked for the Weaver and Drover firm in the mid-'60s. This one looks less like a place of worship than a colossal piece of ribbon candy, swooping up to a towering, futuristic fin where a bell tower or crucifix otherwise might be, then swooping back around to create an enclosed garden. Its single nod to the southwest is wet-hewn beams that jut out one side of the plaster façade and hold the roof aloft. Inside, a wall of bright, Mondrian-esque stained glass in the chapel itself is mimicked in clear glass in the lobby, and everywhere are odd-angled walls. (Was this such a good idea in a mental hospital?)

I hope that for Christmas you don't get a mental illness, but if you do, ask to be taken to 24th Street and Van Buren, then head straight for their stunning chapel for a look-see. Once there, pray that none of these lovely old churches gets bulldozed anytime soon. And for a happy New Year, of course.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela