St Giles Presbyterian Church
A wild place

Harwell Hamilton Harris designed St Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, late in his life; he was 80 when the sanctuary was finished in 1983. But his church on a wooded hillside was about youth.

“Every child begins the world again…,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. Harris grew up on a ranch in California and played in valleys carpeted in wildflowers. He discovered nature there.

He conceived of St. Giles as a family of shingle clad, one-story buildings forming a courtyard around a native piedmont forest. Thus, at the center of St. Giles was nature, the place which, for Harris, was always a sanctuary.

North Carolina’s piedmont forest is not a celebrated landscape. Most people think of it as leftover space between mountains and sea. Yet its ordinariness is what makes it unforgettable.

The places we remember from childhood are often ordinary — a suburban tract with a stream nearby, for example, or a scrap of land in a city. But to a child, no place is ordinary.

Harris wanted his family of buildings to embrace a place in nature, a wild place at the heart of the church that he left for us to rediscover. Why? Because each of us has a wilderness in our heart, stowed away when we were children.