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Schenectady architect has made churches his specialty

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Schenectady architect has made churches his specialty

James Hundt's personal faith led him on career path
Schenectady architect has made churches his specialty
:eft: Corpus Christi Church in Clifton Park, designed by Architect James Hundt (right)
Photographer: :eft: Photo courtesy of Randall Perry; Right: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — When architect James Hundt went into solo practice a quarter-century ago, his plan to specialize in holy spaces drew some worried advice from friends and colleagues. 

“When I started, most people told me — architects, non-architects — that you’ll never be able to do it, there’s just not enough work, you won’t be able to make enough money, it’s too hard to do because you have to work with committees all the time,” he recalled. 

“So I was not encouraged by anyone to do this, and yet I just decided to do it. And it’s been very good.”

Hundt has been involved in more than 100 church design projects since starting Foresight Architects in 1993, providing either the full design or creating a master plan that another architectural firm saw through to completion.

PHOTO COURTESY RANDALL PERRY
Christ the King Church in Guilderland, designed by Schenectady architect James Hundt.PHOTO COURTESY RANDALL PERRY
Christ the King Church in Guilderland, designed by Schenectady architect James Hundt.

His original business plan was to design homes as well, but churches quickly became his focus and now constitute 90 percent of his portfolio. Some of the notable nonchurch work includes the new Schenectady train station and renovation of the Nicholaus Building, a downtown Schenectady landmark that later became unstable during nearby demolition activity and was demolished.

Now 62 years old, Hundt is providing design consultation more often than full architectural services for church projects, which average seven years from concept to completion. He also designs and arranges for the fabrication and installation of liturgical furnishings — altars, baptismal fonts, art, all the interior religious features that complete a church.

“That has also been very strong in the last few years and that ties in very well with the consulting,” he said. “I’ll probably do more of that, and do it on a national basis as well.”

EMOTION IN DESIGN

Hundt is a Brooklyn native who has lived in the Capital Region for 38 years. He’s a practicing Roman Catholic and his faith helped steer him toward his architectural specialty.

“The reason I started was because I’m a churchgoer my whole life and I’ve always been active in church life. They’re important places to me and I didn’t see that anybody in this area was doing a great job at designing them, and I thought I could do a better job.”

He has designed multiple church projects in the Capital Region but has done much more work farther afield. Not a lot of churches are being built here — upstate New York is gaining population very slowly, and many of those who do live here are not particularly religious.

A 2012 Gallup survey found the Albany region tied for 10th lowest among 189 U.S. metropolitan areas for number of very-religious people. And a 2016 study by the American Bible Society ranked Albany-Schenectady-Troy dead last among America’s 100 “most Bible-minded cities.”

“So it seems like the wrong place to have a church architecture office!” Hundt said.

Church construction in the Capital Region is “very, very soft — in all denominations, not just the Catholic Church,” he said. “But there are still some.”

For the rest, he has traveled as far as St. Paul, Minnesota.

PHOTO COURTESY RANDALL PERRY
Christ the King Church in Guilderland, designed by Schenectady architect James Hundt.PHOTO COURTESY RANDALL PERRY
Christ the King Church in Guilderland, designed by Schenectady architect James Hundt.

However, one of his all-time favorite and most satisfying projects was just a few miles away in Guilderland: Christ The King, a striking, 16-sided church that is one of the newer worship spaces in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. Its success reflects the talent and passion of all who were involved, Hundt said, from the lighting designer to the tile contractor to the pastor who had collected windows and other components from old churches. 

“We had a pastor who had a real artistic sense, and that’s not typical,” Hundt said. “There’s a lot of good clients out there, but most of them don’t have the artistic sense that Father Pat Butler has. He added to the process. And then we had a contractor that was very capable, and they added to the process.

“So we were able to do some really amazing things in that space. The fact that we were able to do a replica of the Chartres Labyrinth in porcelain tile in the gathering space … there was just a lot of talented people involved in that project.”

HEART AND SOUL

Hundt’s original plan with Foresight — design churches and homes — might seem to involve two utterly different things. The scale and details are quite different, he acknowledged, but the emotional content and impact are similar.

“Churches are actually very, very personal to people,” he said. “It’s like their second home. People are attached to their churches and often have been going to the same church longer than they’ve been living in their home.

“So it’s a very personal thing and it’s very important that people feel comfortable in it.”

Hundt doesn’t have a personal style or trademark look — what his church designs look like is up to the congregations, and their tastes vary greatly.

What he instills in all his projects is a sense of warmth, so by default that steers him away from the neoclassical school of design, which tends to be more imposing.

“I consistently hear from people that we create very warm and inviting worship spaces, and that’s my goal, to make people feel really welcome and comfortable in those spaces,” Hundt said.

“Which is the opposite of neoclassical architecture, which tries to make you feel insignificant compared to the building. I try to make people feel significant because the act of worship is an act of the community, so the community should feel that they are important. If you think about it, there is no worship without community. If nobody’s there, it’s just a building.”

PHOTO COURTESY RANDALL PERRY
Corpus Christi Church in Clifton Park, designed by Schenectady architect James Hundt.PHOTO COURTESY RANDALL PERRY
Corpus Christi Church in Clifton Park, designed by Schenectady architect James Hundt.

Others feel differently, and design churches with extensive stonework and high ceilings.

“There’s actually a resurgence of neoclassical architecture, and there are architects in Washington and Boston that are focusing on that,” Hundt said.

“It’s nice architecture, but for me it doesn’t help liturgically. There’s a whole school of thought that that’s a better architecture for churches, but I don’t subscribe to it.”

He conceded, “There are some clients who really want that.”

Hundt does love to visit the great old cathedrals, even though he was never inspired to copy the feel of the spaces there.

LENGTHY PROCESS

Hundt said churches can be particularly time-consuming projects. After all the client meetings are complete and a design is finally created and approved, the congregation must find the money to build it. Many of Hundt’s designs have sat on the shelf for years before construction, and some still haven’t been built.

His nonchurch projects have had shorter timelines and smaller budgets for the most part. One notable exception: the new train station a few hundred yards from his State Street office.

The original design went through three redesigns due to a budget cut and a project manager change. It became a bit frustrating at times, but the end product was a striking throwback to the heyday of American rail travel and a tribute to the Schenectady Union Station that long ago stood on the site.

One of Hundt’s next projects tackles another distinctive Schenectady landmark: The old weigh station at the foot of Clinton Street.

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Foresight will create the conceptual design for a hammam there — a Morroccan-style day spa planned by Tara Kitchen owner Aneesa Waheed — and C2 Design Group will follow through with the full architectural services.

Hundt and Waheed traveled to Morocco around Thanksgiving so she could show him what she was trying to re-create.

“We visited different types of hammams,” he said. “The most impressive one was in a huge mosque.

“It was a very different experience,” added Hundt, who has designed only Christian and interfaith worship spaces. “It was very, very helpful. I also went to a Turkish bath in Granada.”

(The hammam in the modern Muslim world is a descendant of the Turkish baths of the old Ottoman Empire.)

The exterior of the weigh station will look like it was airlifted from Morocco, Hundt said.

And the inside?

“We want people to experience something completely unique,” he said. “We’re borrowing from some of the things we saw in the mosques. You’ll think you’re in a different country.”

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