This is one of those rare cases in which the title truly does say it all: Not only is this a travel guide to some of our genuine national treasures, but also it's the Ideals guide --- the same Ideals that publishes those wonderful Ideals magazines, so beloved by elementary school teachers across the land, and the same Ideals that's a division of Guideposts. Right there, you can pretty much assume, before you ever turn a page, that this is going to be a high quality, well-written, well-edited book. And you'd be right.
Part of "The Ideals Guide to" series, this volume divides the country into nine regions and highlights churches of interest in each of those areas, making it a user-friendly guidebook for road-trippers. If you find yourself in need of an ecclesiastical experience in, say, the Great Lakes region, you can turn to page 183 and find a map showing the locations of six historical churches within a reasonable driving distance. The next few pages describe those churches in varying amounts of detail --- some churches may warrant a full page or more, while others get only a paragraph --- but all have the usual, and vital, information for travelers: location, phone, visitors' hours, admission fee (if any), wheelchair accessibility, and website address.
Like the other three books in the series, which cover Revolutionary War sites, Civil War sites, and presidential homes and libraries, HISTORIC PLACES OF WORSHIP is printed on slick, heavy stock, pretty much guaranteeing that it will hold up to frequent use on a road trip or occasional glances as a coffee-table book. The quality paper also serves as the perfect backdrop for another of Ideals' standard features: absolutely gorgeous photography.
But the real test of any guidebook is in its usefulness, and that's where it's tough for a reviewer to do the reader justice. I suppose I could have asked Faithful Reader for a travel expense account, taken the next six months off, and traveled the country --- which does include Hawaii, you know --- checking out each and every church, all for the greater good of our readers.
Thinking that might not work, I decided to take the book out for a bit of a test drive. So I took it to Tallahassee, Florida, where I unknowingly booked a room in the motel directly across the street from Mission San Luis --- one of the historical churches in the guidebook. Is God good or what?
Anyway, Mission San Luis, as it exists in 2005, turned out to be this wonderful oasis in the middle of Florida's capital city. It's a reconstruction of a Franciscan mission that existed from 1656 to 1704, when it was abandoned by the Apalachee Indians days before an attack by British soldiers and Creek Indians. It turned out to be so much more than the brief listing in the guidebook indicated --- which to me is a good thing. Understatement is always better than hype and makes for so many pleasant and serendipitous experiences. Given the number of churches and amount of information she had to work with, Skarmeas did a great job in providing just enough description to whet your appetite for more.
If you should decide to take this book on the road, feel free to use my highly unscientific and limited "test drive" as a guideline for what you can expect to get out of it --- more, not less. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 30, 2004