A Religious Experience - Part Six

Second Presbyterian Church
1936 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois

If there is one lesson that I have learned through this exploration of Chicago's religious sites, it is not to underestimate the treasures that might be hiding just a few blocks away. For this week's visit, I found inspiration in a newly acquired library book, Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, by George Lane. I had actually been planning to see a different church, but when I spotted Second Presbyterian Church, and realized it was practically in my own backyard, I quickly changed my mind. I could vaguely recollect having seen pamphlets for the church when I toured the Glessner and Clarke Houses with Derek, but out of sheer exhaustion after three hours of guided tours, we opted to skip the church. Checking out Second Presbyterian would be a fitting continuation of my exploration of the Prairie District, and it would expand my understanding of my neighborhood. I was sold.

In its day, the Second Presbyterian Church was the house of worship for Chicago's elite families. The Swifts and Armours of meatpacking fortune, the Fields, and the Pullman families all financed the construction of the church, along with some of the city's other preeminent families whose names have not withstood the test of time. It was completed in 1874, after the original church, located at the corner of Wabash and Washington, burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. Although the parishioners opted to move the building closer to their Prairie Avenue homes by relocating to South Michigan Avenue, they conscripted the same architect, James Renwick (famed in the United States for such church designs as New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral) to design the new building, and selected stone from the same Illinois quarry with which to construct it, even though the rock contained black bituminous deposits that give the building a spotted appearance.

The exterior of the church is done in a style reminiscent of the early Gothic era in Britain. The tower to the left was originally topped with a spire that was lost to fire in 1957 and not replaced.

The congregants of Second Presbyterian were accustomed to the best, so when the original neo-Gothic interior of the church was destroyed by fire in 1900, they selected Howard Van Doren Shaw, a member of the church and a budding architect to redesign the interior in the latest style -- the Arts and Crafts Movement. In large part, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the design excesses of Art Nouveau and the declining quality of consumer goods caused by mass production. Its adherents sought cleaner lines, emphasized superb craftsmanship, and were heavily influenced by medieval art forms such as stained glass and wood carving.

In his design for Second Presbyterian, Shaw selected a warm color palette draw from nature. Carvings on the pews, the coffered ceiling, and the organ screen behind the pulpit carry botanical themes that also symbolize the Christian faith. Grapes represent the Eucharist, while pomegranates signify the Passion and Resurrection. The other prominent motif in the sanctuary is angels: the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael watch over the pulpit, the light fixtures are sculpted in the form of angels, and in total, there are over 175 representations of angels inside the church. However, lovely as the church is, the real draw is its stained glass windows.

Ascension Window, William Kline

Although representative art is not a traditional feature of Presbyterian churches, the well-heeled members of Second Presbyterian Church had traveled extensively in Europe and wanted to recreate the feeling of the great Gothic cathedrals at home. To achieve this, they turned to the greatest stained glass artists of their time, and as a result, the church features nine windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and a handful by other prominent artists such as Louis Millet and the workshop of William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement himself.

Left: St. Paul Preaching to the Athenians, Louis Comfort Tiffany
Right: Peace Window, Louis Comfort Tiffany

To create these windows, artists such as Tiffany shied away from the industrialized techniques that were being used to create cheap ecclesiastic stained-glass at the time. Mass produced windows were created by applying thin layers of pigment to regular glass, which faded quickly. The preeminent artists at the turn of the century returned to medieval techniques, coloring the glass itself so that the windows they created would withstand the test of time. The vibrancy of the windows at Second Presbyterian speak to the efficacy of that strategy.

Left: Pastoral Window, Louis Comfort Tiffany
Right: Jeweled Window, Louis Comfort Tiffany

However, as is quickly becoming a theme in this project, the Second Presbyterian Church is badly in need of restoration. When it was built, the building served a congregation of over a thousand worshipers, whereas now it serves slightly over fifty people on a regular basis. There is simply not enough money within the congregation to maintain the building. If you look closely, you can see chipping paint and plaster around many of the windows. What you cannot see from these photos are all the gaps between the windows that bring in the air from outside. Furthermore, looking at the windows from the side reveals that they are badly bowing and warping. A non-profit organization, Friends of Historic Second Church, was founded to raise money to maintain and restore the edifice, but it seemed like their efforts had not been particularly successful so far.

Left: Behold The Lamb Of God, Louis Comfort Tiffany
Right: Cast Thy Garment About Thee, Louis Millet

To be able to see the church, I was obliged to participate in a guided tour offered by a volunteer church member after the Saturday service. Amusingly, the elderly woman, who had been attending services at the church for over forty years, seemed to know little about the building's art and architecture. She seemed more interested in garnering sympathy for her sciatic nerve pain. As a result, I administered much of the tour to the other two attendees myself. They had trouble believing that visiting churches is just a hobby for me, and that I'm not a graduate student, nor am I writing a book. I suppose it is a bit of an unusual project to undertake for no reason other than an interest in church architecture, but there was something gratifying about getting to share my knowledge with others. Perhaps I should look into becoming a tour guide...

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I'm jealous; I've rattled the door handles of Second Pres. two or three times (my former roommate now lives just a couple blocks away), but it was never open. The advantages of planning things out beforehand. :-)