A Religious Experience - Part Nine

As predicted, our impending move has put a serious crimp in my social life, and this week, the weather isn't helping matters either. I clearly jinxed myself last weekend when I mentioned our remarkably mild winter, as we're scheduled to get 3-6 inches of snow tonight and tomorrow. Between the packing and the threat of snow, I've been lying low and don't have much to write about at the moment. Since I don't want to deprive my loyal readers of my brilliant musings, here, at long last, is the post I've been holding on the final church we visited during our Open House Chicago experience back in October:

The Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church
77 West Washington
Chicago, IL

In my last installment of this series, I explored a church which I had been aware of basically my entire life, and ultimately found myself unimpressed. This time, Open House Chicago introduced me to a church that I didn't even know existed before that day back in October -- the Chicago Temple of the First United Methodist Church. I'd seen the building numerous times, in fact, it even appears in the background of a 2009 photo I took of the Daley Plaza Christmas tree, in which I referred to it simply as a Gothic Revival-style skyscraper. As it turns out, the building houses the oldest congregation in Chicago, the First Methodist Church, which was founded in 1831, two years prior to the city's official incorporation date. 

They have had a church on this site since 1838, when they got a great deal on some land at the corner of Washington and Clark streets, and dragged the wood cabin where they had been meeting across the river and onto their new spot. Fires and renovations caused the congregation to move through a series of subsequent buildings, and in the late 1910s, they decided to capitalize on their increasingly valuable land and build a skyscraper on their site. The current Chicago Temple was constructed between 1922 and 1924, and was designed by the firm of Holabird and Roche. The building is home to three separate sanctuaries, two located on the bottom floors of the building, and a Sky Chapel located in the building's spire, making it the highest church in the world. The remainder of the building's space is leased to various commercial enterprises and ecclesiastic organizations.
This stained glass window in the Sky Chapel memorializes the original log cabin that served as the First Methodist Church's first Chicago house of worship.
The tour to which we were privy was of the Sky Chapel, a truly remarkable religious space in the heart of downtown, and a hidden gem in every sense of the word. Chicago runneth over with Gothic Revival buildings that have nothing to do with religion at all, take for example the Tribune Tower, while the Chicago Temple quietly houses a functional church with a thriving congregation. At one time, that congregation included members of the Walgreen family, heirs to the pharmacy fortune, who donated the funds to furnish the Sky Chapel in 1952. Previously, the space had gone unused.

The room is full of light, provided by 16 stained glass panels that tell stories from the Old Testament, stories from the life of Christ, the history of the Methodist Church, and the story of the First Methodist Church of Chicago, each on their own wall. They might not have been the most beautiful or artistically significant stained glass I've ever seen, but I admired their quirky decorations, and their self-referential nature. Whereas many works of ecclesiastic art are somewhat generic, and would work in any church, under a wide variety of contexts, those in the Chicago Temple were site-specific. Take this one for example:

Here you see the spire of the Chicago Temple Building, where you happen to be standing when you see this window. I also like the plane flying overhead, reminding you of how high up you are.
The 1952 decorations also include this somewhat unsettling altarpiece, carved by Alois Lang and J. Wolters, which shows Christ looking out over the circa 1952 skyline and giving the city his blessing.
The tour also took us outside, into the pastor's garden, located at the base of the building's spire. The view was enviable, but I was completely freaked out by being so high up and exposed to the elements. The pastor had lawn furniture and a barbeque grill out there, but I simply can't fathom just hanging out up there to relax. I'd be afraid the wind alone would blow you away. Yikes!

Although the Chicago Temple and its Sky Chapel may not have been the most spectacular of the churches I've visited so far, I think they may be the most unique. It's amazing to consider that this congregation has been meeting on the same site for almost 175 years, while the city as we know it today has grown around it. The church has changed to meet the times, and now it lives on as a true hidden gem. The Chicago Temple is the embodiment of everything I hoped to accomplish in undertaking this tour of Chicago's ecclesiastic architecture. It has taught me more about the history of my beloved city, and exposed me to yet another amazing structure that's been lurking right under my nose, unnoticed. I can only hope to discover more spaces like it in the year to come.

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