Four landmark churches of Columbus, Indiana

May 07, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

First Christian Church, Eliel Saarinen architect, 1942. Sculpture 'Large Arch' Henry Moore, 1971First Christian Church, Eliel Saarinen architect, 1942. Sculpture 'Large Arch' Henry Moore, 1971
FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Built in 1942 and designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, it was the first contemporary building in Columbus and one of the first churches in the US built in a contemporary architectural style. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2001. In the early planning, before Saarinen was brought in, a church in the Gothic or Early American style was considered. J. Irwin Miller suggested building a modern church instead. Saarinen, who disliked churches in the traditional overdone Gothic or Georgian style, only designed one church previously and was not too keen on the modern design idea until he heard the proposal from the building committee. 

“Our town is small and there are all sorts and conditions of men. While we should like the church to be beautiful, we do not want the first reaction to be, how much did the church cost. We want the poorest women in town to feel at home there and able to worship her God in those surroundings.”

— Nettie Sweeney Miller, Chairwoman of the building committee

Of the four churches, this one is most radical in design. As one approaches the building from the front, the question rises: ‘What am I looking at?’ A fairly tall squarish facade with a very tall and dominant rectangular tower detached to the right with a clock close to the top. The giveaway is a thin light colored cross on the front of the building taking up most of the height of the facade. Yes, it’s a church. The design of the facade, the placement of the cross, the doors and windows are completely off center. As is the interior of the church. There is almost nothing symmetrical about it. Saarinen believed symmetry creates a sterile environment. Inside, it’s very bright. Narrow but very tall windows let in a good deal of light. A hidden skylight above the altar area brings in even more light. As in all of these four churches there’s no stained glass or any of the paintings found in traditional churches. I found the church very interesting and I get the asymmetry approach. But I also found it to be on the austere, cold and industrial side. I know, it’s a modern design. I didn’t mind the simplicity of the design. I just wanted to find a bit of warmth in my surroundings. Would that come from the presence of the Lord? Perhaps.

 

St. PETER'S LUTHERAN CHURCH

Only a couple of blocks to the East from The First Christian Church there is a 186 foot tall spire with a cross atop reaching for the sky. It belongs to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. It was designed by Latvian born architect Gunnar Birkerts who spent most of his career in the metropolitan area of Detroit. The church was completed in 1988. A massive structure that can accommodate the growing number of parishioners that reached close to 2,700 in 1983. The previous church accommodated a bit more than 500 members. This design was his second in Columbus. His first was Lincoln Elementary School completed in 1967. Depending on your point of view, you could think you’re looking at two different structures. From one side the it shows tall flat rectangular walls of cement panels with four narrow slats between them to accommodate windows hinting of the brutalism architectural style. Walking to the opposite side the view is that of two curved walls, one with 12 windows breaking up the brick structure. A ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ side to the structure. Very typical of some of Birkerts’ designs presenting opposite personalities.

The interior is vast and bright. Light comes in through indirect natural as well as artificial lighting. The seating is in two non-concentric circles. One on the main level and the other in the form of a rising ‘balcony’ with a good deal of woodwork all around. The floor is carpeted in open areas otherwise it’s sealed concrete. The pipe organ is at the top of the balcony housed in a maple case and incorporates the 1962 organ from the previous sanctuary. There were a good deal of musical instruments all around the church and on one occasion while visiting I came in just as the band practice was ending. They were playing some rock and roll tune. Martin Luther regarded music as essential to evangelical worship. He wrote, ‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ Luther was a singer, accomplished performer on the lute, and composed some of the greatest hymns of the Reformation. The circular interior design, the high ceiling with the central 18-foot diameter light fixture, the bright lighting, reminded me of a concert hall. I felt relaxed and comfortable in the church. I felt that something good and enjoyable was about to happen here during the next service. 

 

FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH

Built: 1965 Architect: Harry Weese, Chicago. Landscaping: Dan Kiley. National Historic Landmark in 2000

The church has two levels. The upper level consists of the sanctuary with room for seating 500 and a chapel seating 100. The sanctuary is slightly higher than the main part of the upper level. The chapel is a miniature version of the sanctuary set at a perpendicular angle. The lower level and additional structures contain 25 classrooms, four restrooms and the heating plant.

To symbolize the lowliness of humankind the main entryway and ceilings were kept very low. Once inside, to get to the sanctuary one climbs a few steps and unwillingly looks up at the high-pitched ceiling bringing one closer to the higher power of God. 

The A-framed sanctuary space with vaulted wood ceilings has no windows keeping out all distractions. Hidden windows under the eaves give indirect natural light as well as ventilation. The ceiling is 49 feet high at the peak and built of exposed tongue and groove decking supported by laminated wood beams. There are more knots in the wood at the rear of the ceiling than the front. As one gets closer to the altar the last panels of wood are knot-free, to symbolize the purity of God. Right behind the altar is a triangular brick wall with holes or gaps in it. It is also part of the bell tower. Behind it is the organ and choir space. The center aisle between the white oak pews and the pulpit are off-center. However the wooden cross on the brick wall is centered to symbolize the centrality of the crucification to Christianity.

The main features of the church are very clearly expressed in the pamphlet provided at the entrance:

The Building  Castle or fortress motif evident in the front entrance moat/bridge and the curved brick walls. It reflects the Christian belief of ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’

Front Entrance  Leads to a low ceiling narthex intended to create the feeling of lowliness and humility as preparation for worship.

Sanctuary Entrance  The lowliness/humble feeling continues through the open doors as one enters and approaches the first view of the sanctuary creating a great contrast to the worshiper.

The Sanctuary  As the worshiper moves from under the low ceiling and climb the steps to thew sanctuary the gaze rises to the 49 foot ceiling. The contrast creates a sense of wonder and awe.

Lighting  No visible windows look out into the world to create a distraction. Only the windows over the chancel bring in light from above reminding the worshiper of the One who is ‘The Light of the World.’ The building is positioned so that the sun rising in the East floods the wall with light during thew worship hour. 

The Pierced Wall  It separates the choir from the chancel is symbolic of the rending of the temple veil following the crucifixion of Christ, announcing that each person now has access to God. It reflects the Baptist theology of the ‘Priesthood of all believers.’ The wall has three crosses of brick designed into the construction that are subtle to the worshiper. The suspended wooden cross at the center of the wall highlights the centrality of the cross in providing salvation.

The Baptistery  The curved lower wall to the right is the baptistery. Baptism by immersion is at the core of Baptist theology.

The Pulpit  Where the word of God is proclaimed is slightly elevated, not merely for better viewing, but to highlight the importance of preaching the Word of God. 

The Communion Table I s centered under the cross for additional emphasis of the centrality of the body and blood of Christ which provides salvation for the World. Communion is served the first Sunday of every month. 

Of the four churches this one comes closest to reveal itself as a church from the outside. The inside however reveals something very different. The way the walk from the entrance to the sanctuary was designed is very profound as one makes way to the high A-framed ceiling of the sanctuary. Inside the sanctuary I felt safe, warm and at peace in God’s presence as if in a womb or the hold of a great ship. 

 

Last but not least is the NORTH CHRISTIAN CHURCH. Eero Saarinen architect, completed in 1964. National Historic Landmark in 2000

This little church is very, very special both outside and inside. The simple elegant plan is that of a hexagon, elongated slightly along the East-West axis 

Materials: 3,800 yards of concrete, 320 tons of reinforced rods and 22 tons of leaded copper. Floor space: 33,000 square feet. The pews seat 465 with an overflow bench around the top allowing a total seating capacity of about 615.

In July, 1961, Saarinaen described his design: “When I face St. Peter at the gates of heaven I want to be able to say that out of all the buildings designed during my lifetime, one of the best was this little church because it has in it a real spirit that that speaks forth to all Christians as a witness to their faith.” Little did he know that only a bit more than a month later, on September 1, 1961, he would died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 51.

North Christian Church, Eero Saarinen architect, 1964, Dan Kiley landscape architectNorth Christian Church, Eero Saarinen architect, 1964, Dan Kiley landscape architect What makes this church so special?

Saarinen wanted to design a church, where the sanctuary would stand alone and represent just that. Unlike other churches that are made up of a number of connected structures, he wanted to separate the two functions of a church. The worship side from the social function. The church is the sanctuary, and nothing else, at least visible to the eye. From the only parking lot in front of the church one is led up a number of steps to the entrance. Through the doors and straight up a few more steps one enters the sanctuary and looks up at the center of the ceiling. There, the oculus bings in the only natural light. One is now in the middle of the church right by the central altar. North Christian Church, Eero Saarinen architect, 1964, Dan Kiley landscape architectNorth Christian Church, Eero Saarinen architect, 1964, Dan Kiley landscape architect Arranged in the same elongated hexagon, the sanctuary’s color is on the dark side. Natural materials like dark-gray slate floors and mahogany pews (rising from floor level) bring an air of cave-like ambiance. The pews are arranged in two semi-circular areas separated by the main entrance with the choir area and organ at the end opposite the entrance.  The communion table is at the very center and made as a focal point as communion was considered a central part of their faith. It consists of 13 tables: 12 representing the disciples and a taller table at the end representing Jesus. Natural light from the oculus in the spire shines directly down on the tables meant to be symbolic that God’s light comes from above and that he is continuously revealing himself to mankind. The pipe organ was one of the very last instruments designed by Walter Holtkamp before his death and specially designed for North Christian. There is a small chapel area with a full-immersion baptismal pool outside the sanctuary on the end opposite from the main entrance. The baptismal area is very unique and symbolic of the Holy Trinity with elements designed by Alexander Girard. The sunburst grill which normally covers the baptismal pool represents God. A silver dove directly above represents the Holy Spirit. A cross represents Jesus and the fountain is symbolic of the Living Water. The baptismal pool/fountain can also be covered with a wooden platform and the accompanying seating area designed by Saarinen can be used for a variety of purposes. The chapel area can seat 50 people.

North Christian Church, Eero Saarinen architect, 1964, Dan Kiley landscape architectNorth Christian Church, Eero Saarinen architect, 1964, Dan Kiley landscape architect Saarinen’s objective was therefore to design a building that could meet contemporary needs without losing focus of the church’s original function as a place for worshipping and coming closer to God. Dan Kiley landscaped the 14 acre site including a tree-lined allee (a double row of red sunset maples), flowering magnolia trees surrounding the church and the unique ‘parking rooms’: small parking lots surrounded by arborvitae hedges meant to isolate the building from the automobiles.

The social spaces in the church are not visible at all as one enters. To get to them one must turn right or left and walk down a few steps. All the rooms are located below ground along the circumference of the church. 

This is the one church where I felt completely removed from the outside world and spiritually closer to God.

The North Christian Church is very special but is also in a bit of trouble. The number of parishioners has declined drastically in the last few years. A good deal of money needed for many structural repairs was acquired through government funding. 

 

I visited Columbus and these churches a few days before Thanksgiving. Preparations were being made for the Thanksgiving feast and also for providing food for the needy. I was invited to join one congregation for the festive lunch. Preparations were also under way for decorating the churches for Christmas. It was a very busy time. On a number of occasions I visited during non-visiting hours. Not a problem. The church staffs were very kind and helpful and showed me around or let me see myself around. One church I visited just before closing time. The lady in charge was very kind, told me she was leaving soon and asked me to just close the door behind me when I was done. Unfortunately I was not able to participate in any of the services in these churches and I regret that a lot. Next time I visit I will make it a point to do just that.

Expanded gallery of the churches and Columbus modern architecture here

 


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