Saturday, June 25, 2011

First Christian Church by Eliel Saarinen Opens May 31, 1942. Here are the goods.

I Stumbled upon two articles about the opening of Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church  in Columbus, Indiana (at that time called Tabernacle Church of Christ), as I was doing research in the "Indianapolis Star".

Nearly everyone interested in modern architecture knows that Finnish-born Eliel Saarinen, chief architect, head of the architecture department and first president of Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, received the commission from William G. Irwin and his sister, Mrs. Hugh Thomas Miller, to design the small town's first piece of modern architecture.  This church ingrained a love of modern architecture in Miller's son, J. Irwin Miller, created a bond between J. Irwin and Eero Saarinen, and set Columbus on a path of modernism that continues to astound even today.

This first illustration jumped off the screen at me as the microfilm advanced. The tall campanile tower of First Christian was unmistakable and had me reversing instantly for a closer look.  [click on images to enlarge]

I learned a wonderful bit of not-so-trivial trivia when I read the caption under the drawing. Indianapolis's Pierre & Wright were the associate architects for First Christian. When Eliel Saarinen's name is on a project of course local firms drop by the wayside, but Edward Pierre & George Wright, whose work includes Perry (later renamed Bush) Stadium,  the competition-winning design for the Indiana State Library building, and numerous others, were lights of modernism in Indianapolis. They would have been a logical choice to manage this project for Saarinen.

If you haven't taken the Columbus Architecture tour, which I highly recommend, then you may not know that the church was designed around a reflecting pool as mentioned in this article.  I wish I'd seen it when the pool still existed but in the 1950s it became a concrete courtyard due to leaking issues and damage caused by the reflection of the sun onto the tower--you get the essence of what was here, but it must have been an even more lovely spot when it was filled with water creating a mirrored image of the tower.

I like how the author talks of the church's "symmetrical balance rather than conventional symmetrical plan".  In person, the asymmetry strikes the casual observer but I think this writer is correct, this luminous church is an artful balancing act. 

The second article makes note of the working partnership between Eliel and his son, Eero Saarinen, on the church. Eero, who would go on to design Columbus's North Christian Church and the Miller Home in Columbus, designed interior furnishings at North Christian for his father.  The church was a family affair: Eliel's wife Loja Saarinen, designed the tapestry, which was woven at Cranbrook.

[Both Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church--at left, and Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church are National Historic Landmarks]

Most of the text from the second article was about the dedicatory service for the church.  It does mention the price tag: $650,000 in 1942, prompting the insupportable claim that it was "one of the most expensive churches of modern design in the world." 

Certainly for those with an eye for modernism, First Christian is one of the most beautiful churches of modern design in the world. 

Today, you can view the church through a Henry Moore sculpture, Large Arch, which sits just across the street. It was dedicated in 1971, five years after Eero Saarinen designed a rather large arch of his own in St. Louis.

You can read the successful National Historic Landmark nomination and the statement of significance for First Christian Church online:

Then, drive, fly or bus yourself to Columbus, Indiana, and see it in brick and mortar.  It's worth the trip.