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.


  1. Connie Ziegler:
    Thank you. This piece resonates, for me, bringing up great memories of time at Cranbrook (in the late 1960s, and again in the 1980s), and certainly prompts me to think about getting out to Columbus, IN. I recently had the pleasure of a couple of concerts at both the MIT Chapel and the large Auditorium there, designed by Saarinens.
    Your posting the article, photos, and commentary on your very rewarding find in an old Indianapolis newspaper makes this dratted computer worthwhile.
    Sara Chase, Preservation Consultant

  2. James D. Smith, AIAJune 26, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    My first Columbus experience was a field trip for U of I architecture students in 1965. The trip was worth many many many lectures and photo sessions - we all discovered during those few days how important first hand experience of buildings and context is. I always recommend a trip there to anyone who expresses interest in learning or experiencing good architecture. Next on the list is any of the Chicago Architecture Foundation tours and the Wright tours in Oak Park.

  3. Sara, a trip to Columbus is not to be missed. First Christian is one of my faves, but just one of many wonderful modern buildings there. It's truly and amazing place.

    James, I agree completely with all of your tour recommendations. In the Midwest, these are definitely some of our gems, yes?

  4. When giving Columbus tours I always try to point out the non-symmetrical features yet point out that is remarkably balanced as a whole project. I always wonder how the "ordinary Joe's" in Columbus reacted to this church at the time.