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Restoring Eero and Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church, a modernist icon in Columbus

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A new initiative may serve as a model for the mecca of modern architecture as its treasured buildings begin to reach old age

First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana Hadley Fruits

In the midst of World War II, the opening of a small-town church in south central Indiana became national news before it even opened its doors. When the design for the church was announced, Time magazine rhapsodized about how, “the costliest modern church in the world, planned by Europe’s most famous modern architect and his son, is going up across the street from a Victorian city hall.“

The architects were Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and the church was the First Christian Church, occupying an entire city block in Columbus, Indiana.

The boxy brick-and-limestone-clad complex, a series of rectangular masses accented by a 166-foot-high bell tower and a yard dotted with maple trees and a reflecting pool, was a revelation when it first welcomed parishioners in 1942. The progressive design was considered “the most daring innovation in American church architecture,” according to a reporter from Christian Century, and would become both a model for 20th century ecclesiastical architecture. It was also the first of many stunning contemporary buildings that make Columbus a mecca of modern design. In a town of less than 12,000 residents, more than 10,000 visitors signed the guest book in its first six weeks.

One of the Saarinen’s early renderings of the design of First Christian Church
One of the Saarinen’s early renderings of the design of First Christian Church
Cranbrook Archives
Early rendering of First Christian Church
Early rendering of First Christian Church
Cranbrook Archives

“It’s amazing that a city could raise that kind of money to build a church the size of a city block in the midst of World War II, especially one that’s so radical in its design,” says Richard McCoy, founder of Landmark Columbus, a preservation organization dedicated to protecting the town’s architectural heritage. “The total budget Newsweek published for the church, $950,000, would be $15 million in today’s dollars.”

This spring, First Christian Church celebrates its 75th anniversary, and sadly, the pioneering building has begun to show its age, with leaks and aging masonry demanding attention. As the first and oldest modern building in a town filled with the work of Pritzker winners, the church, and its current state, suggest that Columbus may need to start rethinking how its protecting its heritage. The city’s reception of forward-thinking design helped spur on the creation of architectural masterpieces; McCoy and others hope efforts to preserve and protect them reinforce the community’s commitment to good design.

“It’s still a functional church in a small, predominantly Christian city,” says McCoy. “But it also shows how design can solve community challenges, and how architecture can define excellence.”

1941 images from Saarinen & Saarinen towards the end of the church’s construction
Cranbrook Archives

First Christian Church is still the home of a Columbus congregation that formed in 1855 as the Tabernacle Church of Christ. The church used to call a brick building on Lafayette Street home, until continued growth led to calls in the late ‘30s for expansion and a new house of worship. The parish quickly took action. In 1937, two members purchased a block of land once known as Railroad Square and donated it to the church.

A nephew of one of the more influential members of the congregation, J. Irwin Miller, had become enamoured with modern architecture while studying at Yale and, suggested the church recruit a modern designer. Frank Lloyd Wright’s name was floated in conversations, until it was clear his controversial personal life was an issue. The name of Eliel Saarinen was suggested by a church member who knew him via his work at Michigan’s Cranbrook School of Design.

Interior of First Christian Church
Early photo of the interior of the east wing of First Christian Church
Cranbrook Archives
First Christian Church Cranbrook Archives

Saarinen was reluctant at first, saying that he didn’t want to create a typical “theatrical” religious building, but take inspiration from the fundamentals of Christian faith. He felt that by reusing centuries-old church designs, architects weren’t adapting to modern conditions and culture, or as he put it, “our forefathers and we ourselves have been using the dead styles of alien cultures.”

The church building committee, impressed with the Finnish architect after a series of meetings, decided to trust him, offering in lieu of design recommendations a series of philosophical guidelines, such as, “there is permanence in our faith, so should there be permanence in our church house. Great buildings dominate and influence the lives of all who live near them.” Eschewing ornamentation, they didn’t want the first question to be about the church’s cost, “we want the poorest woman in town to feel at home there.”

Eliel and Loja Saarinen at work on the church
Cranbrook Archives

The Saarinens’ response was both a total work of art and a magnificent leap forward in church design—a solid, not showy answer to the congregation’s wishes. It showcases a fusion between father and son—Eliel’s focus on craftsmanship, as seen in the modulation of textures found in the masonry, and ornament shaped by Eero’s more streamlined modernist aesthetic—and the work of other contributors from Cranbrook. Above the choir hangs a large tapestry, “The Sermon on the Mount,” designed by Eliel and Loja Saarinen, his wife and an accomplished artist, and furnishings and furniture in the kindergarten and reception rooms were designed by Charles Eames. Set next to a reflecting pool, the church’s composition and landscaping, and relationship to the surrounding buildings, shows Saarinen’s acute understanding of urban design.

The church’s warm reception helped make Columbus a center for architecture. It fit into the landscape, giving the community faith in future modern buildings, and it cemented a relationship between J. Irwin Miller, the owner of Cummins Engine Company and the patron of much of the city’s great architecture, and Eero Saarinen, who would come back to design numerous building in town, including the iconic Miller House. It was named a National Landmark in 2001.

First Christian Church
Early construction shot showing the frame of the main church still in its early stages
Cranbrook Archives
1941 construction photo
Cranbrook Archives

In the decades since it opened, both First Christian and its congregation has aged, and with fewer members, the church is having difficulty paying for needed repairs. In 2014, the church commissioned a historic structures report that found the structure in need of a number of major upgrades, including a leaky skylight and cosmetic updates of certain steps, stairs, and windows.

Despite its collection of iconic architecture, Columbus has no city preservation office. Friends of First Christian Church Architecture, a new organization formed by the church, hopes to step into that void and create a new model for preservation. In a collaboration between the church, Landmark Columbus, and Indiana Landmarks, a statewide preservation agency, the organization aims to help physically care for one of the city’s most important pieces of architecture, according to McCoy, without forcing anyone to support the church’s religious mission. He calls the structure “middleware between the church and the community.”

The foundation’s initial project, the Sanctuary Skylight Rehabilitation Project, focused on repairing a leaky skylight on the roof, seeks $160,000 total in funding, $50,000 of which will come from the church. It’s an achievable goal, according to McCoy, but the bigger question is, what happens with the bell tower, or campanile, which may soon require a multi-million dollar restoration effort.

First Christian Church
The skylight above the Sanctuary at First Christian Church
Friends of First Christian Church Architecture
First Christian Church
A closeup showing the skylight’s water damage
Friends of First Christian Church Architecture

“We’ve drawn a little bit of a line to say these design elements are important to the church but aren’t part of their religious mission,” he says. “We’re excited because this offers a unique way to solve the challenge, and invites the community in to help, but gives the owner a lot of control. It could be a prototype to solve this challenge and other places in the community.”

Columbus certainly has its share of awe-inspiring, and aging, architectural wonders. McCoy sees Friends of First Christian as the beginning of a series of community efforts to preserve and protect; Landmark Columbus, which he helped form in late 2015, is “just getting started,” he says, squarely focused on protection, advocacy, and raising the profile of the city’s architectural heritage (the group’s new program, Exhibit Columbus, opens this August with a series of installation around town that reinterpret the city’s landmarks).

The next step, McCoy says, is putting together an inventory of the community’s buildings, doing an assessment, and planning a strategy around future renovation efforts. Two buildings that recently went through a transition—the Columbus Occupational Health Administration building, which was recently sold, and the Republic Newspaper Building, by Myron Goldsmith of SOM, which was just sold to a healthcare firm—may need attention soon.

First Christian Church Hadley Fruits

Luckily, there’s plenty of precedent for local community engagement in architecture. In 1991, the redesign of the Lillian Schmitt Elementary School, originally designed by Harry Weese, drew protests from residents, and many were unhappy with the loss of a Herschel Fisher and Pat Spillman-designed bank in 2014. The Cummins Engine Company recently bought the old Union Bank building, one of Eero Saarinen’s designs, and invested in its renovation, winning awards for the effort. Columbus became an architectural mecca in the 20th century because the community came together and took a chance on building something new. McCoy doesn’t think they’ll take a chance in the 21st century and let that fade away.

“This community has a good record of taking care of things,” he says. “I’m optimistic.”