First Christian: A ‘Modern’ Masterwork
First Christian: A ‘Modern’ Masterwork

(This article is a sidebar to “Acclaimed Church Building Copes with Aging.”)

 

By Jim Nieman

“Our church is our people.”

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen honed in on that church member’s statement as he designed a new house of worship for Tabernacle Church of Christ—now known as First Christian Church—in Columbus, Ind.

Saarinen and his son, Eero, stressed that point in 1940 in their “response to the building committee’s charge.” The Saarinens also wrote:

In accordance with the wishes of the building committee, our endeavor has been to design not a mere church but a church expressing the religious aims of your congregation. . . .

When your fathers and mothers came . . . to form their communities in Indiana, they brought with them a variety of theological traditions. . . . In the effort to unite these different denominations into one that would be commonly acceptable, your fathers and mothers, instead of combining many sects, decided to go back to the fundamentals of Christian faith. From this decision, your church has emerged as a brotherhood of simple outer form and of rich inner life.

As we compare this development of your church with that of the new architectural thought—according to which order your church is conceived—we find that these are very much alike, both as to meaning and course of development, for as your church emancipated itself from theology, so the new architectural is endeavoring to build upon the fundamental principles of architecture. As you see then, your form of religion and the design of your church are spiritually related to one another.

The resulting building, completed in 1942, was one of the first churches in the nation built in the Modern architectural style, and was the first in a wave of architecturally significant buildings in Columbus.

 

Critical Responses

CHRISTIAN STANDARD Editor Edwin R. Errett wrote in the May 23, 1942, issue: “Opinions differ and will differ on the attractiveness of the structure. . . . Modernistic architecture proceeds upon the principle of discarding the traditional and using only what meets the need and expresses sincerely the purpose.”

Some were criticizing the building, Errett noted, and he allowed that he had some initial misgivings, but “the reality . . . has caught me and thrilled me with the glories of the faith.”

Columbus’s website describes the church this way: “The geometric design is one of direct simplicity. A large stone cross accents the limestone façade. To the west stands the 166-foot high campanile, or free-standing bell tower. The materials, exterior and interior, are mostly buff brick and limestone.”

Also at that website, the late architect Charles Bassett is quoted: “[First Christian Church] stands, from my point of view, [as] still the nicest building in town. It has a splendid scale and detail and a surprising austerity when you go inside.”

The building is not ostentatious, but its height gives it great dignity, and its design leads one’s eyes heavenward, it has been noted. The 166-foot tower originally had exterior grillwork that served to “broadcast” music being played in the sanctuary. (Structural damage necessitated sealing the grills in 1974.) 

 

Building Materials, Unique Features, and Symbolism

A pamphlet—“Our History & Heritage”—prepared by First Christian says Eliel Saarinen used Indiana limestone, concrete, bleached white oak, chestnut, and leather to execute his design. The most striking feature—visible from far-off—is the brick-and-mortar tower that covers a 17-by-23-foot area and stands 166 feet high.

 

The pamphlet also notes 10 unique features of the building (these mainly focus on the worship auditorium):

1.  A great deal of vertical and horizontal imagery is used throughout the building—both in the wood and in the windows—symbolizing life on the horizontal plane, but with our spirits reaching up to God.

2.  The worship auditorium achieves “a feeling of grandeur” through “simplicity and light.” The room’s size (144 by 46 by 45 feet) is “closely proportionate to Solomon’s Temple.” The chancel is “a close ratio to the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. The first step up to the chancel is where the temple veil would have hung.”

3.  The large cross on the south wall “is what catches the eye when one enters the main doors of the sanctuary”; it reminds the worshipper that Christ died so that we might live.

4.  The large pulpit is positioned off-center “to illustrate that the minister is not the central focus of worship. God’s Word preached is greater than the one preaching it.”

5.  “The Communion table is the only item not off-center in the sanctuary because it is the central focus of the worship service.”

6.  A tapestry measuring 10-by-35 feet and depicting the Sermon on the Mount hangs in the sanctuary, serving to provide color. (It was woven at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan and is made of flax [linen], wool, and silk.) In the sermon, Jesus tells us how we should live as Christians.

7.  There is only vertical wood on the baptistery wall . . . “symbolizing that baptism is between the believer and God alone.” When a person rises from the water, the first thing they see is the off-center cross.

8.  “The clear glass in the windows allow the pure, clear light of God to shine in. The worship auditorium was designed for morning worship services, with the large windows facing the west and the smaller windows facing the east.”

9.  The lamps in the sanctuary “are reminiscent of early New Testament oil lamps.”

10 . The massive Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ was chosen for its “broad, clear honesty and fresh, cheerful confidence of New Testament Christianity itself.” It is set off to the side of the chancel. “The woven wood screen is angled to direct your attention to the baptistery wall, the cross and the Communion table.”

 

Additional Facts

Here are some additional facts about First Christian Church and its historic building:

  The church was known as Tabernacle Church of Christ from 1879 until 1957, when it changed its name to First Christian Church. (CHRISTIAN STANDARD articles from 1942 refer to it as Tabernacle Church.)

–  The building was completed in 1942 at a cost of $750,000. The campus occupies an entire city block.

  Building architect was Eliel Saarinen, but he was ably assisted by his son Eero Saarinen (who later designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis). As already noted, both men signed the “response to the building committee’s charge.”

  The building is a National Historic Landmark (the highest distinction given to a building in the United States).

  The sunken terrace courtyard was designed to give all rooms outside light.

  A 2002 addition (called the “educational wing”) was designed by Nolan Bingham.

_ _ _

 

Friends of First Christian Church Architecture

The mission of Friends of First Christian Church Architecture is to preserve the architecture and design elements of First Christian Church.

The group (and fund) was established in 2016 by leaders from FCC in partnership with Landmark Columbus as a way to address significant building issues and to ensure the church’s original design is maintained for future generations. (See photos of the Friends’ first major project: repairing the skylight above the sanctuary.) 

To support the work, go to www.heritagefundbc.org/donate/ and enter “Friends of First Christian Church Architecture” in the name field (or select the organization from the “Browse” and “Arts & Culture” dropdowns).

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