If you were to find yourself standing under Chicago’s famous elevated rapid transit line at the
[Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago (1874) James Renwick, Jr., architect; (1904) Howard Van Doren Shaw, architect; Frederic Clay Bartlett, murals; Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co., William Fair Kline, Giannini & Hilgart, Edward Burne-Jones, Louis J. Millet, art glass / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
northeast corner of Wabash and Washington today, it might be hard to imagine that 165 years ago this was considered to be on the outskirts of town. It’s why the congregants of Second Presbyterian Church decided to build a new house of worship on that corner in the early 1850’s – to get away from the congestion of the city’s ever expanding commercial district a few blocks west. The second society of the city’s Presbyterians had organized themselves in 1842 and had taken-up residence in a number of locations around the courthouse at Washington and Clark Streets, before deciding to settle-in at Wabash and Washington. Their new corner lot was adjacent to Dearborn Park, a half-square block of green space that overlooked the lake surrounded by a cluster of homes occupied by of some of the city’s notable movers and shakers. The building committee called on John Van Osdel, the first person in the rapidly developing city to call himself an architect, and promptly rejected his design. A young New York architect, who at age 25 had been given the opportunity to design that city’s Grace Church
in 1843, caught the committee’s attention. Why not have James Renwick – who was gaining notoriety as one of the country’s early practioners of Gothic Revival in the U.S. as a result of Grace Church – design the new Second Presbyterian, take maximum advantage of their prominent corner lot
, and introduce the style to Chicago.
Renwick’s design not only changed the face of the city’s eccelsiastical map, he also used a building
[Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 1936 S. Michigan Avenue / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
material that brought the structure more notice than the elders could have anticipated. Dubbed the “Spotted Church
” because of the architect’s choice of a bituminous limestone containing tar deposits that created dark spots along the light stone surface, the building became as famous for its “spots” as for its design. In 1871, just 17 years after consecrating their cutting-edge design, the congregation was on the move again. During that time period the city’s central business district had continued to expand, and as the membership of Second Presbyterian moved further south the church followed suit. They sold their corner lot for $161,000 and set their sights on a location further down Wabash at 20th Street. The last service was held at the “Spotted Church” on the first Sunday of October in 1871, one week before a massive fire would destroy the church
, the central business district
, and over half of the built-up portions of Chicago.
The building committee once again turned to Renwick, and after exchanging the Wabash Avenue
[Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago; National Historic Landmark / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
property for a lot at Michigan Avenue and 20th Street, construction got underway. The area east of the church site was also experiencing a building boom of sorts. By the time the church was consecrated in 1874 businessmen whose names would come to define the city were building homes
on a scale unlike anything the Chicago had ever seen, and within 15 years Prairie Avenue
would become home to one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the nation. The money trail spilled over on to Michigan Avenue’s “Millionaire Row” and soon the street was lined with rows of townhouses and large single family mansions
that stretched from 16th Street south to 31st. Second Presbyterian became known around town as the city’s wealthiest and most powerful congregation whose pews were occupied by people with names we may still recognize today, Pullman, Armour, Blackstone, Crerar.
Then on March 8, 1900 fire once again claimed Second Presbyterian. The interior of the $275,000
[Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago; City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
edifice was gone, poof, up in smoke and left in ruins. Church elders pulled -up their boot straps, got together, and built again. By this time Renwick was dead and so the building committe hired one of their own parishioners Howard Van Doren Shaw to redesign the sanctuary. Shaw’s father was typical of many of the church’s members, one of those early Chicago pioneers who came to the city when it was nothing more than a few log cabins sinking in the mud, who became very wealthy in the dry goods wholesale business. The architect worked within the four standing walls of Renwick’s design but he created an entirely new interior environment. Shaw was interested in what he saw in the humanizing industrial relationship that the Arts and Crafts movement was trying to create, and convinced the church board to let him design a space that embraced the theories put forward by Arts and Crafts practitioners. The collaboration of artistry between Shaw’s deft handling of the interior space, muralist Frederic Clay Bartlett’s imagery, and the stunning art glass created by Tiffany Studios, William Fair Kline, Giannini & Hilgart, Edward Burne-Jones and Louis J. Millet, produced one of the country’s most dynamic – and today’s few remaining – Arts & Crafts spaces. The sancutary was revelatory.
On December 29, 1901, soon after the interior was compeleted, an overflow crowd packed the church
[Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago; South Loop, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
to hear Booker T. Washington give an address on “the need for the education of the Negro.” The crowd was made-up of people whose heritage was Western European as well as African, but it wouldn’t be until 1958 that Second Church officially became integrated. By that time the economic and racial make-up of the neighborhhood had changed. The beginning of the end for “the street where the elite meet” came in 1910 when the Law mansion at 1620 Prairie was demolished. By that time George Pullman, George Armour, Timothy Blackstone and John Crerar were dead. The “elite” were following people like Potter Palmer to the near north side of the city, and many were fleeing Chicago entirely for the greener pastures of the far north shore suburb of Lake Forest. By 1911 American Bank Note and Engraving had built a printing plant within sight of the church at the corner of Indiana Avenue and 20th Street, now named Cullerton, and the Chicago Carriage and Trimming Company was located next door. The Prairie Avenue house Marshall Field had acquired for his son Marshall, Jr. was now an alcohol rehabiliation facility called the Gatlin Institute. The former mansion
of Chicago Stock Yard tycoon John B. Sherman, one of the first commissions for the firm of Burnham & Root, was now the McCormick Medical College. On the corner of 21st and Michigan stood the automobile showroom of Studebaker & Co. Across the street, a row of townhouses had been demolished to make way for a series of automobile “garages.”
By the 1960s only a handful of the old residences still stood, replaced largely by manufacturing plants
[Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago; Michigan Avenue / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
and federally subsidized housing. By the 1970s Second Presbyterian had a congregation of 60 members. In a community afflicted by poverty, drugs and crime, those dedicated and tenacious congregants held on, and by using the interest income from the large endowment created over the years by the once financially wealthy congregation wisely, provided excellent stewardship for the aging building. Then in the late 1990s change came to the area once again. Development in the newly christened “South Loop” neighborhood brought an influx of residential construction to Michigan and Prairie Avenues and a new economic mix to the area. In 2006 Friends of Historic Second Church
was organized to help with the preservation and restoration of Renwick and Shaw’s landmark structure. And in March 2013, the building was listed among the country’s nearly 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, a bump-up from the over 85,000 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
See more of Shaw’s work at: Platt Luggage Building and Mentor Building, Chicago; more of Prairie Avenue at: Elbridge G. Keith House; and see what stands on the site of the “Spotted Church” today at: Garland Building.