The great renovation

Last Thursday, on a blustery night, the tree of knowledge rose straight up over the audience gathered at the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago, a rainbow skirting the tree’s canopy.  Perched 50 feet overhead, a legion of bronzed angels and their horns kept watch over the evening crowd. Seated in the simple pews, the audience admired the natural grain of the warm, dark oak wood, and the murals’ lush, naturalistic scenes surrounding them. As the lights dimmed and the murals and pious statues slowly faded into darkness, their image appeared projected onto a small screen placed in front of the pews.

In the last of four presentations in the 2010 lecture series organized by Friends of the Historic Second Church, Elizabeth McGoey explored both the architectural and social history of the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The church is considered one of the best examples of the early American Arts and Crafts movement, notable for an astute attention to detail and precision, and the unity of art, design, and craftsmanship. McGoey, a predoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, drew heavily from her master’s research on the church to paint a picture of a unique and historic space in American architecture.

The building’s exterior is a gothic revival standard designed by American architect James Renwick, Jr., creator of the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.  Renwick’s original design for the interior, constructed with the rest of the church in 1872, was lost to fire in 1900.  The church community turned to their own deep coffers to rebuild, sparing no expense to realize a visionary ecclesial space. The turn-of-the-century Prairie Avenue community of Second Presbyterian churchgoers was home to some of the wealthiest and most powerful Chicago families, along with architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and artist Frederic Clay Bartlett. To fulfill their dreams of grandeur, the church commissioned Shaw and Bartlett in what would be the first of the pair’s many collaborations.

Brought in close proximity to the design process by the intimacy of the parishioners, the interior reflects the lifestyle of the church’s families: the decadent gilding, the elegantly complex woodwork, and the posh religious symbolism all reveal a departure from the puritanical austerity of traditional American Christianity.  It stands as a sign of the evolving ideals of beauty of the Gilded Age, of the emergence of a new social elite, of an era of decadence and indulgence.

This is what attracted McGoey to the space, and what gives it such relevance in Chicago’s identity. Now the influence of the Pullmans and Armours has dissipated, and their stockyards and steel mills have been paved over by high-rises for finance and retail.  Yet it was the new breed of businessmen and women who found themselves in their predecessors’ space Thursday night, captivated for hours by the proof of rebirth that stood before them. (Isaac Dalke)