A Second Grace

Bea Malsky

Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago sits almost uncomfortably on the corner of Michigan and Cullerton, its great neo-Gothic mass of soaring arches and stone buttresses spliced into the South Loop’s unassuming landscape of sensibly sleek urban shops and apartments with single-user balconies. If buildings could speak, this one might utter a cry of confusion.

Second Presbyterian’s story is one of grand extravagance followed by rapid decline. The church was once the place of worship for Chicago’s social and business elite, and boasted over 1,300 congregants as it regally entered the twentieth century. However, by the late 1960s membership had fallen as low as 60, and on multiple occasions it narrowly avoided disbanding entirely. It has only been in the past few years that the congregation is again beginning to see growth, a slow but steady process that is following the revitalization of the South Loop.

“This church sort of mirrors the entire history of the area,” says Linda Miller, president of Friends of Historic Second Church, a church-affiliated preservation and educational group. “In its heyday the church was here on Prairie Avenue, and this was the place to live. Those original congregants, by 1920, had pretty much left Prairie Avenue to move to the suburbs or to the Gold Coast. This area became first Motor Row, so all the car manufacturers had sales showrooms here, and then after that it became skid row.”

The congregation itself predates its neo-Gothic South Loop home. It was formed in 1842, only five years after the incorporation of the city of Chicago. The original church was a wood-framed structure in what is today the Loop, but the congregation grew rapidly and by midcentury they were large enough to bring in James Renwick Jr., the preeminent church architect of the day, to build a new home. Soon enough, the new church again began to feel too small. The congregation started planning to move south to be closer to well-to-do neighborhoods like Prairie Avenue, an area many congregants called home. Fortuitous planning, it turned out; in 1871 disaster struck, and the original Renwick church burned down in the Great Chicago Fire. Since designing his first Second Presbyterian Church building, Renwick had garnered national acclaim for the Smithsonian Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Nevertheless, he agreed to return and build Second Presbyterian Church for a second time.

“Many of [Second Presbyterian’s] charter members were around before Chicago was incorporated in 1837,” says William Tyre, congregant and  board member. “They largely came from the East Coast to make their fortune, so they were in real estate and starting a lot of the early industries in Chicago. When the church moved [to Prairie Avenue] in the 1870s, it became the church of the social and business elite.” Attendees and congregants like George Pullman, John Crerar, the Cobbs, and the Blackstones formed much of Chicago’s de facto nobility of the day.

The interior sanctuary shows the church at its most remarkable and most extravagant. It is, as Miller calls it, a “virtual museum of stained glass,” with over 20 stained glass windows–nine of them original Tiffany–set in a lush Arts and Crafts—style interior designed by architect and congregant Howard Van Doren Shaw in the early 1900s. Representations of grapevines and pomegranates fill the space, which can fit an audience of over 1,300. Frederic Clay Bartlett, fellow congregant and artist, contributed a series of religious murals in the Pre-Raphaelite style, depicting angels and verses in lush shades of red and gold.

“What’s significant about the church,” says Miller, “is that this is the pivot point between the English Arts and Crafts and the American Arts and Crafts. They’ve brought those ideas here, but put a little spin on it.” The Arts and Crafts aesthetic emphasizes the importance of natural beauty and traditional craftsmanship; it was essentially a rebellion against the industrialization of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, inspired by the work of philosophers and social critics such as John Ruskin, who once quipped that “taste is the only morality. Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are.”

The building was originally a showcase for the wealth and grandeur of its contributing congregants. “Earlier on, there was very much a plan to create something that was architecturally or artistically significant, to show the importance and prestige of the congregation. At that point it was artistically tied much more to the identity of the church,” says Tyre. Today, what was once a show of personal wealth serves as a piece of history fairly disconnected from the modern congregation. The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s, and is one signature away from being declared a National Historic Landmark–a designation Second Presbyterian hopes and expects to receive in March or April of this year. National Historic Landmark status is much rarer and more prestigious than Historic Place status; out of over 88,000 Historic Places, fewer than 2,500 are designated National Historic Landmarks. Friends of Historic Second Church hopes that this new recognition will bring with it increased interest in the church and perhaps funds for restoration of the murals and stained glass.

There is something of a contradiction in such a modest congregation having such a grand building, and this cognitive dissonance is reflected in an institutional divide between the religious community and the caretakers of the building. Friends’ mission statement says nothing about religion, and only half of the board members are also congregation members. Others are brought in for technical or legal expertise, or simply for their enthusiasm for the history and artistry of the space. In this way, Second Presbyterian as a congregation has found a way to continue to thrive without being overwhelmed by the building.

“I really see Friends of Historic Second Church as a preservation organization, and it happens to be a church that we’re working with,” says Tyre. “We found that the church can focus very much on what they need to do as a church–their mission, reaching out to their members, making their membership grow, that sort of thing–while Friends can really focus on the art and the building and the architecture.”

A church so large with a congregation so small means that members are in danger of becoming overburdened with preservation and care, a particularly real danger when the congregation is in a time of change. “I think one of the most interesting things about the congregation currently is that it’s very eclectic,” says Miller. “It’s very multi-racial, very multi-cultural. There are Ghanaians, African Americans, Chinese Americans coming over from Chinatown, South Asians, Caucasians–it makes for a really interesting group, and that’s part of the question of how to reach out to get a diverse but united congregation.”

What Second Presbyterian manages so gracefully is to avoid letting the incongruity of its building’s display of past wealth confuse its mission as a religious organization. “What the congregation is aware of is that we’re part of a very long legacy, so I think in some ways it gives us the impetus to make sure that we survive, because we are part of such a long history,” says Tyre.

On a recent Sunday, attendance in the church that once boasted a membership of over 1,300 did not surpass 80. The top pews were entirely empty. Rev. Dr. David Neff, who joined Second Presbyterian in November of 2011, was not there to lead the service, so proceedings were more subdued than usual. Still, attendance never approaches half capacity.

Despite its sparse population, on this Sunday the Reverend Theola Jones and James Acquaah filled the space with song and prayer. “As you can see, this is not a one person show,” Jones ended the morning’s service, to quiet but appreciative laughter from the assembled congregation. “It takes everyone coming out here these Sundays to make this happen.” Indeed, of the 80 or so attendees, at least ten were assigned to handing out communion wafers or ushering duties. A couple Friends members hung back after the service to change hats and begin leading tours for curious outsiders. “The congregation has changed very dramatically over time,” notes Tyre. “From what it was at the very beginning, to what it was when it came down to the South Loop, to what it is in the twentieth century. The church has always adapted around what the membership is. I really see it–and I think a lot of people see it this way–as just another chapter of reinventing our identity again, this time in the twenty-first century.”