Churches for Changing Times

This is the second post in five-part series on architect Edward Dart by guest author Matt Seymour.

Edward Dart: Church Architect

Constructed in 1961, Lansing Presbyterian Church’s plan is non-traditional. From a triangular narthex to a trapezoidal sanctuary, angled wall surfaces dominate the design. Edward Dart Collection, Art Institute of Chicago

From the early 1950s to the mid 1960s, Edward Dart designed 26 churches that were constructed primarily in the Chicago area.  The majority of the churches were designed in developing communities of the 1950s and 60s, and were therefore smaller buildings with small, but growing, congregations.

Dart’s Church Design

Most churches are clad in Chicago common brick, yet no two Dart-designed churches are the same.  Lansing Presbyterian in Lansing, Illinois, for example, features an asymmetrical folded roof and the walls of the sanctuary are set at angles.  The House of Prayer church in Country Club Hills, Illinois, is a series of blocky masses.  St. Michael’s in Barrington, Illinois, features a unique bell tower that flares out at the top.

First St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1968), with its massive appearance, is windowless on the primary elevation.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Dart’s church designs are hidden light sources, which allow cascades of natural light to wash down the interior brick walls of sanctuaries, creating an ethereal feeling in the space.  At First St. Paul’s in Chicago, the hidden clerestory windows on the rear portion of the half-cylinder-like tower portion light the altar area from above. Hidden side windows light the altar at St. Michael’s, while the rest of the sanctuary is lit by clerestory windows.  At St. Ambrose’s in Chicago Heights, Illinois, the asymmetrical roof allows for clerestory windows and, to allow more light into the sanctuary, Dart incorporated hidden windows into the eaves.

Windowless walls of common brick and stripped down decor, as can be seen in the majority of Darts designs, forced congregants to focus on worship.  Most of Darts churches only feature clear clerestory windows which provide a distinct light source, but also do not allow any distractions from the outside world.  Most Dart-designed sanctuaries from the early part of his career are smaller, open spaces which ultimately allows for more personal, and spiritual, interaction.

This Robert Nowell Ward photo from the mid 1950s shows how clear-glass windows lit the altar at St. Michaels Episcopal Church. Edward Dart Collection, Art Institute of Chicago

Churches for Changing Times       

Dart’s approach to church design developed out of changing attitudes about church design that started in America as an effect of the Great Depression.  American churches previous to the Depression, regardless of denomination, were highly ornamented in order to show the wealth of the congregation.  Congregations decorated their worship spaces as a tribute to God— the more decoration, the better.  With the economic downturn that resulted during the Depression, though, church design became simpler because congregations did not have money for the construction of elaborate buildings and decorative schemes.

Broad roof surfaces are notable features of Calvary Lutheran Church (1962). With its central projecting tower, Calvary Lutheran is a modern interpretation of a traditional church form.

This simplification of church design lasted through World War II.  Following the War, Americans achieved a new level of prosperity and with that prosperity developed the suburbs.  Modern communities, where architects like Dart were practicing, needed convenient places to worship.  Instead of demanding churches that resembled the old ways, the modern communities looked to the modern architectural styles of the 1950s and 60s.  They also demanded modern construction methods, which involved rapid construction on limited budgets.  Thus, architects were forced to be creative by the amount of time and money they were given.  Keeping this in mind, Dart chose simple materials in creating relatively small churches.  Darts ingenuity, though, meant the simple materials and small-scale buildings were not simple in design.  Angled walls, unexpected spaces and unique forms are the hallmarks of Darts churches.

An austere interior of common brick and concrete compose the sanctuary of Augustana Lutheran Church (1967). But for small clerestory windows at the rear of the sanctuary, the space is devoid of windows.

Darts church designs could also be seen as statements on social justice.  Dart once stated: “A church more than any other building should reflect today’s culture, feeling, and the renaissance of our own era.”[i]  In a turbulent era, simplicity was admirable.  Since Dart was skilled at using simple materials in his designs, he was well suited to create the churches of this era.

[i] Carlton Ihde, “At N. Side St. Paul’s It’s Gothic: Steel I-Beam Edifice for Gary,” Chicago Daily News, November  10, 1956, 12.


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