Seventeenth Church Christ Scientist

by guest author Matt Crawford

“Faced with the choice, I would rather be right than contemporary.” – Harry Weese

Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist. Photo by author.

In 1966 the congregation of the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist formed a committee to select an architect to design their new church.  After reviewing proposals from over thirty architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, finalists were invited for an interview. Each was asked about their religious affiliation, to which Methodist-raised Harry Weese replied, “My father was Episcopalian, my mother Presbyterian, and I’m an architect.”  The committee must have been impressed with this higher calling and Weese got the job.

Harry Weese with Mies van der Rohe, undated. Source: Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson & Burnham Archives, Archival Image Collection.

The entries in this blog shed light on Chicago architects with an individualistic approach to the modern movement, and one of the most idiosyncratic Chicago modernists was Harry Weese (1915-1998).  When his firm Harry Weese & Associates landed the Seventeenth Church commission, he was at the height of his powers, which served him well given the challenges the church design presented.

Announcement in the Tribune and a section drawing of Seventeen Christ Scientist. Chicago Tribune, Sep. 4, 1966.

The site for the new church was located in the heart of the city at a visually prominent intersection, yet it was wedge shaped and very compact for the congregation’s ambitious program which called for an auditorium with seating for 800, a public reading room, a large classroom, a variety of office and meeting rooms, and a handful of parking spaces.  The lot was also hemmed in by skyscrapers which threatened to visually overwhelm the new church.  Weese met these challenges for Seventeenth Church with a building that achieved monumentality not through size but with robust geometric forms, a clearly expressed and dynamic structure and a bright white marble cladding.

A sunken garden surrounds the building. Photo by author

The church is best approached from the west on Wacker Drive where it stands as a focal point visible from Franklin Street six blocks away.  The sweeping curved façade, faced with Italian travertine, comes into view first.  This semi-circular volume which houses the auditorium is raised above a glass lobby and reading room at sidewalk level.  As with many of his buildings, Weese pushes the first floor inward to reveal the building’s structure which here is radial concrete beams supported by concrete columns.  Rather than planting the auditorium directly onto this structure, impost blocks are placed between the structure and its burden creating a gap that gives the whole a weightless appearance.

As it rises through the auditorium, the structure is hidden; but, it re-emerges at the conical roof as a series of buttress-like struts springing upward from the clerestory to a drum-like lantern containing an oculus.  The struts and oculus are steel I-beams encased in concrete and clad in travertine.  Lead-coated copper provides the roof surface.

View of sanctuary interior. Photo by author.

One enters the church through a pair of glass-enclosed vestibules which bridge over a moat-like sunken garden, another Weese signature which he used to bring natural light to basements, in this case the church’s classroom. The comfortable lobby reading room offers a sweeping vista of the procession of buildings fronting the Chicago River, and features unusual light fixtures incorporated into the concrete beam ends.  A raised dais leads to a pair of stairways up to the auditorium.  One emerges from these not at the back of the church, but front and center next to the raised speaker’s platform, the focal point of Christian Science worship.

The oculus and skylights flood the interior with natural light. Photo by author.

While the congregation requested that no windows be used in the auditorium to reduce street noise, Weese draws in natural light through a narrow slotted opening between the back wall and ceiling, as well as through the oculus and a pair of skylights from which sunlight cascades down on the array of zinc organ pipes.

Christian Science worship focuses on the spoken word, and the interior is designed for excellent acoustics and an intimate scale.  The semicircular rows of seating fan out from the speaker’s platform in ascending rows ending in a walnut screen which sets off an ambulatory.  Like the exterior, the interior walls of the auditorium are clad in white travertine. The tent-like plaster ceiling, shaped like the bell of a horn, is plaster roughly finished to resemble the stone.

During the frenzied real estate market of 2006 the church rejected a developer’s offer to buy the property to replace it with a residential tower.  Perhaps they remembered Harry Weese’s own dictum that the “legacy of the city is a sacred trust that you have to keep.”

Seventeenth Church will be hosting an open house on Sunday, March 18, 2012, from 2-4 p.m. as part of the Sharing Sacred Spaces program. It also will be the site of our final Chicago Modern event, the “Critics Challenge” on May 10 featuring architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Architect editor Ned Cramer and Chicago’s own Lee Bey.

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