Gazette Article by: Nan Greenough
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2007
The Christ Church parish complex blends several buildings seamlessly: an inviting house-sized rectory on the south, an attractive parish house and church school in the middle, and a small chapel on the north. Rough hewn limestone walls and red clay roof tiles provide a backdrop for Gothic Revival elements: buttresses, tracery windows and a crenellated bell tower.
Buildings often have stories that give life and meaning beyond what the eye sees. This story starts a century ago when, in addition to its “church-on-the-hill” at Sheridan Road and Humboldt Ave., Christ Church owned a parish house at Oak and Linden streets (across from today’s library). It proved too small for a quickly growing parish. From his arrival in 1916, church rector Ashley Gerhard dreamed of a way to meet his church’s expanding needs, including a larger Sunday School that would reflect the high educational standards that children experienced in their week-day schools.
In 1929, Gerhard presented his vision to the vestry. He saw the funding and building of a new parish house “(as not) a mere fund-raising job…. It was to be a great spiritual enterprise… When this great task was brought to a successful and final conclusion, the spiritual life of the people of Christ Church would be raised to a level from which it would never recede.” Gerhard’s dream included a structure large enough to satisfy parish needs for years ahead and one that “must be beautiful in architectural design.”
After Gerhard’s presentation, the vestry agreed to ask the congregation to contribute $300,000 for the construction of a new parish house, chapel and rectory. Strong leadership was essential for such ambitious fund-raising. For this critical role, Gerhard chose Clarence Randall, who later became the president of Inland Steel.
In Randall’s words, “Little did I realize the fantastic adventure that was waiting ahead. (Having lined up) the general committee… I announced the date of the kick-off supper, to which the whole parish was invited. And what a date I chose!…Thursday, October 31, 1929, the day after the stock market closed in the worst financial catastrophe in history…
“To go ahead with our campaign seemed like utter madness…. So I asked for an emergency meeting of the Vestry… Seldom have I seen a more solemn group of men…. There were wealthy ones among them who had just seen their familiar world crash in complete wreckage, and there was none who did not feel the terror of impending disaster….”
The emergency meeting took place at the University Club in Chicago where, Gerhard recalled, the vestrymen told him, “Our campaign must be called off.” One by one, each vestryman echoed, “Call it off!”
Then, the last man spoke.
“A miracle happened,” wrote Randall, “Victor Elting, the junior warden, rose and said calmly, ‘I think there are more important things in life than the New York Stock Exchange.’” Elting gave a short speech (a “thrilling sermon,” Father Gerhard called it) that reinforced Gerhard’s vision of an effort that would revitalize the spiritual life of Christ Church, saying, “Do we dare to say that we are willing to permit something that has happened in Wall Street to threaten the things that pertain to the Kingdom of God?” Mr. Elting sat down.
Randall recalled, “From that point on the meeting burst into flame… it was unanimous to go ahead… The $300,000 was raised; the… Parish House was built as planned and finished on time…. (and) I was automatically launched into fund raising for civic causes, from which I have never recovered.”
The church bought the property along Maple Street, between Oak and Cherry streets. Chicago construction firm Dahl & Stedman began work promptly. The cornerstone was laid in the fall of 1930 with construction already underway, and in the spring of 1931 the church moved into its new parish home.
The complex was designed by the architecture firm of Allen and Collens, part of a group known as the “Boston Gothicists.” The firm focused largely on neo-medieval and ecclesiastical designs and specialized in collegiate work, using revival designs inspired by Gothic, Romanesque and Colonial styles. The firm’s work graces the campuses of Bowdoin, Brown, Harvard Divinity School (Andover Hall), Middlebury, Williams, Mount Holyoke (Abbey Chapel and the major 1935 addition to Williston Library) and Vassar (eleven buildings, plus at least another four by Allen). In his memoir, Gerhard described Charles Collens as “one of the outstanding gothicists in the United States.”
In New York City, Allen and Collens designed Union Theological Seminary (1910), Riverside Church (1930, with Henry C. Pelton) and the Cloisters (1938, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), prestigious commissions by any standard. Riverside Church (built during the same period as the Christ Church parish complex) is notable for its adaptation of French Gothic ornament (inspired by the cathedral at Chartres) to a 21-story steel-framed building.