FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH BY ELIEL SAARINEN

Basics

Located at 531 5th Street, Columbus ( Map it )

The First Christian Church was designed by architect Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero Saarinen. Completed in 1942, it was the first contemporary building in Columbus and one of the first churches of contemporary architecture in the United States. The geometric design is one of direct simplicity. A large stone cross accents the limestone façade. To the west stands the 166-foot high campanile, or free-standing bell tower. The materials, exterior and interior, are mostly buff brick and limestone.

In a 1982 interview in Columbus, architect Charles Bassett said, “It stands, from my point of view, still the nicest building in town. It has a splendid scale and detail and a surprising austerity when you go inside.” (Bartholomew County Library Architectural Archives)

Details

Originally Tabernacle Christ Church
531 Fifth Street
Completed in 1942

National Historic Landmark, 2000

Design Architect: Eliel Saarinen
Collaborating Designer: Eero Saarinen
Saarinen, Swanson and Saarinen – Bloomfield Hills, MI
Collaborating Designers: Loja Saarinen, Charles Eames
Associate Architects: E.D. Pierre and George Wright
Pierre & Wright Architects – Indianapolis
Design Architect, 2002 addition and renovation: Nolan Bingham
Paris-Bingham Partnership – Columbus

First Christian Church was not only the first contemporary building in Columbus, but also one of the first churches of contemporary architecture in all of the United States. The geometric simplicity of the building’s design is exemplified in the rectangular box that houses the sanctuary and the 166-foot-high campanile (bell tower), which became the iconic symbol of the city’s modern architecture.

The church occupies an entire city block, with a two-story classroom wing supported on columns and piers, and a sunken garden originally containing a reflecting pool. For father-son architectural duo Eliel and Eero Saarinen, symmetry was not front-of-mind when they designed First Christian Church: “We have not been concerned with a symmetrical solution … the function of the chancel [the part of the church reserved for the clergy and choir, typically separated from the nave by steps or a screen], is asymmetrical in its nature.”

The building’s exterior is made of a buff brick with limestone accents. The main entry facade is a 10×12 grid with a slightly offset entry and a stone cross. Stone columns, benches, and exterior baptistry fonts feature relief detailing typical of students from Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art.

The sanctuary features an offset cross above a wood screen wall that opens up to reveal the baptistry, a skewed side wood screen wall with a pipe organ, and a piano-shaped pulpit. The sanctuary features high vertical windows on the west and a one-story entry corridor on the east. The wood pews were custom designed by Charles Eames.

A tapestry titled “The Sermon on the Mount” was designed by Eliel and his wife, Loja. In 2002, a two-story classroom wing was added to the south side, distinguished from the original building with a slightly contrasting brick.

“There is no traditional architectural style that could be successfully employed to express our purpose. For generations the basic pattern of church structure has remained practically unchanged. At best, the recent designs have been recreations of traditional styles. None of these could fully express the grandeur and yet simplicity of Christian faith unencumbered by human creeds and human symbolism. The only alternative was to find an architect whose creative genius would make possible the realization of such an expressive building. This was accomplished when Eliel Saarinen consented to accept this commission.” – Reverend T.K. Smith, 1943

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