Gary congregation seeks National Register status for midcentury modern church

Gary congregation seeks National Register status for midcentury modern church
WBEZ/Lee Bey
Gary congregation seeks National Register status for midcentury modern church
WBEZ/Lee Bey

Gary congregation seeks National Register status for midcentury modern church

The interior of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Gary, Ind.

Worshippers at an historically black Episcopal church in Gary have mounted an effort to get their architecturally-daring midcentury modern building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Built in 1959, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church at 19th and Ellsworth would be Gary’s first postwar National Register listing, if approved. The church was designed for the congregation by noted Chicago architect Edward D. Dart.

“It’s a beautiful church,” said longtime St. Augustine’s member Paula DeBois who is leading the National Register effort. “St. Augustine’s seems suited to being listed on the National Register.”

St. Augustine’s is an early work by Dart, whose modernist designs are being appreciated anew, particularly after his Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, built in 1965 at 1850 S. Racine in Chicago, was callously wrecked in 2007. His 1972 addition to the Lorado Taft Midway Studio on the University of Chicago campus was razed in 2009 to make way for the Logan Art Center.

Dart’s modernism differed from the midcentury steel-and-glass esthetic of, say, Mies van der Rohe or Skidmore Owings & Merrill. His worked with wood, brick, concrete, and angles—not unlike his contemporaries such as Harry Weese, or his mentor Paul Schweikher.

Dart designed about 100 buildings and churches including St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle; his own church, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Barrington; First St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, a brick and glass beauty from 1970 at 1301 N. LaSalle, and more. He was also responsible for scores of striking modern suburban Chicago homes.

While a partner at what was then Loebl Schlossman Dart & Hackl, he designed Chicago’s Water Tower Place, but died in 1975 at age 53 before the building was completed.

Dart, a white North Shore architect working with the black professional congregation in Gary is a “very unique and compelling American story” that deserves a national spotlight, DeBois said.

“Here’s a congregation that chartered as an Episcopal Colored Mission in 1927 in a segregated era,” she said. “Yet, they had the means and the sophistication to secure Edward D. Dart to build their new church home. The result is this magnificent structure that we see today.

For St. Augustine’s—on a relatively tight budget of less than $100,000 according to DeBois’ research—Dart produced a striking piece of architecture rendered in brick, red oak and redwood with a remarkable curved tent-like roof. As the above photos show, Dart brought the roof’s curves inside the church allowing the exposed wood beams meet like hands in prayer.

St. Augustine’s caused a bit of a sensation after it was completed. In 1960, the design won an American Institute of Architects Distinguished Building Award and an Honor Award from the Church Architectural Guild. The Chicago Tribune gushed over the building in a 1959 article with full color photos—although the newspaper never mentioned (or showed) the church’s black congregation.

Not at all bad for a design that was “Plan B.” Dart originally designed a more elaborate church that proved too expensive, DeBois said. Here are exterior and interior images of that first plan:

The exterior of Dart's original design.
The interior of Dart's original design.

But rather than abandon the project due to cost, Dart and the church’s leadership worked together to produce a better-looking building for less money. Credit also goes to the late black structural engineer Richard Johnson, Sr., a St. Augustine’s member who figured out those glorious curved beams that hold up the roof. (Johnson was the father of Chicago architect Philip Craig Johnson, of Johnson & Lee Architects.)

“The second designed was accepted,” DeBois said. “Personally, I love the second design.”

DeBois is wrapping up her work and expects to submit the nomination to the National Park Service this spring. If approved, the well-preserved edifice would join 18 other National Register sites in the northwest Indiana city.

“It’s refreshing to see a long-time congregation working to preserve its heritage by recognizing that the modernist building it commissioned is one of its most valuable assets,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for the preservation organization Landmarks Illinois. DeBois reached out to the organization while researching Dart and his work.

DiChiera said the nomination would placed needed additional attention on Dart’s work in the wake of the demolition of Emmanuel Presbyterian and the Midway Studio addition—and the unknown future of the shuttered and for sale Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago.

With an aging and dwindling congregation, DeBois said the designation will help make sure the church is recognized and preserved in the years to come.

“The congregation remains dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the church,” DeBois said.

St. Augustine's member Paula DeBois is leading the National Register effort.