These days Wacker Drive rivals LaSalle as the epicenter of Chicago’s financial district. The drive’s high-rise office buildings tower over the Chicago River like walls of a canyon. But a break in the skyline at the intersection of Wabash and Wacker makes way for a building that is only five stories above street level.
The structure looks nothing like any of its rectilinear neighbors, which favor steel and glass. Instead, it resembles a concrete space ship with a round, white, windowless facade from the second story up. And, the building has nothing to do with financial power. As spelled out in enormous letters spanning its curved wall, it’s the home of the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist.
This distinctive structure caught the eye of Monica Schrager, who works right across the street on the 10th floor of the old Jeweler Building. “It has an interesting look,” she says. “It’s this small ‘60s-style building that you never really see anyone coming in and out of in the middle of all these skyscrapers.” Here’s the question she asked us to look into:
It turns out Monica has a nose for a great story. As we look into the church’s history, we learn how the tenets of a distinctive faith were translated into concrete and steel by an idealistic, but non-believing architect. And, we follow a devoted congregation as it risked building in a once-abandoned portion of the city … only to have that neighborhood bloom decades later.
Which faith are we talking about?
Not to be confused with Scientology, Christian Science is a branch of protestant Christianity. It was founded in Massachusetts in the late 19th century by Mary Baker Eddy, who taught that the material world is a temporary illusion, while the only reality is spiritual. This belief informs all aspects of Christian Science practice, including its most famous: devout Christian Scientists don’t seek medical treatment. Eddy taught a form of spiritual healing that is inspired by Jesus’ own healings in the New Testament.
Mrs. Eddy also taught that God does not communicate by way of a few chosen figures, like preachers or popes. God, she said, communicates directly and equally with all of his followers, so Christian Science is a non-hierarchical, democratic faith. Each church elects readers who serve a short term before passing responsibility to another church member. As the congregation’s current First Reader, Lois Carlson, states: “We don’t have many big cheeses.”
Like Quakers, Christian Scientists also emphasize the importance of individual testimonies; during Wednesday services, church-goers are encouraged to stand and share their personal experiences with Christian Science healing.
‘To uplift a neighborhood’
It’s notable that the intersection of Wabash and Wacker has any church at all, since there are few standalone churches around downtown. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed many of them, and many more relocated to quieter residential areas. In 1907, an unknown author penned an op-ed piece for the Chicago Daily Tribune which reads: “One of the changes most noticeable between old Chicago and new Chicago is the disappearance of the churches which used to surround the courthouse square or line Wabash or Michigan avenue.” Later, the author notes “Chicago has nothing downtown to express the spiritual life of its people.”
So, when the Seventeenth Church was established downtown in 1924, it was a bit of an anomaly.
For decades the congregation rented several downtown venues including, at one point, Orchestra Hall. By the late 1940s, though, the congregation wanted a church of its own. Members remained committed to being downtown. In this, they bucked a trend of building Christian Science churches in outer neighborhoods such as Beverly, Uptown and Hyde Park. Current members of the Seventeenth Church don’t have records that indicate why the congregation prefered downtown, though member Dave Hohle has a hypothesis. “I think a church will uplift a neighborhood,” he says. “And I think that’s what’s happened here.”
Today, it seems like the corner of Wabash and Wacker might be the perfect candidate. Not so, according to Hohle. “It didn’t really interest them because it wasn’t very central,” he says. “It was just sort of over here on the river.”
Carlson points out that Wacker Drive was not always a major thoroughfare. “It used to be that Michigan Avenue was its own entity and the Loop was its own entity, and there was no sense of connecting the two,” she says.
Obviously the congregation did decide to buy that property, after almost a decade of searching. At the time, the corner contained nothing but a parking lot and a short, rundown building, which they later demolished to make way for their new church. When they finally made the purchase in 1955, Wacker Drive was just starting to develop.
Kindred spirits: A radical faith and a non-believing architect
Say Hohle is right and the Seventeenth Church congregation wished to uplift their future neighborhood. Surely, then, the church would need uplifting architecture. Over two years, the congregation considered 34 architects, including celebrity designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as an architect with Christian Science roots. In 1963 they settled on a Harry Weese.
You may not know Weese by name, but there’s a chance you’ve seen his work in Chicago: the Time Life building, the towering Metropolitan Correctional Center on Van Buren street, and several others. His resume stretches as far as Washington, D.C., where he designed a cavernous metro, famous for its waffled concrete ceilings.
Weese had an impressive resume, but then again, so did his competitors and, interestingly, he was not a religious man. (In interviews the church asked each candidate about their religious affiliation. Weese responded, “My father was Episcopalian, my mother Presbyterian, and I’m an architect.”)
According to Robert Bruegmann, the co-author of The Architecture of Harry Weese, the congregation was impressed by the architect’s ambitious, post-war vision for American cities.
“The suburbs had sapped a lot of the vitality of the city,” Bruegmann says. “A lot of the city architecture and infrastructure was old. The city was in a pretty bad state and Chicago was no exception.”
Weese wanted to build a new, more humane city, so he sought contracts for large-scale urban works such as the DC Metro. But Weese also believed architects could revitalize cities by designing new, monumental public buildings. “So for Harry, a chance to build a church in the center of the city where the churches had been fleeing for a hundred years was a real opportunity, and he really seized it with both hands,” Bruegmann says.
It’s simply conjecture (again, the congregation has no records of this), but we do know the Seventeenth Church congregation was impressed with the architect’s plans, if not the architect himself. According to Dave Hohle, the church approved Weese’s design on the first round, a rare occurrence in architecture circles. “There were, like, no adjustments,” Hohle says. “It was presented and it was unanimously approved.”
Faith translated into design
The congregation’s first reader, Lois Carlson, says that Weese’s radical building, completed in 1968, matches Christian Science’s radical theology. “I think what’s so beautiful about this building is that it’s so clearly an idea that matches the metaphysical substance of the Christian Science faith,” she says.
Specifically, Bruegmann says Weese knew that acoustics were critical to a democratic congregation that valued every voice. That led him to fashion the main auditorium of the church as a greek-style amphitheater, which is ideal for projecting sound. There are 800 seats, and each is within 54 feet of the room’s center.
Quite unusual for the time, Weese also worked with an audio engineer who created a system of hidden microphones and speakers so that members’ testimonies could be amplified. This audio system was so advanced it received a write-up in the Journal for the Society of Audio Engineers in 1970.
A year after the church opened, it received a Distinguished Building Award from the American Institute of Architects. The AIA recognized the structure not just for its democratic design, but also for Weese’s expert problem solving. To keep out the noises of a bustling city, the congregation did not want windows in the auditorium but, like most churches, they wanted space and light. So Weese built a tall, domed ceiling with an oculus-like skylight at the very top, which he called a lantern. To make sure the sunday school was equally well lit, Weese created a moat-like sunken garden around the church so that there could be windows into the basement levels.
Then of course, there is the building’s eye-catching exterior. Bruegmann points out that the facade is modern but still achieves the kind of monumentality that Harry Weese admired in classical buildings. “That dome that rounds that corner is one of the grandest urban gestures of virtually any city I know of,” Bruegmann says.
If you build it they (might) come
When the Seventeenth Church triumphantly opened its doors in 1968, the congregation established something few other churches had attempted: a place of worship in Chicago’s bustling downtown. The trouble is, membership didn’t grow, at least not on the national level. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, the Christian Science movement’s membership started to drop in the 1940s and, by the 1960s, was in serious decline.
So what happened? Stark suggests that early in the 20th century, Christian Science was the fastest-growing faith in the country, but there’s a caveat. He believes Christian Science always seemed more successful than it actually was, mostly because members tended to be well off financially. Like the Seventeenth Church, other congregations had resources to establish and build new churches around the country, even after membership began to decline.
Another theory from Stark: Medical treatment was very crude at the time that Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science. “We had no antibiotics,” he says. “Part of the time they really didn’t have any anesthetics. Doctors were pretty untrained and a lot of them were butchers.” By comparison, spiritual healing seemed like a strong alternative. Stark argues that interest in Christian Science decreased in the mid-1900s after Western medicine improved.
Lastly, Stark argues that the first generation of Christian Scientists didn’t produce a second generation. From the beginning, Christian Scientists didn’t have a lot of children so they had to rely on new converts to expand. Converting new members is often difficult compared to raising children within a faith.
We can see how this affected the Chicago area by reading The Christian Science Journal, which lists every Christian Science church around the world. The religion was popular in Chicago; over the span of 61 years Christian Scientists opened 23 churches across the city. After the 1950s, Chicago churches began to close. By the new millenium, 13 of the original 23 churches were gone. Today there are only six.
The remains of these closed churches are dotted all around Chicago. Some have been sold to congregations of other faiths. Thirteenth Church in Beverly has been converted into 16 loft condominiums. The abandoned 10th Church in Hyde Park was sold to a developer, but it’s now in foreclosure and falling to pieces.
Holding onto your religion … and property
So how did the Seventeenth Church hang on? This is the second part of Monica Schrager’s question, and it’s a good one, when you consider two things: The church now sits among prime real estate, and the congregation is modest in size.
In the 1980s Wacker Drive saw a major boom in office construction. Eventually Wacker replaced LaSalle as the center of Chicago’s financial industry, with massive, glassy skyscrapers to show it. In 2013, Jones Lang and LaSalle listed Wacker Drive as the 20th-most expensive street for office space in the country. Next door to the church, a hotel developer bought a narrow empty lot for 5 million dollars. (That’s over one thousand dollars per square foot. The developer is now in the process of building a Hilton Garden Inn on that site.) Right next door to that, the historic motor club building was auctioned off in 2011 for 9.7 million. Word is, that building will soon be a hotel as well.
There may be a competitive real estate market raging outside the walls of Seventeenth Church but, believe it or not, the church says it’s never gotten a serious offer from any kind of buyer. Still, Seventeenth Church is a big building, while the congregation is likely small.
Christian Science branch churches never publish their membership numbers because they don’t want to be distracted by material measurements, so we can’t know the exact size of the Seventeenth Church congregation. However, when I attend a recent church service, I count approximately 30 people in the 800-seat auditorium. Dave Hohle says that number is likely low, adding that perhaps forty or so attendees arrive for typical Sunday services.
If you think there’s a mismatch between the building’s stature and the size of the congregation, Lois Carlson notes the church was paid off in 1978, and members cover maintenance costs.
“You know, even though we’re a small congregation, we’re an incredibly financially committed group,” she says.
There’s likely additional income. On occasion, the church receives a visit from a big movie studio. The Seventeenth Church amphitheater was the set for the “choosing ceremony” in the blockbuster film Divergent. The church’s exterior played a cameo in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. (In the film, the church was spared, while robots laid waste to the rest of downtown Chicago.) The church did receive income from those films but does not disclose the amount.
The congregation, regardless of costs, seems to be just as committed to downtown as it was when it first sought property in the 1940s. First and foremost, Lois Carlson says, the church can be a resource for what she calls “hungry hearts that are looking for a deeper understanding for God.” The church operates a reading room in the lobby six days a week. Carlson says tourists and curious passersby come into the reading room regularly. A small handful of people have become members this way. “We just feel like we belong here because the need is so great,” she says.
In keeping with that, the congregation regularly shares Harry Weese’s architectural gem. They lend their auditorium to interfaith groups, and the local alderman conducts community meetings there. A couple times each month the church welcomes tour groups from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. In October, more than 4,000 visitors arrived as part of the Open House Chicago event.
Down the road?
For now, it seems like Seventeenth Church congregation wants to stay put, but what about over the next decade or two? Will it be able to sustain itself? Professor Bruegmann is concerned that the building might not survive if the congregation were to move or dissolve. In fact, many of Harry Weese’s buildings have already met the wrecking ball. Bruegmann argues that buildings from the ‘60s and ‘70s are no longer new, but they are not yet considered historic.
“It’s exactly at that moment when they’re middle-aged buildings that they’re most vulnerable,” he says.
Like Monica, he’s very aware of the competitive real estate market on Wacker Drive. “The economics of having such a small building on such a prominent, very expensive site are going to weigh so heavily in the balance,” he worries. “If the current congregation moved out, it would be extremely difficult to figure out what to do with a building like that and how you might save it.”
Now we have an answer. Who asked the question?Monica Schrager was thrilled that our investigation made a connection between her current home — Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood — and Washington, D.C., area, where she grew up. The relevant detail? Architect Harry Weese designed the Seventeenth Church as well as the DC Metro!
Monica is a web developer by trade but her interest in architecture is responsible for her question about Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist.
“I love the variety of architecture we have in the city, from Mies Van Der Rohe to Frank Lloyd Wright,” she says.
Monica works right across the street from Seventeenth Church in the old Jeweler Building. She sees the church every day outside her office window and she’s definitely rooting for the church to survive, especially now that she has seen the inside.
“Just the whole combination of the lighting and the acoustics is kind of really neat,” she says. “You almost don’t feel like you’re in the middle of the city. It’s an oasis of sorts.”
Her bottom line? She thinks Wacker Drive needs an oasis more than it needs another skyscraper.
Ellen Mayer is the Curious City intern. Follow her @ellenrebeccam.