The South Loop’s Revival Brings New Appreciation for Chicago’s Landmark Second Presbyterian Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

The late 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement that came out of England was widely embraced in the United States – especially in Chicago. And the South Loop has one of the largest and best preserved examples of the movement’s precepts: the interior of Second Presbyterian Church (1936 South Michigan Avenue). In March, 2013 Second Presbyterian became the only church in the city of Chicago to be designated a National Historic Landmark, and one of only three in the state of Illinois.

I recently enjoyed a special tour of the space with Bill Tyre, the treasurer of Friends of Historic Second Church.

The congregation had its start in the Loop in 1842, worshiping in a frame structure at Randolph and Clark. But Second Presbyterian was growing quickly and soon commissioned up-and-coming architect James Renwick to design a stone church. Renwick had just received a commission for the Smithsonian Institution building (The “Castle”) in Washington and would go on to design New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

But first, in 1850, Renwick designed Chicago’s first Gothic Revival church for Second Presbyterian.  It was at Wabash and Washington. Built with local limestone containing tar deposits, the edifice earned the nickname “The Spotted Church.”

As the city center became more commercial and crowded and many of the wealthy congregants were moving to Prairie Avenue, the congregation made plans to move south. Only days before the Chicago Fire in 1871 they moved to a temporary location. Their Spotted Church was destroyed in the conflagration.

The congregation again commissioned Renwick, now one of the most successful architects of the era, to design a new church at the corner of Michigan and 20th Street (now known as Cullerton Street). Again he delivered a Gothic Revival design of local limestone with bituminous mottling and horizontal bands of sandstone.

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

The four-story bell tower was completed in 1884; its third-level arched belfry contains a two-ton bell that still rings every Sunday.

Fire broke out in March, 1900 and destroyed the roof and gutted Renwick’s interior. But it left the building’s exterior walls intact. What could have been a great tragedy instead resulted in a singular opportunity.

While never large in number, the parishioners were wealthy, with the likes of the Pullmans, the Armours, and the Blackstones lining its pews. With money as no object, they turned over the rebuilding effort to one of their own: prominent architect, 31-year-old Howard Van Doren Shaw. He had studied the emerging English Arts and Crafts movement and this was his chance to use its ideas to execute an American interpretation in his home church.

Shaw kept most of Renwick’s remaining exterior design, but lowered the roof and replaced the rose window, minimizing the Gothic Revival look, all in order to accommodate the transformation he was orchestrating of the interior.

Shaw created a glorious and harmonious sanctuary, imbued with the Arts and Crafts emphases on nature, craftsmanship, and a richly-colored medieval aesthetic. Not only did he lower the ceiling and push the columns out, effectively widening the sanctuary and bringing its scale down to a more human level, he brought in some of the most talented craftsmen and artisans to embellish the space.

The new interior was dedicated in November, 1901. Additional stained glass windows were added through 1917. And this is how the sanctuary still looks today; it is stunningly intact.

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Due to many forces, the neighborhood went into decline from the early 1900’s. By the 1930’s most Prairie Avenue residents had died or moved away, many of their houses were razed, and the area filled with warehouses, light industrial factories, and parking lots. Second Presbyterian saw a sharp decline in its membership.

Without the former funding of its wealthy members, the church could not modernize or remodel its sanctuary as many others did in the mid-20th century. This “non-invasive stewardship” meant some maintenance challenges, but also left the interior pristine and unified. It was an interior that relatively few people were aware of until just this past decade.

The preservation movement in Chicago gained momentum in the 1970s. Glessner House was saved from demolition and opened as a historic house museum. The 1836 Clarke House was moved back to the neighborhood and restored. And the Prairie Avenue Historic District was formed. Second Presbyterian was added to the National Register of Places in 1974 and named a Chicago Landmark in 1977.

In 2006 the non-profit Friends of Historic Second Church was formed “to preserve and restore the internationally recognized art and architecture… educate a worldwide audience about its historical and cultural significance, and share those resources with the community.”

And now many people are discovering this jewel-box of a church.

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

A Historic Structure Report was completed in 2010, which guides the restoration work. As I saw on my tour, there is much work yet to be done. But a few endangered windows have already been preserved, several arch murals have been restored, plaster repaired, and the carved walnut entrance doors cleaned and protected.

In the past, I had seen photographs of Second Presbyterian’s interiors, but nothing prepared me for the experience of walking into the space. It feels large and intimate at the same time. It feels warm but also exciting. Everywhere you look is rich color and dark wood and luminous light and exquisite details… and angels.

Part of the unity-of-design idea – the Gesamtkunstwerk – of the Arts and Crafts movement is the reiteration of themes. In the sanctuary are found no fewer than 175 angels. Over the organ loft, the four life-sized heralding angels with six-foot wing spans are the most immediately noticeable, but these winged creatures appear everywhere, holding up light fixtures, in the stained glass, and in Frederic Clay Bartlett’s many murals in the arches and the glorious “Tree of Life” mural on the west wall.

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

The lighting in the sanctuary is especially thrilling. Electricity was clearly being celebrated here and bare bulbs become part of the fixture designs. Hanging above the organ loft is a line of glowing pendant lamps of varying design. Two tall, freestanding candelabras, that look like menorahs but actually symbolize New Testament ideas, flicker on either side of the pulpit.

Yet the famous stained glass windows are the glory of Second Presbyterian’s sanctuary. Shaw worked with stained glass artisans Giannini & Hilgart to create Arts and Crafts art glass throughout the sanctuary. However, many of the large memorial windows up on the balcony level are filled with the designs of other artists, most notably Louis Comfort Tiffany. It’s a virtual stained glass museum. Nine windows spanning every phase of his career are here and feature all manner of stained glass techniques and innovations.

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

Photograph by Martin Cheung, courtesy of Friends of Historic Second Church

The east entry contains two more significant stained glass windows, Sancta Margarita and Sancta Cecilia. Designed by Edward Burne-Jones and executed by the William Morris Studio, they are rare examples of the English artist’s work installed in the United States.

There is so much more to see in the sanctuary. For a close-up look at the windows and detailed interpretation of the space, a tour by the Friends’ docents is the way to go. Tours are offered Wednesdays and Saturdays 1-3pm and Sundays 12:15pm.

Not only is Second Presbyterian’s sanctuary a feast for the eyes, it is a highly significant and remarkably intact example of Arts and Crafts ideals.

Second Presbyterian Church and Friends of Historic Second Church will be celebrating the designation of the church as a National Historic Landmark on Thursday, June 20th with a reception at 5:30pm and program at 6:00pm. All are welcome to attend. Reservations are not necessary. For more information, visit
Wendy Bright

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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1 Comment

  1. What a fine essay about a wonderful site. When I describe it to people I say it’s one of the most amazing places I have ever seen – anywhere, anytime.

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