Chicago Mid-Century: St. Thomas More Catholic Church


St. Thomas More Church sits on S. California Avenue at 81st Street, amid vast stretches of post-World War II semi-suburban cityscape.  Founded in 1947, it was the first new parish established in the city after the war, and is older than most of the development around it. The far south side of Chicago boomed in the post-war years as new, modern houses went up, and the parish’s growth was rapid. St. Thomas More began holding services in a 300-seat temporary building a few blocks east, at Talman and 81st Street. Meanwhile, a series of buildings went up on the larger site on California Ave., beginning with the school, followed by the convent, the main church building, and a rectory.

The parochial elementary school leapt from an enrollment of 250 to 450 in a single year. In 1950 a second story was added to the school building, bringing its student capacity to 800. In the following decade, even that would not be enough, and students would be split between morning and afternoon shifts. A second addition of 8 classrooms followed in 1954, designed by architects Barry and Kay; this building sits on the south border of the property. At its peak, the parish school had 2,000 students. Enrollment fell over the following decades, leading to the school’s closure in 2005. Today the building houses a charter school.

The convent, seen to the left of the church above, was built in 1954 with housing for 21 residents.


All these buildings were designed by Chicago architecture firm Barry and Kay. The firm’s principal was Gerald Ward Barry Jr. (1924-2005). Presumably aided by his prominent family connections (his relatives founded Barry University in Florida; his father, Gerald Barry senior, was also a local church architect), Barry & Kay designed many Catholic churches and school in Chicago and around the country. Other works by the firm include the magnificent St. Ferdinand Church on the far west side and Chicago’s St. Cajetan Church, also on the deep south side.

Planning for the new church building began in 1956, to replace the temporary structure at Talman Street. The cornerstone was laid in November, 1957, and the new building was dedicated at the end of 1958. Described as “ultra-modernistic”, the new sanctuary seated 1,300, was fully air conditioned, and included a large chapel in the basement.

St. Thomas More Church

St. Thomas More’s main building consists of an oval drum sitting atop a one-story rectangular base. The base contains chapels, side wings, the lobby, stairs, entrances and other assorted service spaces. The drum, of course, is the main sanctuary space, distinctly articulated inside and out. Flagstone and harmoniously colored 1×1 tile cover the ground level facade, with orange brick above. A high-relief sculpture group centered on the church’s namesake saint marks the entryway.


Inside, the sanctuary is simple in form, with a flat ceiling and no columns in the primary space – but elaborate in ornament. Tile mosaics enliven the walls with images and delightfully stylized text, and the hanging lamps are a 1950s delight.

The deeply recessed stained glass windows are made of faceted glass, designed by Gabriel Loire (1904-1996) of Chartes, France; they portray the life of Thomas More, recognizable by his peaked cap.

Stained glass


The reredos is a curvaceous affair, rising up behind the altar and swelling up to the heavens, covered with a massive tile mosaic and lit from above by three circular skylights.



Stained glass and details

I am particularly fond of the designs on the window recesses, a melding of abstract shapes and symbolic imagery, and the aggressively whimsical font used on the text.


Plenty of little period details enliven the rest of the building, as well, such as the holy water basin in the lobby.


The baptistry gates are another high point, loaded with abstracted imagery.


A tiled holy dove is emblazoned on the ceiling of the entry canopy, whose tapered columns dissolve seamlessly into the ceiling.


The same tile pattern carries all the way around the building’s exterior.


During one visit I was gently greeted by an aged priest; during another, two older women were raptly offering alternating Hail Marys in the sanctuary.  I did not visit during services and so have no notions about the congregation’s size or health, though the school closing obviously speaks to changing local demographics – likely a home-owning population that’s aging in place while their children have moved elsewhere. Regardless, the church building and its harmonious ancillary buildings are one of the area’s best Mid-Century religious complexes, intact and well-maintained to this day.

Chicago Mid-Century: St. Cornelius Catholic Church

St. Cornelius Church

St. Cornelius Church forms a dramatic intrusion into the residential buildings along western Foster Avenue. Though the building sits at 5420 W. Foster Avenue, the parish – founded in 1925 – has roots on an adjacent site at 5205 Lieb. After a school expansion, dramatic overcrowding prompted planning to begin for a new church building in 1962, along with a parking lot on a lot just to the east. The cornerstone was laid in 1964, and the building was dedicated in June 1965. IMG_3967


Spacious and airy, St. Cornelius seats 1100 in its sanctuary.  Lannon stone forms a base, while plain plaster walls and ceilings rise above. It is an extremely plain space – decoration is spare and strategic, limited primarily to the elaborate lamp fixtures, a spectacular tile mosaic behind the altar, thin ribbons of stained glass, and a stylized baldachin over the altar.

St. Cornelius Church


The stained glass is modernistic and mostly abstract, flecked with fishes, sheaths of wheat, and other Christian symbols.

St. Cornelius Church

St. Cornelius Church


The baptistery gate is an abstrct Modernist form.

St. Cornelius Church


The stations of the cross are stylized but literal.



St. Cornelius Church



Sited at the head of  N. Lotus Avenue, St. Cornelius strikes an impressive profile when seen from the south. The main window is flanked by statues of Saint Cornelius (an early Pope from circa 250 AD) and Saint Peter, and glows handsomely when the sanctuary is in use at night.IMG_3915a

St. Cornelius Church – official site

Compare & contrast: St. Louis’s Joan of Arc Catholic Church

Chicago Mid-Century Modern: St. Lambert Catholic Church

Tucked away among the unassuming residential side streets of Skokie is the startlingly modern building of St. Lambert Church (architect Frank Polito, 1960.)IMG_0613

There is plenty of Mid-Century Modern in Skokie, but most of it is not on this level. St. Lambert is highly decorated and heavily stylized, inside and out. IMG_0899a

The lobby, for example, has stained glass doors and windows (with patterns unique to this part of the building), walls of red Roman brick, and  exuberant patterns of floor tile.  Stylized stainless steel railings and free-floating steps take visitors up and down, while built-in planters bring the indoors into the building.



This beautiful textured glass window separates the lobby from the sanctuary.


The sanctuary is large and open, with arched wood laminate beams creating a space with no columns. Behind the altar is a striking wall flecked with diamond-shaped windows, infilled with faceted stained glass.






St. Lambert Parish was founded in 1951, and work on the building complex began in 1952 with what is now the school building. The cornerstone was laid on November 9. This first building was designed by architects Pirola & Erbach. The school closed in 2003, just shy of its 50th anniversary, due to dropping enrollment.

The main church building dates from 1960 and was dedicated in June 1961. Today the congregation has a large Filipino presence.

IMG_0869aThe colors, materials, the grid of geometric windows, and the suburban side street location all give St. Lambert a kinship with Milwaukee’s Holy Family Catholic Church.

Architect Frank F. Polito (1908-1967) was in practice from the mid-1930s until his death, working from an office on Michigan Avenue until 1938, then from the Mather Tower and finally from Lincolnwood. Among his other works are a Moderne 2-flat apartment at Asbury & Isabella in Evanston, several single-family homes in a variety of styles including a dozen on Chilton Lane in Wilmette,  the International Style Woodbine School in Cicero, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran in Niles (done in a style similar to that of Charles Stade),  and St. Anne’s Church in Berryville, Arkansas.

Chicago Mid-Century Modern: St. John Vianney Parish, Northlake


When I sat down to write this post, I discovered that I had no photographs of this church’s front facade (probably because crossing Wolf Road on foot to get them would entail taking my life into my hands.) Fortunately, the Church fathers saw fit to leave this lovely model of the building on display inside it.

The building of St. John Vianney Church (46 N. Wolf Road, Northlake) was begun in 1962, to the designs of architect Joseph W. Bagnuolo (1908-1996). The firm would also design the tile murals within. Seen from the air, the building is shaped like a fish, a common Christian symbol. Concrete panels with aquamarine stone and quartz embedded in them act as “scales” to continue the metaphor.




Inside, the sanctuary is an unbroken space, with side aisles separated by a sharp change in ceiling height.


Two giant stained glass windows dominate each end of the sanctuary. There are abstract faceted glass patterns on the side windows, but the bulk of the windows are flat glass.




The altar is in the center of the sanctuary, illuminated from above by a round skylight. The design is a “church in the round” approach based on the post-Vatican II updates of the Catholic liturgy.


The walls carry 150-foot long tile mosaic murals, depicting seven sacraments,  seven miracles, and the life of Christ.




Details small and large enhance the period feel of this church. These elegant light fixtures give style and panache to an ordinary stairwell, and the handsome door paddles below are a grace note as one enters the building.


The baptistry is a separate round structure connected by a small hallway. Articulated brick patterns give it an additional dose of 1960s pizazz.


A rare bird: the Art Deco church

One day last summer I was looking at a map of the city, looking for places I hadn’t been.  I realized I couldn’t remember ever venturing west on Irving Park, so, off I went.

I saw lots of neat stuff, including beautiful Portage Park, but the king find was St. Pascal’s Church, a 1930 Catholic structure which was a bit of a jackpot for me.




There is a paucity of Art Deco churches in general. I know of two in St. Louis, and perhaps half a dozen in Chicago, and I am still looking for one that carries the style all the way into the interior. St. Pascal’s is no exception; despite all those geometric details on the outside, the inside is pure Mission Style.



St. Pascal’s is a close stylistic relative of St. Joseph’s, the church in Wilmette that I covered previously. Both are tall and massive, with a shallow carved entry cove, bearing a massive cross with a rose window behind it.


Other examples:

St. Ferdinand, 5900 W. Barry Avenue, out west near Belmont Avenue, filters Art Deco through a 1950s Midcentury prism:

Designed by Barry & Kay in 1955, this building is an amazingly simple collection of powerful geometric forms, overlapping and rising. Construction began in 1956 and the building was dedicated in 1959. It was noted for being air conditioned, and for an underground tunnel connecting it to the rectory (no doubt a cherished feature in the dead of winter.)


Then, there is Hyde Park’s St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church – 1929, Barry Byrne, architect.


St. Thomas is one of the city’s most outlandish churches, mishmash of styles and influences that defies exact classification. I mention it here in conjunction with Art Deco churches – but it could just as easily stand alongside Byzantine or Spanish Baroque Revival.

Inside, it’s surprisingly restrained – the closest thing I’ve yet seen to an Art Deco styled religious interior.



Outside, brick and terra cotta run wildly amuck.



And finally, Andrew Rebori’s spectacular Madonna Della Strada chapel at Loyola University, opened in 1938,  is the most unambiguously Art Deco example – perhaps the only one, in fact.

Madonna della Strada Chapel

The Madonna della Strada (“Our Lady of the Wayside”) chapel was the dream and brainchild of Father James P. Mertz, who wanted a chapel honoring the patroness of travelers – such as young college students far from home. Father Mertz raised the money to fund the construction of the building’s shell, then continued the work of gathering materials to fit out the interior for another decade.

Loyola University Chicago

Compared to the radically sculpted exterior, the interior seems a bit tame, particularly the traditional-styled artwork and stained glass –  but it’s still sumptuous in materials, with curved forms that echo the Art Deco style, and full of surprising little details. Dozens of marbles from around the world give the interior a lavish finish.





When the chapel was built, the assumption was that Lake Shore Drive would soon be extended further northward. As a result, the “front” faces the lake, whose waters are only a few feet away.



Emil Frei in Chicago

Before you read this post: if you have not gone through my Emil Frei stained glass tour at Built St. Louis, stop reading and do so right now. It is essentially this post, but 30 times as big and way better.

Once that’s out of the way –

Over the past hundred years or so, the St. Louis-based Emil Frei Stained Glass studio has designed and built windows for thousands of churches around the US. Dozens upon dozens of their Mid-Century works dot the St. Louis area, and they are common throughout the Midwest – but the company never made major inroads to the Chicago market. The Chicago area work of the Frei company is simply not enough to represent their styles well, but it does make an interesting side note to their work in St. Louis.

I would speculate that strong competition from local companies like the Willet Studio kept them from gaining a strong foothold here. Stylistic tastes may also have played a role. The Frei atelier produced Art Deco- and Surrealist-influenced flat glass windows of great subtlety and abstraction; the Chicago market tended to prefer a bolder, brawnier and more literal approach, best seen in the prolific faceted glass windows of Chicagoland churches. The Frei studio was actually instrumental in the development of the faceted glass window style (aka “chunk glass”), and carried out a number of commissions in the medium, but it was something of a side note for the studio, compared to their flat glass output.

I know of only two major Frei commissions in the area – the sisters’  chapel at the  Wheaton Franciscan Sisters Motherhouse, and the Oak Park Temple Synagogue on Harlem Avenue. So far I have not managed to photograph either one, though I remain hopeful that will change.


The windows at Oak Park Temple were designed by Rodney Winfield, and appear to share similarities with his contemporary design for Shaare Zedek Synagogue in suburban St. Louis.

I have photographed three other commissions, however:

St. Xavier University Library
“The Spirit Will Teach You All Things” is a (relatively) rare faceted glass installation by the Frei company. The design was done by Robert Frei and installed in 1957, as  a gift from then-mayor Richard J. Daley.  The design symbolizes a bird in flight – the Holy Dove, and the spirit of learning.



St. Rita of Cascia Church


St. Rita Catholic Church was designed by architect Arthur F. Moratz of Bloomington, a prolific church architect. St. Rita’s was begun in 1948 and finished in 1950. Standing on 63rd Street, the building was built around an existing church on the site, so services could continue uninterrupted.  The church sanctuary is a high, huge space, with Romanesque vaulting and clean, crisp detailing.


The Rose windows (three total) feature abstract detailing and symbols which typify the Frei company’s work:


Details in other windows include wheat sprouts representing the bread portion of the Eucharist:

The offset lettering pictured below is another Frei device; artists like Robert Harmon frequently used stylized and highly decorative fonts as part of their compositions:


The style used on St. Rita’s entry doors is unique. On white frosted glass, black silhouettes are painted and baked on, representing “the mysteries of the Rosary”. Curiously, the paint appears red from the outside.



The triangular grape bunches were my first clue that this might be a Frei church – they are an extremely common device.


St. Clare of Montefalco


St. Clare is a modest little Catholic church on 53rd Street, with a cornerstone dating it to 1954. Its windows are humble and not especially distinguished, but still bear some of the Frei studio’s hallmarks – including a recurrence of the black-etched silhouette designs from St. Rita.



The primary figures are done in a traditional literal style, but the lettering and the multi-shaded background glass hints at the window’s more contemporary vintage.


The antiqued glass features bubbles and irregularities included to add texture. As with St. Rita’s, the wheat and grapes symbolize the Eucharist.


Church of St. Luke

Inner city Chicago is not the best place to hunt for grand Mid-Century architectural statements. Nonetheless, at 1500 W. Belmont, just east of Ashland, you’ll find one of the region’s most fantastic post-war churches.


Ground was broken for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Luke in April 1959 after two years of planning, and the building – designed by Chicago architect Charles A. Stahl – was dedicated in October 1960.

The St. Luke campus has a complicated history. The congregation has met at this location since its founding in 1884, originally in a fairly stock brick Gothic building with a central tower. In 1905, a new school building was erected next door. Though the school building retained its original facade when the new sanctuary went up, subsequent additions and alterations have rendered it almost unrecognizable.1.

The 1950s church bears what might be a trace of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ubiquitous influence – but St. Luke is indisputably a vertical building – soaring as any Gothic cathedral, tall and narrow within. Long wood laminate beams rise straight up, turning at their top to support the shallow gabled ceiling.


The choir loft is a balcony in the form of a bridge at the rear of the sanctuary, spanning between the walls and supported only on the sides. This enables the back of the sanctuary, behind the balcony, to function as a grand foyer, connected to the main space but somewhat separated from it as well. This foyer space is as tall as the main sanctuary.




A second balcony functions as the children’s choir loft; it is a small room on the west side of the sanctuary overlooking the altar.

The Church of St. Luke is wonderfully artful – literally. The congregation holds a substantial art collection – and the sanctuary features both permanent and seasonally rotating elements that complement and enhance the space. Some of the more permanent elements are shown below.







Stained glass

The stained glass is strategically concentrated. A grand burst of rising waves of color emerges from behind the altar at the head of the sanctuary, bringing the space to its dramatic climax.

At the back of the church, facing south onto Belmont, the corners of the building are wrapped by tall, narrow windows with biblical and saintly symbols with two vines making their way sinuously skyward.

Stained glass


I have not found any notes on who designed or installed the stained glass – not even a signature.

An interesting postscript – the preliminary design of the church was much less ambitious, as shown in an illustration from the Chicago Tribune of March 10, 1957:


Between concept and execution, the tower was joined to the sanctuary (and now contains the stairwell leading to the balcony, as well as some dressing and storage rooms for the choir). The overall design became more sharply vertical, the materials of the shield wall in front changed from flat panels to rough-faced stone masonry, and the large text was dropped.