Another 1960s hospital chapel

Mercy Hospital’s office tower is hard to miss when you’re flying along the stub of highway that collects 90, 94, and 55 and funnels them all onto Lake Shore Drive. It’s a decent bit of Onassis Modern, clean, spare and elegant.

Mercy Hospital

Within, it’s mostly hallways and offices and patient rooms, but a few bits stand out. Like any good 1960s hospital, it has a wonderful chapel.

Mercy Hospital

By itself, the chapel is a simple and solemn affair, but it’s dominated by two spectacular works of art.

Mercy Hospital chapel

Against the east window wall, a metal screen represents major events in the life of Jesus in abstracted form.

And in the front of the chapel, a purely abstract mosaic sculpture takes up the entire wall in an explosion of color, texture and material.

Mercy Hospital chapel

Mercy Hospital Chapel

Mercy Hospital chapel

Both works, along with at least one other sculpture in the hospital, are the creations of Nassio de Valencia, who finished them in 1967. In a rare show of respect for artistic curiosity, his hand-written notes explaining the works remain hanging in the chapel today, neatly framed, explaining that the mosaic sculpture is meant to capture in purely abstract form the mystery of the risen Christ, as well as drawing from the native arts of the artist’s home in Spain.

Mercy Hospital chapel

A few small details match the style of the window screen, such as the twin podiums and wall-mounted candelabras. Simple benches with leather seats capture the calming austerity of the place. It’s an altogether fitting mood for a hospital chapel.

Credit where credit’s due: I would likely never have thought to go looking for this place if the guys at Forgotten Chicago hadn’t idly suggested it.

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Northwestern University Chapel

The Alice S. Millar Chapel (Edward Gray Halstead, architect, for Jensen and Halstead) is a highly visible landmark in the north shore suburb of Evanston, standing at the point where Chicago Avenue splits off from Sheridan. Its front window of stained glass is illuminated from within, making the building a beacon as well as an architectural mountain.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

The building is unabashedly French Gothic on the outside, so it might come as a shock to find that it was completed in 1962, the very height of Chicago’s MidCentury modern boom.

Inside, one finds a spatially grand but comparatively unremarkable interior, most notable for its conflicting personality. There is no lavish Gothic ornament, no encrusted decoration, no mind-blowing accumulations of sculpture or articulation. Unwilling to admit its modern heritage, the building seems a bit ashamed of its historicist clothing, unwilling to go whole-hog with the neo-Neo-Gothic. Amid the carved wood pointed arches and curlie-cues can be found anomalous touches of Modernism, such as the strips of faceted stained glass in the lobby wall.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Millar Chapel, Northwestern University

One thing does make the chapel truly exceptional, however, and it’s staring you right in the face as you drive south on Sheridan Road. The stained glass windows are a masterpiece, and unlike any I’ve seen in Chicago.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

I am an unabashed fan of the MidCentury work that came out of St. Louis’s Emil Frei Studios. Their stable of artists created an interelated range of styles that took conventional Christian symbolism and broke it down, reinterpreted it, stirred it up, and let it explode onto window designs that are stunning portrayals of movement and feeling. By contrast, Chicago MidCentury stained glass is almost universally bold, bright, almost cartoonish, rarely abstract, and never subtle or ambiguous. I love it, make no mistake, but 1960s stained glass in Chicago is more likely to blow your mind through its enormity than its subtlety.

So it was a shock to walk into the Millar Chapel and discover that the brightly lit stained glass that motorists see on Sheridan was but a faint hint of what lay within (in fact, the front window’s artistry is actually obscured by the glaring lighting, which leaves parts of the window relatively dark and the rest unnaturally overlit. Adding injury to insult, the window is not visible at all from the inside of the chapel.)

Northwestern Chapel

Northwestern Chapel

This was not some weak historicist brew, nor was it the usual Technicolor style of Chicago Modernism. This was artistry on a level to rival the Frei Studio at their peak.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Within those traditional Gothic window frames seethes a cauldron of imagery and color, muted reds and greens and blues swirling and blending. Recognizable faces and bodies and shapes rise out of an abstract mix of shapes and lines. At the top of one window, a smiling sun watches over the cosmos. In another, the head of a cow floats in a bubble. An owl perches, an atom spins, the US Capitol Building looms, and human figures rise and fall to meet their unspecified fates. The meanings are obscure, eliciting thought and curiosity.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

The crowning glory is the rear wall of the chapel, where one of the building’s rare Modernist conceits occurs. The entire rear wall is a window, top to bottom stained glass.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Unsurprisingly, these windows were not the work of a Chicago artist, but of internationally renown designer Benoit Gilsoul, Belgian-born and operating out of New York City. The windows were fabricated and installed by Chicago’s Willett-Hauser Studios.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

St. Gertrude Church

St. Gertrude (9613 Schiller Boulevard, Franklin Park, west side) isn’t all that striking from the outside. It has bold massing and a strange hipped A-frame structure that makes it resemble a giant tent, but everything on the outside essentially exists to service the spaces inside.

St. Gertrude Church

And what spaces they are!

Sanctuary

Sanctuary

With its Flagrantly Fifties styling and decor, St. Gertrude has become one of my favorite local churches.

It’s not just decorative flash, either. The architects pull a pretty slick little trick with the side aisles. Though the walls are a solid mass descending from the ceiling, they suddenly stop about ten feet from the floor, leaving only slender tapered columns to hold up the towering height above. The openings allow the floor space to expand outward, where a solid wall of stained glass creates a beautiful space.

Side wall stained glass

Because so much visual and actual weight is crushing down on those columns, you kind of expect something similar to be happening with the side aisles. I stared at that stained glass side wall for a very long time, trying to figure out what held up the roof. Turns out the thicker window mullions are structural — there’s nothing above the ceiling, and no other columns anywhere.

As if that wasn’t enough, the balcony floats freely across the sanctuary, a bridge supported only at its ends, as seen in the sanctuary view at top.

Rear wall stained glass

The lovely stained glass was designed by Peter Recker for Conrad Schmit Studio. A cavalcade of Judgement Day images cascades down the rear wall of the sanctuary (and you can tell Recker is fighting against that grid of window mullions — look how Jesus’s head is located just off-center), but it’s the sidewalls that I love best, where light is filtered through a dazzling array of abstract color patterns.

Side wall stained glass

Recker also did the Stations of the Cross.

Station

Double trumpet lamps

The curved wall behind the crucifix bears a startling resemblance to the focal point in the chapel of St. Joseph Hospital, and sure enough, it’s by the same architecture firm, Belli & Belli, who were responsible for a lot of the most awesomely crazy Modernist buildings in Chicago and its suburbs.

Plenty of spaces beyond the sanctuary offer interest as well. The protruding wings contain foyer space and stairwells to the balcony. The stairs are floating masses of terrazzo, with stylized railings, rising alongside a wall flecked with a grid of small window openings. Elaborately worked iron gates stand nearby as well.

Balcony stair

The east wing contains the only real aberration in the building; a bathroom has been rather clumsily and awkwardly shoehorned into the end of the wing, complete with a false ceiling that one can look down on from the stairs. On the balance, it’s a minor complaint, though.

I love a lot of church buildings, but this is one of the few that keeps me going back again just to absorb its spaces and soak in its architectural glory.

Valparaiso Chapel

The exterior

From the flat lands of the exurban town of Valparaiso, Indiana, the Chapel of the Resurrection rises like a Gothic cathedral, soaring above its everyday surroundings. And a cathedral it is, in spirit if not fact.

The interior

Begun in 1956, the chapel is the masterwork of prolific Modernist Charles E. Stade (1923-1993). Stade’s practice was based in Park Ridge, Illinois, and produced hundreds of churches throughout Chicagoland and across the country. Locally, his numerous A-frame churches are easy to identify by their window walls of random colored cathedral glass; Immanuel Lutheran in Des Plaines is typical: modest but attractive, modern without extravegance.

But in Valparaiso University, Stade found a client with the funding to match his full lofty potential.

Stained glass wall

The chapel’s nave is the centerpiece, a towering cylinder of glass and light, rising nearly 100 feet to the top of its jagged roofline. Stained glass figures and patterns descend from the top and disappear below the floor. Their Cubist and Deco influences are echoed in the decoration of the altar table, as well as a mural near the chapel’s west entrance. Known as the Munderloh Windows, the glass was designed by Peter Dohmen Studios of Minnesota, who presumably designed the matching altar decoration and an exterior mural as well.

Altar and glass

Chapl of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

Chapl of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

Chapl of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

Beautiful, elegant, simple details suffuse the interior. The pulpit floats next to a curved wall of stone. Free-floating stone slabs form the steps leading up to it. Towering polished brass chandoliers decend from the ceiling. And the organ screen is a delicate screen of tracery in wood.

Midcentury confection

Chapl of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

Chapl of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

The nave and chancel are the main attractions, of course, but there’s more as well. Below the chancel, a far smaller chapel coontains similar details on a more intimate scale.

Ground floor chapel

At the building’s west end, a circular stairwell doubles as a symbolic baptistry, with delicate sculpture pouring down toward a fountain at the bottom.

Stairwell

Valparaiso is a surprisingly short drive from Chicago, an hour or less. I did not get the chance to explore the rest of the town, but this building alone made the detour well worth the while.

The interior

Links:

  • Official web site
  • 2006 newspaper article about the chapel

  • St. Gall Catholic Church

    St. Gall Catholic Church

    In 1956, this UFO of a building touched down at the busy intersection of 55th and Kedzie. It hovers there still today, a circular pie-slice of building fronted by a thin-shell concrete pod. Architects Pavlecic & Kovacevic designed a stridently Modern building, utterly free of historical associations in ornament or form.

    St. Gall Catholic Church

    The baptistery is a building within a building, a circular form rendered in glazed orange brick, inset with gold-finished crosses.

    St. Gall Catholic Church

    The stained glass is unobtrusively simple, not particularly groundbreaking, but adequately modern.

    St. Gall Catholic Church

    Quite a few ornate period details remain. Check out the mosaic-tiled baptismal font, the grid of screens behind the altar, and of course that fabulously Fifties glossy blue-green brick.

    St. Gall Catholic Church

    The Stations of the Cross are done in a more stylized fashion than the stained glass, more befitting this stridently jet age building.

    St. Gall Catholic Church

    St. Gall is a shouting punctuation amid all the background paragraphs of the neighborhoods east of Midway Airport.

    Link: A history of the church, with detailed information on this building, as part of a tour of church organs.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    I still remember the first time I saw Immaculate Conception Church (1963, 7211 W. Talcott Avenue.) We were hurrying out to O’Hare, southbound on Harlem to pick up the Interstate. Despite my attention being divided by dodging through traffic, my jaw dropped when I saw its looming cylinder of unbroken stained glass.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    It was immediately obvious that this building had a completely over-the-top case of Midcentury madness. It was More MidCentury Than Thou.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Some months later, I found time for a closer inspection. The details confirmed my original impressions. Top to bottom, this building pulled no punches. It used every MidCentury trick in the book.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Today, I finally got to go inside the building. Despite the grand setup, I was still blown away by the interior. The level of detail on the outside pales before the onslaught that awaits within.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    One enters the sanctuary by passing through the glass cylinder, and it is of course top-to-bottom stained glass, waves of bright color pouring in on arriving worshipers.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    The sanctuary itself is spatially plain, open and airy, but festooned with decoration and ornament.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Overhead, a series of false skylights filled with stained glass designs bring colored light in from above. More of the stained glass designs pour down the towering windows.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    One-inch glazed tile coats the columns, the walls, and the floor of the altar space. The pastor commented that he finds it a bit like being in a swimming pool. Be that as it may, I’ve never seen a swimming pool with polished-gold tile patterns!

    Remember those colored tiles on the outside? They aren’t just for decoration:

    Immaculate Conception Church

    If they look familiar, they should: colored glass block like this is a staple of the Chicago Midcentury style. So is the combo of cream-colored brick with baby blue highlighting patterns. Not only is Immaculate Conception a deliriously exuberant piece of Modernism, it’s also a localized design, in tune with the regional 1960s vernacular.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    The stained glass designs, by Chicago’s Michaudel Stained Glass Studio, are modern in their way. They lack the subtleties of an Emil Frei design, but the abstract patterns of flowing color, the drifting text, and the stylized figures all set the designs firmly apart from their Gothic and Renaissance antecedents. There is a cartoon-like punchiness to the designs; the windows are big and bold, loud and clear.

    Oh, and I guess I shouldn’t have said that nuclear explosions aren’t “standard church fare“, because, here you go!

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Immaculate Conception Church

    I’m still reeling from the visit. I could go again and again. In fact, if my DSLR camera ever gets out of the shop, I almost certainly will.

    Immaculate Conception Church

    Saint John Bosco Catholic Church

    I’m a sucker for a good Midcentury Modern church, especially if it’s really over-the-top. So when I learned that the guy who did the St. Joseph Hospital chapel (Edo J. Belli) had done a church on the west side, I knew I had to pay a visit.

    Saint John Bosco Church

    Repetition carries the day in this boxy building, as concrete piers with exposed aggregate march along, rounded at the bottom to emphasize the lightness of the wall, and infilled with faceted glass windows.

    Saint John Bosco Church - side door

    The most inviting entry is on the side, surmounted by a stained glass Christ and finished with tiny golden-bronze polished tile. Its massive round shape calls to mind “portal” more than “door”. Within, a massive statue greets arriving worshipers.

    Saint John Bosco Church - main foyer

    Of course, the view back toward the door is impressive as well.

    Saint John Bosco Church - side door

    Within, the sanctuary is utterly plain, the only ornament being the stained glass itself, its sunset hues and marching rhythm. I did not get long to explore; the service started just moments after I arrived (though people kept coming. I never saw so many people show up late for church. Seriously, five minutes after the service had begun, they were still streaming in the doors.)

    Saint John Bosco Church - sanctuary

    Saint John Bosco Church - side aisle

    I’m sad I couldn’t spend more time in the sanctuary, but it was still well worth the trip!