United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park has held down the corner of 53rd and S. Blackstone since 1889, with a congregational history that goes back even further. Architecturally and historically, there is much to say about this venerable church building.

On the outside, the church is not that different from any of the dozens of gray stone church structures that dot the Chicago landscape. It is a free interpretation of the Romanesque style, adapted to an urban corner site and dressed up with touches of French Gothic. Round arched windows, round engaged columns, thin bands of organic ornament, and shear stone walls that rise up without setback or articulation put it in the same vein as Sullivan’s Auditorium Building and HH Richardson’s Glesner House, both close contemporaries.

The church responds handsomely to its corner site, placing the main entrance on the corner and marking it with the bell tower. The current tower roof is a sadly simplified replacement for the elaborate original (see a photo on the Hyde Park Historical Society newsletter); a plain copper panel testifies to the engaged micro-turret which once ran up into the tower’s upper level, today shorn off at the masonry line.

United Church of Hyde Park

Inside, the sanctuary is a surreal departure from the steady American-grown Romanesque exterior. A flat ceiling marked by curving, looping plasterwork and an Egyptianesque colonnade around the perimeter of the sanctuary tell of a space that has been radically changed from its original configuration.

United Church of Hyde Park

Per the church’s own website, the church has roots going back to the earliest days of Hyde Park, beginning as a meeting of residents around 1858 and eventually organizing as the First Presbyterian Church of Hyde Park in 1860. Moving from their original site a few blocks east, the congregation put up a conventional French Gothic stone building at 53rd and Blackstone in 1869.  It was soon too small for the growing congregation, and was replaced by the current structure – erected in 1889 to the designs of architect Gregory A. Vigeant. 

A 1923 remodeling significantly altered the interior, bringing it to its current form. Additions to the space included the balcony, the colonnade, and new flooring to work with the church’s Skinner organ. I would also assume that this is when the flat ceiling was added, as Victorian churches unfailingly went for the more dramatic effects of  exposed wood structure and high pitched ceilings that followed the exterior roof. The whole thing comes together as a sort of surreal Spanish Romanesque fantasy.

United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park

The ceiling dome is a particularly curious specimen. Because the flat ceiling so dramatically lowers the ceiling height, the dome is actually deeply sunken within the roof structure. Above, there is presumably a column of empty enclosed space, originally topped by a skylight; today the skylight is gone or blacked out, and fluorescent bulbs light the dome from above.

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The stained glass in the sanctuary is unique – an Impressionistic assortment of hues ranging from clear through murky greens and sunset purples, all rendered in overlapping fish scales of glass. The style adds a distinctly Shingle Style air to a church that is already pulled in several other architectural directions.

United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park

The congregation merged with that of Hyde Park Congregational Church in 1930, and with Hyde Park Methodist Church in 1970 amidst a radically changed neighborhood. Today it’s an integrated, open congregation that strongly reflects the progressive influences of nearby University of Chicago.

United Church of Hyde Park

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Structural Gymnastics in Wood

America, in my opinion at least, has had two golden eras of church building.

One was the Modernist decades, from the late 1940s into the late 1960s. It was driven by the freedom to design new forms and shapes, to play with light and pure geometrical spaces. It came accompanied by its own decorative elements and ornamental style, including its own genre of stained glass, but its defining aspect was the uniqueness of each building as an individualistic composition. I’ve written about many examples from this period, and have many more still to share.

The other began after the Civil War and reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s. The Gothic style set the tone, supplanting the moribund Greek Classicism that America had long clung to**. Chicago is rich in surviving examples from this movement.

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Central-plan churches were the greatest creations of this movement. The switch away from a long, linear church to one where the congregation is arranged circularly around the pulpit created a new type of space. New possibilities arose as iron and steel came into play. Heavy wood timbers rose and soared, accented by carvings, iron fastenings, and decorative details.

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Stained glass in earthy tones of greens and yellows, influenced by the rising Arts and Crafts movement, painted the interiors in subdued, serene light. Unlike fussy Classical churches, where every surface was covered in decorative murals or painted patterns, these grand, sublime buildings needed no ornament. The space, and the structural gymnastics at play, are the entire show. And Chicago is as good a place to witness this remarkable era as any.

Ravenswood Methodist Episcopal Church

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4501 N. Hermitage, Ravenswood
Architect: John S. Woollacott, 1890

The Poor Man's Fisheye Lens

On the outside, straight-up walls, rough-faced masonry, and rounded arch windows characterize this Romanesque style building. Inside, the sanctuary is a square space laid out with curving pews that bring congregants close to the pulpit. The space is a beautiful study in contrasts – plain white walls with spots of ornamental detailing, against a heavy, massive wood ceiling supported by great wood beams. The curving elements are false hammerbeams, possibly non-structural (in a true hammerbeam arrangement, the arch would support a horizontal beam, and a vertical post would spring from the end of the arch, allowing a longer roof beam to be composed of multiple pieces of timber.)  Above them are tie beams, upon which rest a hornet’s nest of wood elements.

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As with the hammerbeams, it’s not clear which if any of the elements are structural and which are purely decorative. The thin size suggests there might be iron tie rods under those round spindles, pulling the two sides of the truss together.   The stained glass was pre-existing, with the new windows designed to accommodate it.

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Greater Union ME Baptist Church

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1956 W. Warren Blvd.
Architect: William LeBaron Jenney, 1885<

Even from the outside, the stained glass on this Romanesque church is utterly spectacular.  Within, it glows, shimmers and twinkles with a thousand rich colors.

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The wood ceiling beams are no less impressive, with A-frame beams meeting and crossing in the center of the space, decorated with inverted finials and a grid of thin timbers above the tie beams. The crossing, where the church’s gable roofs meet, is a simple intersection of these elements.

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As with Ravenswood Methodist, the squared space and round pews serve to pull the congregation into closer proximity – to the pastor, and to each other.

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First Congregational Baptist Church

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1613 W. Washington Boulevard
Architect: Gurdon P. Randall, 1871
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A French Gothic church very nearly in the round, with balconies running nearly all the way around the sanctuary. Architect Gurdon Randall is credited as the originator of this style of planning, first built here and widely utilized around the nation in the following two decades. The white painted plaster ceiling shows off the dark wood ceiling beams well.

The wood beams are heavily ornamented, but their structural role seems very simple – nearly plain beams with a small scissor truss element at the top, nearly buried in non-structural ornament. Small wood arches create a place for the trusses to land on the walls, visually if not structurally.

Comparing the inside ceiling slope to the exterior roof pitch reveals that this is a false ceiling with considerable enclosed space above it; the church’s site confirms there is a 20 foot high attic space above.

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Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church

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600 W. Fullerton Parkway, Lakeview
Architect: John S. Woollacott, 1888

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Designed by the same architect as Ravenswood Methodist, in the Richardsonian Romanesque style on the outside. Inside, the ceiling structure includes a tangle of false hammerbeams near the base of the roof beams, with kingpost trusses near the roof peak. The kingpost is the vertical beam at the center of the truss – it hangs from the peak, and helps support the cross-beam member below it. The cross-beam is tied in to the ends of the roof beams, and pulls them together so they don’t push the walls outward.

The structural complexity reaches its fantastic climax at the center of the space, where the two kingpost trusses cross through each other:

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The stained glass, meanwhile, has much in common with other churches of the era. Patterns of color are used as much as images, reinforced by jeweled glass ornaments that throw slivers of sunlight into the space.

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Church of Our Savior Episcopal

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530 W. Fullerton Parkway, Lakeview
Architect: Clinton J. Warren, 1888

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The 4-panel scissor truss structure here might appear simple at a glance due to the straight members, but it’s probably the most complex beam system of all these churches. A series of horizontal and vertical web members complicate the wood connections, while the lower beams actually pass through the upper beams, projecting a bit beyond them to support the roof over a row of clerestory windows.

The finest space in the church is the least accessed – the balcony, occupied only by the organist and choir, is flooded with colored light on sunny days. It also makes it the warmest space in the church – several fans were going when I visited. But the light was breathtaking.

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For more churches of this era, see: Suburban in Their Day.

The structural picture painted by these visible wood beams isn’t the whole story. First Congregational Baptist, for example, has considerable augmentation to its structure above the false ceiling. Iron tie-rods were commonly used during this era as an affordable way to keep trusses from pushing horizontally on the walls, allowing the walls of neo-Gothic churches to be built without the massive and complex stone buttresses that vintage Gothic churches required; however, not a trace of iron is visible in these sanctuaries – suggesting it was hidden beneath wood veneer or between joined beams. Nevertheless, these fantastic flying beams still say a lot about the tremendous weights and forces at work in the roof of any great space – a story too often hidden in Classical style churches.

** I don’t HATE Classical (eg Greek Revival) style, but I definitely find it boring, stodgy, pompous, stifling and unoriginal when compared to the freeing expressiveness of Neo Gothic and the various Romanticist styles that flowed out of it, including the Romanesque. The overwhelming popularity of Classicism remains a continual source of bafflement to me; I tend to feel that once you’ve seen one faux Greek temple bank/church/funeral home/whatever, you’ve seen ’em all – while the Gothic church unfolds in endless variety.

The Trail of Churches, Part 4 – St. Mary of the Angels Church

It’s one of Chicago’s most mind-blowing sights – a huge, ornate church with a mighty dome, looking over the freeway, half-glimpsed as one battles through inbound traffic on the Kennedy Expressway.P6233747a

Pity the poor traveler who has never sought out this imposing religious edifice! This is St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, and it is among Chicago’s greatest architectural glories.

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Among the Polish churches in this sector of the city, it stands out as the most monumental, the most elaborate in form, and the most fully realized as a work of architecture.

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The Beaux Arts influence on the front portico is clear – with its grand staircase, massive twinned Corinthian columns, huge doorways, balustraded roof and central terra cotta heraldic ornament, it could easily be a snippet of Pennsylvania Station transported to Bucktown.

Moving around, however, the influences become less singular. The dome is clearly influenced by St. Peter’s in Rome, but what of those outsize porthole windows? Second Empire, or some Edwardian era flight of fancy? Certainly the square vaults capping the side aisles are not like anything in the Vatican.

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Regardless, these components make St. Mary of the Angels much more of a building in the round than its predecessors to the south. The other churches we’ve seen feature a highly decorative facade, but are essentially brick warehouses in the back – unelaborated in form or material.  St. Mary, by contrast, doesn’t have a bad side – a fact driven perhaps by its double-corner location, which guaranteed that three sides would always be exposed to full view.

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Inside, the church also marks a departure from the earlier Polish churches. It still draws on the same influences, with abundant Roman arches and Greek capitals, painted and stencilled and muraled to glorious excess.

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To the casual fan – myself included at times – the architecture of pre-war churches can all start to seem the same after a while. But they are not – some are fundamentally different than others, and St. Mary of the Angels is a fine case in point.

While churches like St. John Cantius and Holy Trinity focused on ever-larger open spaces, with thinner and thinner supports, St. Mary of the Angels seems to take an intentional step back.  The enclosed space under its roof is enormous,  but it is divided in a way that our other three subjects were not.

The primary spaces of the sanctuary seem less concerned with pushing the limits of architectural technology; the arched columns and smaller side aisles create layers to the sanctuary space. They also allow more room for mystery and shadow than the gargantuan spaces of the earlier churches. Brightly illuminated above, the ground level of St. Mary still allows for intrigue and beautiful solitude.

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Behind the main arches are smaller arches that define the side aisles; centered in each smaller arch, a window.  Those curious square vaults cover parts of the side aisles, illuminating them from above with round porthole windows.

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St. Mary of the Angels can seem somewhat conventional in its decoration. In this sense, it pushes no boundaries, and has none of the calculated awkwardness that makes Victorian churches so endearing. But by the same token, it is the most unified, its decoration seeming all of a piece, a complete entity.

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By way of history – St. Mary of the Angels was designed by the architecture firm of Worthmann & Steinbach, with ground broken in 1914 and dedication in 1920.  The paintings and stencils were done in 1948.

Like its brethren, St. Mary suffered heavy losses as neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the Kennedy. Closed in 1988, it was officially marked for demolition – an announcement that came only a week after Holy Name was similarly marked for razing – until its own parishioners rose up in opposition. Two years of grassroots fundraising followed, gathering the money needed for restoration of the building, which occurred from 1991 to 1999. Since then, the number of families in the parish has increased, and the church’s future seems brighter.

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A more recent restoration of the dome was completed in 2011, following another fundraising campaign.
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Thanks to the tireless efforts of its congregation, St. Mary of the Angels continues to be one of Chicago’s greatest neighborhood landmarks.

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The Trail of Churches, Part 3 – St. Stanislaus Kostka Church

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Exuberantly ornamented, overloaded with articulation, the gangly, delightful facade of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church has loomed over its stretch of Noble Street for over 140 years – predating even Pulaski Park across the street.

St. Stanislaus is the Polish mother church of Chicago, the one from which all others sprang. Designed by prolific Catholic architect Patrick Keeley (also responsible for Holy Name and the endangered St. James), the building was begun in 1876 and dedicated five years later.

The towers were completed in 1892 and were originally identical.  In June of 1964, a massive storm roared through Chicagoland; lightning hit the southern tower and started a fire which destroyed the cupola. The surviving northern cupola has also been “modernized”, losing a slathering of decorative trim, to detrimental effect.

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But on the facade, a blizzard of stone and brick ornament remains, a festively overwrought assemblage repeatedly referred to as “Renaissance style” in the press, though the name – like “Victorian” – refers to a time period rather than a style. St. Stanislaus is such an individualistic creation that it’s difficult to pin a single name on its style. The stair-step facade, however, is a distinctly Flemish element.

The exuberant facade conceals a more disciplined space within.

Different styles of church sanctuaries create different effects for their inhabitants. The round and square plan designs of the 1880s were meant to bring the congregation more closely together, enhancing spirituality by building community – Lake View Presbyterian is a fine example.  Post-Victorian efforts like Holy Trinity are intended to overawe – to glorify God through size, ornament and decoration.  And the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe brought a sense of mystery and wonder to the worship space, through their towering height, the mystical light filtered through their vast stained glass windows, and the contrast of light and shadow. Large but not enormous, tall but not overpowering,  St. Stanislaus lies somewhere between the Gothics and the Holy Trinities of the world.

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Not as soaring as St. John Cantius, nor as gigantic and open as Holy Trinity, St. Stanislaus instead offers a refined and measured space. The rows of columns elegantly define the side aisles. The lighting fixtures appear to be original, and much about the church seems unchanged since days of yore.IMG_5257a

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The pews are the most characteristic of the church’s Victorian roots, with piston-like carvings on their sides reflecting the rising machine age.

The altar table and reredos are certainly modern innovations.

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St. Stanislaus was endangered by the construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the 1950s, but a tide of protest – and an alternate route of the freeway that proved to be cheaper – spared it. Today the Interstate actually curves around the building’s back.

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Today the church offers mass in Polish, Spanish and English. As a home for Eucharistic adoration, it is open for much of the week – making it one of the most accessible of Chicago’s grand churches.

St. Stanislaus Kostka at Wikipedia

The Trail of Churches, Part 2 – Holy Trinity Polish Catholic Church

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Every member of the Trail of Churches is big. But the biggest of all is Holy Trinity Church, 1118 N Noble Street.

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Behind that elaborate facade lies a vast sanctuary, clear of any interior columns but over loaded with ornament.

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Despite its many glories, it is sheer size that must be counted as Holy Trinity’s crowning attribute. Free of interior columns, a hundred feet wide and almost twice as long, the sanctuary seems incredibly vast.  The architecture acknowledges this break with the traditional cathedral form, with a wink and a nudge – truncated column heads and arches drop down from the ceiling, placed about where a row of columns would normally be… but they end in the air, supported by nothing but the hidden iron vaulting above.

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Murals cover all the major ceiling sections:
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The two largest side chapels are architecturally integrated into the building – they sit above the sanctuary’s side entrances, and must be reached by stairs.
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No one style dominates. The arch above the altar is Romanesque. The guilding is Baroque. The reredos features pointed Gothic arches. The column heads are Greek Ionic.

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Wikipedia gives a far more complete history than I could hope to, but the essentials are thus: the parish began as an offshoot of St. Stanislaus Kostka, just up the street. Originally considered an overflow component of that parish, it was finally recognized as a separate parish in 1892 after a protracted feud with the mother parish. Over thirty years after splitting off, they began a new church building, designed by architects Herman Olszewski and William Krieg, and opened in 1906. Decorations, murals, and stained glass were added one at a time over the following decades.

The spat with St. Stanislaus Kostka – relating to property ownership, assignment of priests, and various other issues – was well documented in papers of the time. With its resolution, the 1905 cornerstone laying was a grand affair, keynoted by the Pope’s delegate to Polish American churches and attended by a reported 50,000 Poles. The dedication of the finished building a year later was met with equal ceremony, with about 90 different Polish societies and organizations joining in a massive parade leading up to the new church.

In the modern era, the church followed the same arc of decay and renewal as St. John Cantius as congregants moved away and the Kennedy bashed its destructive path through the neighborhood. The parish faced closure in the mid-1980s but was granted a reprieve, to focus on operating as a “mission church” to new Polish immigrants. The comeback culminated in a 2005 restoration.  Today, Holy Trinity Church remains true to its roots – signs and services are mostly in Polish, as is the church’s official website.

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The Trail of Churches, Part 1 – St. John Cantius

One of my earliest impressions of Chicago, driving in from the north, was the string of grand churches visible from the Kennedy Expressway. I visited a few of them in my early explorations of the city. Then my attention wandered away, further afield to the mid-century suburbs and south side, and I never really got back to these near west side neighborhoods… until recently. Lately I’ve been on a mission to visit all these landmark houses of worship, a loose grouping that I have dubbed the Trail of Churches.  A glimpse from the Sears Tower should show why the name fits.

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At top-center, the domed roofline of St. Mary of the Angels. Below it, St. Stanislaus Kostka, with the highway swerving to avoid it.  At far left, the low twin towers of Holy Trinity Polish. (Not visible, but close to Holy Trinity are the abandoned St. Boniface, and the very much active Holy Innocents.)  And at bottom-center, just peeking into the frame, is the taller tower of St. John Cantius.

These four are among the city’s most spectacular religious buildings. Stick around and we’ll go on a tour of each one in turn. Today: St. John Cantius Catholic Church.


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St. John Cantius (1893, architect Adolphus Druiding) was raised by the huge community of Polish immigrants that populated the near west side. Petitioning the nearby mother church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, they were granted their own parish in 1892. The work of raising a church building began at once; the final product was dedicated in 1898, flanked by a contemporary school and rectory. (Ref)

After its booming early years, the parish followed an arc of decline and revival. The downturn began in the 1920s with Ogden Avenue’s construction through the area, and bottomed out in the 1960s after the Kennedy was rammed through the neighborhood and innumerable residents fled. Decline began to reverse in the 1980s with the reintroduction of more traditional Mass attracting new congregants; the church’s fortunes have reached a magnificent new peak today as the building was renovated and restored in 2012. Today the church offers the traditional (pre-Vatican II) Mass in Latin, and has a strong emphasis on sacred music and art.

Architecturally, St. John Cantius Church is a hybrid of styles. The massive, dour exterior combines Classical elements – such as a flattened Greek temple front  with quasi-Corinthian columns – with heavy, blocky stone that gives it some kinship with the Romanesque. At the entryway, “squashed” columns call out a lineage that includes ancient Greeks, Renaissance Italians, and contemporary Victorians. They emphasize the  sheer massiveness of the building – as if at any moment they might snap and bring the whole thing tumbling down. Their smooth shafts are a moment of machine-like precision bursting out of a mass of roughly split rock. This sort of perversity was common among Victorian architects, who delighted in twisting expectations.

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The interior lives up to the church’s official desigation of its style as “Baroque”. The modestly proportioned columms support pediments and seem a touch too large, intentionally “off” for dramatic effect. Huge arches spring from these dainty supports, a dazzling display of engineering.

Nearly every surface is gilded, sculpted, or painted.  In a lesser setting it might be gaudy – but here, the glory of the decoration simply matches the grandness of the space.

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The sanctuary is enormous. Soaring columns support vast round arches. The crossing is of tremendous proportions.  The overall effect is of a open, lofty, airy space – a welcome respite during Chicago winters, which can leave a city resident feeling perpetually imprisoned in the small rooms of their house or apartment.

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St. John Cantius is a golden space – it shimmers with browns and yellows, and blues and greens punctuate its murals and stenciling, but it is the golds which leave the deepest impression. The 2012 restoration has left the space in immaculate condition. Column heads and brackets are gilded in gold, and thanks to recent renovation efforts they gleam spectacularly.  Even the stain glass reinforces the golden hued tones.IMG_2201a

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The reredos behind the high altar is a Mannerist confection, with clustered columns supporting a split pediment with a rounded arch pediment in the middle. A small round skylight brings light down onto it from above.

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At the time of this writing, the old organ is being replaced by a new one; blue sheeting covers the balcony space where the new instrument will be installed.

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The church is heavily laden with statues of saints and apostles; they are tucked away in the various side chapels and even in the stairwells.

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The pulpit is a fine example of the church’s Baroque Revival style – its wooden stairs snake sensuously around a column, to an intricately carved wood speaker’s stand with an even more elaborate sounding board overhead.

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Together with its school (1903) and rectory (1901), St. John Cantius Catholic forms a grand and amazingly intact group of turn of the century architecture.

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St. Joseph Catholic Church, Wilmette

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A most imposing edifice, towering over the suburban houses and 2-story commercial buildings around it, stands at Lake and Ridge in western Wilmette. St. Joseph Church is that rarest of beasts, a church constructed during the lean years of the 1930s, a time when even the Catholic church slowed its building program.

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St. Joseph is unusually tall and imposing. Its most striking feature is the indented front entrance, which looms like a shallow cave sculpted out of a mountainside.

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The building is a mild update of traditional church styling. It’s historicist in bent, but the influence of Art Deco is inescapable. It’s nothing radical or stylized; the Deco is in the details.

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The tower, in particular, is faintly reminiscent of Bertram Goodhue’s 1922 capitol building for Nebraska.

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Inside, St. Joseph is clean and spare. Applied ornament is almost absent.

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Angular Deco details can be seen in the hanging lamps, the wall sconces, and the side aisle arches.

The style of the stained glass windows matches the building itself: leaning toward traditional, with inoffensively faint traces of Modernist influence, such as the geometric patterns bordering this window.

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St. Joseph was designed by McCarthy, Smith & Eppig, and dedicated in 1939.

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And a coda: Across the street, a beautiful associated school building harmonizes with the church’s style, and somehow fails to have the sun on it every single time I pass by.

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