The very first MODERN building in Columbus, Indiana, is entering its 75th year. Currently in need of costly repairs and continued maintenance, its preservation will set the tone for the future of the "Mecca of Modernism's" aging wonders.
More on Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church on today's claass HAUS.
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Front facade of the First Christian Church, designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, a devotee of art nouveau architecture, and completed in 1942 in Columbus, a south-central Indiana city that has become a destination for fine art and architecture lovers. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016631803.
Opening its doors to parishioners in 1942, the First Christian Church of Columbus, Indiana, was radical. Radical for a small town in the Midwest, but also radical for the entire design orthodoxy of religious architecture. Designed by Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero, the First Christian Church marks a major shift from the typical adaptation of centuries-old church plans to an architecture of modern worship that spoke to a new time and place.
Saarinen's church became a model for American ecclesiastical architecture in the second half of the twentieth century. The building's influence is so pervasive that the progressive design is seemingly unremarkable today- its form echoed over and over again across the landscape. The church complex stands as a composition of simple rectangular blocks clad in limestone and buff-colored brick. Enhanced by textured surfaces and streamlined ornamentation, the stark, asymmetrical geometry of the complex expresses its materials, form, and function in an honest manner, earnestly embracing modernity with open arms.
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. First Christian Church, designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, a devotee of art nouveau architecture, and completed in 1942 in Columbus, a south-central Indiana city that has become a destination for fine art and architecture lovers. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016631800.
Celebrating 75 years this spring, the First Christian Church is beginning to show its age. A leaking skylight and aging masonry are just the first of many issues the congregation will encounter in preserving the historic house of worship (a 2014 report estimated repairs at $1 million.) In fact, over the next few decades, Columbus (which has no municipal preservation office) will face the complicated (and expensive) task of safeguarding the town's rich and nationally significant collection of modern icons.
Preserving modern architecture remains a controversial issue (religious structures can also be problematic), and the application of historic review and designation programs is hardly consistent when considering buildings and sites only fifty or sixty years old. Often fixated on the question of 'personal taste' or aesthetic value, communities all over the country struggle with how or why to preserve the wide array of modernist structures. But Columbus, with its unparalleled architectural inventory and historically progressive approach to design, could serve as a leader in the push for understanding and preserving modern landmarks.
In the midst of World War II, Eliel Saarinen designed a church in a small Indiana town that would forever change the face of religious architecture. As a monument to ecclesiastical modernism, First Christian Church now has the opportunity to lead a new era in preservation by promoting modernism's role in shaping our contemporary landscape.
Image at top:
Eero Saarinen Architect, Balthazar Korab, photographer. First Christian Church originally Tabernacle Church of Christ; Columbus, Indiana, 1939-42; Saarinen and Saarinen. Exterior. Columbus Indiana, [Between 1939 and 1942]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, krb2008000005.