A Visit to First Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church
I always loved the feeling of awe and pageantry I experienced in the Gothic churches I knew growing up, with their colorful stained glass and images.
by Dave Utech, CAC docent, class of 2003
But First Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church at 1301 N. LaSalle Dr. gives me the chance to appreciate a very different kind of church structure. Designed in 1968 by Edward Dart, the church feels intimate, warm and embracing without multicolored windows or other distractions. Instead, the curving walls of Chicago common brick seem to say, “You’re home.” The focus in this sanctuary is entirely on the centrality of the Word and Sacrament, the basis of Lutheran theology.
Dart’s intention for First Saint Paul’s was to create a “working church.” He invites the passerby to follow the curve of the beautiful, chocolate brown, brick exterior wall at LaSalle and Goethe to discover the entrance just around the corner. He uses an old technique of “compression and release” when the visitor passes through a vestibule, with a low ceiling before entering a light-filled sanctuary that rises dramatically over the altar. The effect is striking.
There’s a dynamic tension inside First Saint Paul’s. While it’s not obvious, the seating is asymmetrical, creating a sense that something is about to happen. The congregation has deep roots in Chicago and in the history of Lutheranism in America. The dynamism inside the church carries out to the nearby community, where the homeless are regularly fed by members of the church.
Edward Dart designed in a Modernist idiom throughout his career, collaborating on office buildings, a vertical shopping mall, and a university concert hall. I like the way he defended the application of Modernism to the design of churches when he told a church building committee, “Architecture has nothing to do with archeology.” First Saint Paul’s was the “modern” church on the 2016 edition of our annual Churches by Bus tour.