Upon being installed as the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Congregation, Rev. Flavel Bascom had initiated a series of anti-slavery lectures between December 1841 and May 1842. Not all of Bascom’s flock shared his radical abolitionist viewpoint, however, and the controversial talks seemed to be the spark needed by dissenters within the congregation to undertake the process of divorce. On May 5, 1842, just such a group of disaffected Presbyterians had met to organize a rival organization, that formally organized the Second Presbyterian Church on June 1 with the purpose of serving those who did not share Bascom’s activist views on abolition. By September 1842, they had erected a 40′ by 60′ frame building on the south side of Randolph, just east of Clark Street, only a block north of the parent congregation. The breakaway congregation grew at such a rate that its size soon approached that of its mother church, and as the First Presbyterian congregation began construction of its replacement building in 1847, the Second Presbyterians mounted a campaign later that year to build a comparably sized building not only as an obvious sign of maturity but also to give newly arrived members of the faith a real choice in picking a congregation in their newly-adopted hometown.
Van Osdel, by then the recognized resident master of the design and construction of church steeples, was logically approached and asked to provide a design for the new building to be located on a site that while, strictly speaking, could be considered within the Church Row along Washington Street, in fact actually broke the Protestant tradition of locating around the Public Square. The congregation had chosen a lakefront site on Wabash, not unlike what the Catholics had done with St. Mary’s Cathedral, that may not have been all that coincidental since the Catholics were only a block to the south.
The lot for the new building was the northeast corner of Washington and Wabash, adjacent to the southern end of Dearborn Park, affording the congregation an uninterrupted view of the lake. The location next to the park guaranteed that the new church would present a prominent image not only to those who traversed the park, but also to newcomers who approached the city from the lake.
As unorthodox as the choice of their site seemed to be, it soon became obvious that this highly opinionated congregation also wanted something different from the rest of Chicago’s churches in the design of their church building. Apparently, they rejected Van Osdel’s initial design (that most likely was another variation of his by then tried-and-true scheme of a Greek temple front with a central tower) and instead turned to an out-of-towner for the design. Evidently this congregation felt it needed to emphasize that it was different not only from the First Presbyterian Church, but also from the rest of Chicago’s Christian establishment as well. In order to successfully make such a statement, the congregation’s leaders must have felt the necessity for hiring the nation’s leading proponent of the newly emerging style of the Gothic Revival, James B. Renwick of New York City.
Renwick produced what was generally agreed to be “the most imposing and inviting church edifice in the city.” Respecting the context and the proportions of the lot, he placed the main entrance on Wabash, marking the corner of the site with a 164′ high tower (this was exactly one foot taller than that of the First Presbyterian Church). This was just one of a number of deviations from the traditional Chicago Greco-Roman Revival church as it resulted in the characteristic Neo-Gothic asymmetric composition, for at the opposite corner the facade was flanked by only a 64′ high steeple. The site must have proved to be an enigma for Renwick, for while the placement of the main entrance on Wabash was a sensible decision that responded to the center of town, to the existing Church Row three blocks to the west, and to the prevailing traffic patterns, the potentially even more important view of the building from the park and from the lake would, therefore, have traditionally been the rear of the church. Renwick responded by placing another entrance on the east facade, thereby imparting at least the appearance of a front, rather than the rear of the building from this vantage point.
Equally departing from Chicago tradition was the use of stone, rather than brick, for the church’s exterior. If for no other reason, stone’s heavy weight had limited its use as a construction material in the early days of Chicago because it could normally only be transported in the winter, because the roads were so muddy during the rest of the year that stone could be transported only by sleighs when the roads were frozen. By this time, however, stone had become more available in the Chicago area and, therefore, less expensive to use. Central to the increased availability of stone had been the digging of the I&M Canal, that had uncovered at two locations, Lemont and Athens, an indigenous limestone in 1846 suitable for building (hence, its local nickname: “Athenian marble”). The use of this stone had been facilitated by the steam-powered stone saw as well as by the quicker and cheaper transportation of the canal itself. These local quarries were, at first, not capable of producing the large quantity of dressed stone needed to clothe the exterior of a building, however, so the local stone was initially reserved solely for the foundations of the city’s larger structures.
In contrast to the spartan quality of the First Presbyterian Church, the leaders of the off-shoot congregation decided to spare no expense. A local limestone from a newly opened quarry in the area was chosen that serendipitously contained small deposits of bitumen. Once in place and exposed to the heat of the sun, the bitumen softened and slowly oozed down the walls of the building, imparting an instant patina to the church. This not only reinforced the “ancient and unique appearance” of Renwick’s Gothic Revival design, but also made “the Spotted Church” a must stop for visiting sightseers. On January 24, 1852, members walked into their new Second Presbyterian Church for the dedication of its trend-setting building. Adding salt to the wounds already suffered by the First Presbyterian congregation, however, was the fact that the new church’s final price tag of $40,000, a cost roughly 25% greater than that paid by the former for the erection of their new building, was already completely paid for by the upstart congregation. To manage the construction of the church, Renwick had sent one of his draftsman, Asher Carter, a self-taught carpenter, who decided to stay in Chicago and try his hand at designing. Chicago had gained its second practicing architect.
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– I. New York: Knopf. 1940.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org)