Before the new Courthouse was occupied on February 7, 1853, the Courthouse Square witnessed another disastrous fire.  On October 20, 1852, workmen were reshingling the roof of the First Baptist Church.  Sparks from a pipe of one of the workers apparently ignited the wooden roof, starting a fire that totally destroyed the church.  The next day, however, the congregation voted to build an even larger building on the site, the cornerstone of which was laid on July 4, 1853.  Although the architect of the new church is not recorded, the design bore sufficient resemblances to the churches designed by Van Osdel that it could be credited to his hand.  The disaster not only gave the Baptists a second chance to regain the title of the city’s tallest steeple (that they had once briefly held in 1845 when the original 112′ steeple was completed), but urbanistically, it also offered the designer the opportunity to design the new building as a symmetric “bookend” to balance the new First Presbyterian Church at the opposite corner of the block, as viewed from the new Courthouse.  The new steeple rose six feet higher than that of the Second Presbyterian’s to a height of 170.’  (If Van Osdel was the architect, this design could have been the one he originally produced for the unbuilt Second Presbyterian Church.)

John M. Van Osdel. Left: First Presbyterian Church, Southwest corner of Clark and Washington, 1847; Right: Rebuilt First Baptist Church, Southeast corner of Washington and La Salle, 1853. A view from the Courthouse cupola taken by Hessler in 1858. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)

The body of the new Baptist building echoed the simple, box-like form of the First Presbyterian Church, including the flat roofed-cornice capped with a parapet wall.  Gone was the grand colonnaded portico of the destroyed church, undoubtedly a victim of the need for more interior space on the relatively shallow lot, the freestanding columns being transformed into two-story pilasters.  In an apparent attempt to rectify the abrupt placement of the First Presbyterians’ tower, the designer of the Baptists’ facade incorporated a shallow pediment over the center bay, that marked the entry as well as helped to integrate the steeple with its supporting bay with the body of the building.  This detail, the shallow pediment supported by pilasters within the center bay of the elevation, bore a striking similarity to Van Osdel’s treatment of the Courthouse, just across the street.  This fact, coupled with the other formal resemblances that the new First Baptist Church had with Van Osdel’s other churches, lends credence to the supposition that Van Osdel was the architect of the church, that first opened its doors on November 12, 1853.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch,  1942.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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