The period 1856-57 must have been truly hectic for Boyington, for only two months after he had received the commission for the design of the new First Universalist Church, he had a third church on Wabash under construction with the laying of the cornerstone for the new Wabash Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church on July 13, 1857, at the northwest corner of Wabash and Harrison. (Boyington, therefore, had three major churches and Chicago’s premiere residential project, all of which were located within a three-block long strip of Wabash, in various stages of design and construction at the same time.) The First Methodist Church at the southeast corner of Washington and Clark, had been bookended by the former First Presbyterian Church directly across Clark Street to the west and the former First Universalist Church immediately to its east. Whereas its former neighbors were free to sell their property and move to greener pastures, the First Methodist Church was bound by its acceptance of the original donation of its lot that specified that if the church decided to move, the property would revert to the estate of the donor. Therefore, there was no financial incentive for the Methodists to leave the Courthouse Square area.
Regardless of this limitation, however, mission work had to be provided to the expanding residential area to the south, and once again, as with their original move to the Courthouse area, the Methodists had actually been at the forefront of the second migration of Chicago’s congregations. In 1848, five years before McCormick purchased the Wabash Street lot for the South Church, Orrington Lunt, a member of First Methodist, had bought the northwest corner of State and Harrison and offered it to the congregation as a site for a future mission church in the area. The church’s board took possession of the lot in the spring of 1851, bought a portion of the old abandoned Second Presbyterian Church on Randolph, and had it moved to the new site. On August 24, 1851, the State Street Methodist Episcopal Church was formally organized, quickly becoming a fixture in the surrounding neighborhood.
Jason Gurley, Metropolitan Hall, northwest corner of Randolph and La Salle, 1855. Printer’s Row is in the right foreground. (Gilbert)
With the construction of the Universalist and the two Presbyterian churches only a block away on Wabash, as this Methodist congregation outgrew its outmoded framed building and began to dream of a new edifice, it was quite obvious that a move to the emerging new “Church Row” along Wabash was a foregone conclusion. In the spring of 1857 a new pastor, the Rev. William M. D. Ryan was appointed to the church with the expressed charge of moving the congregation to a new building on Wabash. The Methodists appear to have taken their cue from the Presbyterians in how to afford such an expansion by taking advantage of the substantial increase in the value of their real estate on the southeast corner of Washington and Clark. While the congregation was prohibited by the original gift of the property from moving from the location, the agreement had placed no limits on where within the site the actual church sanctuary had to be placed. In one, if not the earliest, examples of using the air rights of a property in Chicago, the congregational leaders decided to tear down the existing building across from the Courthouse (which had been severely compromised with the corresponding raising of the street levels that had left the floor of its sanctuary five feet below the level of the sidewalks) and erected a new three-story building.
Edward Burling was commissioned to design the building, the First Methodist Episcopal Church Block that from the Athens limestone exterior actually appeared to be a four-story business building in which the ground floor contained eight stores and the second floor had a number of rental offices. While he continued to place windows in the apparent third and fourth floors, Burling had actually placed the church’s two-story, 33’ high sanctuary on the third floor which was designed as one of the city’s first amphitheater-seating church plans that had a capacity of 1000. While apparently inspired by Van Osdel’s design of the new Courthouse with its large, assembly spaces located on the top floor, Burling’s more immediate precedent for this design more than likely had been Metropolitan Hall designed by Jason Gurley in 1854. Located diagonally across the Courthouse Square at the northwest corner of Randolph and La Salle, Gurley had placed the building’s two-story auditorium at the third floor but had more appropriately detailed its windows as two-story high arches instead of how Burling had detailed the sanctuary windows in the exterior of the Methodist Block.
The annual rental income from the offices and stores amounted to approximately $15,000, some of which was applied to the support of the struggling State Street congregation. The northwest corner of Wabash and Harrison was purchased and on April 1, 1857, the name of the congregation was formally changed to the “Wabash Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church.” Boyington was once again engaged to design the building, for which he produced another totally different composition. He kept the Gothic language and axial front elevation of the Universalist design, but apparently was asked by the congregation to replace the single steeple motif with one which incorporated a pair of symmetric corner towers, which rose nowhere to the height of their neighbors’ ambitious needles. The building was completed at a cost of $65,000 and dedicated on July 15, 1858.
The last of the antebellum churches to be erected in the new Wabash Protestant district was Trinity Episcopal Church on the southside of Jackson, between Wabash and Michigan, commenced in August 1860. The congregation had occupied a building on Madison near Clark since 1844. The new building, designed by T. V. Wadskier was somewhat unique in that the congregation chose not to have side aisle windows in the 65’ by 125’ deep sanctuary, more than likely to reduce distractions from the outside. The congregation was known for its choir and musical programs, so the purposeful lack of windows in the walls may have been in response to make the sanctuary more of a performance hall. In place of windows, Wadskier located a series of eight skylights in the ceiling on both sides of its ridge beam to introduce daylight into the interior. “The effect is pleasing, notwithstanding the degree of solemnity which is produced.” During the evening, the space was amply lit with gaslights.
Therefore, within a period of less than three years, the Van Osdel-designed Washington Street Church Row had surrendered its primacy as Chicago’s religious district to the newly developed strip of Boyington-designed churches strung along Wabash. And what proved to be point where the old Washington Street Church Row pivoted to become the new Wabash strip of churches? The Second Presbyterian Church, which had also set the trend for the Gothic language used in some of the new churches. Instead of running east-west or parallel with the river’s Main Branch, as it had along Washington, the new religious strip ran north-south along Wabash, or parallel with the lake. Even more significant from an urbanistic view, however, was the fact that the new line of churches also ran parallel to how the railroads from the East entered the city. Trains to and from the East had to skirt the bottom of Lake Michigan; hence these railroads came into Chicago from the south, not from the west as did the canal that connected the Chicago River to the Mississippi, nor from the east as did lake traffic. The commercial future of Chicago, the railroad hub, no longer lay along the east-west axis of the river, but to the south. Therefore, how the city would rotate to a north-south orientation to meet the Eastern railroads would decide the future pattern of its urban fabric and also would determine who would benefit financially from controlling the inevitable real estate development to the south. Somewhat surprisingly then, it was the city’s wealthy residents, along with their churches, and not its industry or commercial interests who were the first to rotate the city’s orientation to the south. Therefore, while the new church precinct had relatively easily realigned itself within Chicago’s newly emerging north/south urban grid of the railroad, the city’s retail strip still ran east-west along Lake Street, parallel to the river. This district had been recently bolstered, in fact, by a series of investments by the area’s owners in a new type of construction that was taking the country by storm: the cast iron-fronted building. While Boyington was getting the commissions for the Wabash Street churches, Van Osdel had moved on to bringing the new technology to Chicago. Maybe Van Osdel simply did not have the time to design these major churches while also teaching himself how to manipulate the new construction technique that had just been developed in his hometown of New York City.
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.
Jevni and Almini. Chicago Illustrated. Chicago, 1966.
Reminiscences of Chicago During the Civil War, Chicago: Lakeside, 1914.
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