Monday, September 5, 2011

Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church

Simple design, often with references to nature . . . typical of Arts and Crafts design . . . found at
Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church (JWB, 2011)

In 1535 Martin Luther published A Simple Way to Pray.  The book was dedicated to Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, who had asked for a few hot tips on how to improve his prayer life.  The book was 35 pages long, and in it the great theologian kepts coming back to the idea that prayer was most effective when it was brief.

“Brief prayers . . . pregnant with the Spirit, strongly fortified by faith,” he wrote.  “. . . the fewer the words, the better the prayer.  The more the words, the worse the prayer.  Few words and much meaning is Christian.  Many words and little meaning is pagan.”

Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church at
1244 W. Thorndale (JWB, 2011)
It is up to individuals, preached Luther, to find meaning in a relationship with God and convey that meaning simply and powerfully through prayer, prayer that is not churned out through a theological foundry, but, rather, prayer that is individual, specific to its speaker, and honest in its design.

Over three hundred years later the same logic came to be part of the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in England in the mid-nineteenth century as a protest against the decreasing importance of the individual craftsman in a mechanical age in which the only things that mattered were efficiency and profit.

These two ideas come together in a one-hundred-year-old church, Bethany Evangelical Lutheran, at 1244 West Thorndale Avenue.  The AIA Guide to Chicago describes the church as being “. . . designed in the informal, domestically scaled, simply but beautifully detailed Craftsman Style.”

The church on West Thorndale was founded in 1905, with the first service conducted on June 11 of that year in Kelly’s Hall, at Clark and Ridge.  A half-year later the church was organized under the present name with its first pastor, the Reverend Karl G. Schlerf, whose previous congregation had been in Hillsdale, Michigan, called to serve.

For nine months after that the congregation met in Kelly’s Hall.  Following that the meetinghouse was where 5540 Broadway is today.  In the years following two lots were purchased at Thorndale and Magnolia for $3,500, and the church building was constructed on the corner with space to the north of the church given for a parish house and parsonage.  The church was dedicated on February 22,1914, and the parsonage was completed in 1921.

Simple forms, uncluttered by excessive --
the Arts and Crafts style (JWB, 2011)
The style of the church – Arts and Crafts – takes its name from the Arts and Crafts Society that was founded in London in 1888.  Although most of the society’s members recognized that there was a place for the machine, the ideal remained in the beauty that came from individual artists and craftsmen.

Chicago was one of the most important centers in the United States for the new movement.  The Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was founded on October 22, 1897 at Jane Adams’s Hull House.  Charter members included Myron Hunt, Dwight Perkins, Robert Spencer, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Pond brothers, Allen and Irving. In fact, the first buildings at Hull House were designed by the Pond brothers.

The principal characteristics of an Arts and Crafts structure included an emphasis on simplicity and a lack of ornamentation.  Also important was the designer’s intent to blend the building with its surroundings, often by using materials that were native to the area.   It’s not a coincidence that all of the original members of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society became associated with the Prairie School in one form or another, a design style that also emphasized simplicity and an honest reconciliation of a building and its location.

The architect who designed Bethany Evangelical Church was Grant Clark Miller who was born in 1870 in Rockford, Illinois.  He attended Cornell Academy and College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, later studying architecture at the University of Illinois, earning his Master of Arts in Architecture in 1895.  Three years later he added a degree in Civil Engineering. 

(JWB, 2011)
Miller joined the firm of Patton and Fisher after Patton was appointed architect for the Chicago Board of Education.  Fisher moved to the east coast in 1901, and the firm became Patton and Miller.  During the eleven years that this firm existed, the architects designed more than 300 buildings. [Schnell, Karen E. National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form. 1994]

Grant Miller’s Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church still stands today on the quiet, shaded corner of Thorndale and Magnolia, living up to Martin Luther’s words in the 1535 A Simple Way to Pray . . . “pregnant with the spirit, strongly fortified by faith.” 

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