Since World War II, American architects, designers, and worshippers have debated: how “religious” does a religious building really need to look? Does a sacred space need to visually declare itself as sacred? Does a religious building violate some spiritual rule if it looks like a secular building or is it okay, as we see in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s design for the chapel at the IIT, for a church to look like a simple “God box”?
In their design for the Lutheran School of Theology built in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood in 1967, architects Perkins & Will joined Mies in the movement to release American religious architecture from its historic shackles.
In 1968, Architectural Record called the School’s design “refreshingly free of any trace of obvious religious symbolism, and indeed has as much 20th century technological elan as the most advanced secular building.” The construction of the Lutheran School of Theology didn’t come without controversy, however, not because of its religion-free High Modernist aesthetic but because of the impact it and other Hyde Park urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s made on the economically and racially diverse neighborhood which they eliminated in their wake.
Starting in the 1940s, residents of the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park watched as officials from city government and the University of Chicago expressed increasing interest in future redevelopment of what these powerful forces considered Hyde Park’s “blighted” areas, particularly the East 55th Street commercial corridor, one of the social and economic hearts of the community. Talk of a new vision for Chicago’s South Side soon became action, initiating decades of Hyde Park urban renewal projects funded by the federal government, the University of Chicago, and private developers. The results were some of the most ambitious and controversial urban planning projects in the Chicago’s history.
Most mid-century urban renewal activity in Hyde Park centered on the busy commercial thoroughfare along East 55th Street between the elevated Illinois Central Railroad to the east and Washington Park to the west. Thousands of Hyde Park residents were relocated as block after block of commercial and apartment structures along East 55th Street were demolished. In time they were replaced with an aspiring innovative kind of “new town,” a ready-made retail and residential community populated with modern-inspired structures designed by some of America’s most prominent architects and developers including I.M. Pei, Loewenberg & Loewenberg, Webb & Knapp, and Harry Weese.
With vast changes to its urban setting underway, Hyde Park remained a community friendly to large educational institutions. In fact, urban renewal issued a very visible invitation to outside organizations hoping to relocate to newly-cleared properties on Chicago’s South Side. The largest of these new arrivals to the South Side was the Lutheran School of Theology, a seminary for young Lutheran clergy-to-be which relocated to Hyde Park in 1967. The Lutheran School of Theology planted its new roots just steps north of the University of Chicago on a block itself had cleared of homes and businesses along 55th Street between S. University and S. Greenwood Avenues.
The School’s new home made of glass and steel was a giant leap away from how the organization had done things earlier in the century. The Lutheran School of Theology’s first campus, established in 1891 at Sheffield and Addison as the Chicago Lutheran Seminary, was a cluster of modest classroom and dormitory buildings centered around a simple brick chapel.
The Addison site was sold in 1910 and was replaced with a new sports stadium named Weeghman Park, better known today as Wrigley Field. The Chicago Lutheran Seminary chose a more removed location for its new home: a collection of sixteen Collegiate Gothic style brick structures in a bucolic corner of Maywood, Illinois, approximately ten miles west of downtown Chicago.
The decision in the 1960s for the Seminary to leave its idyllic Maywood home of over fifty years for a glass and steel box in inner city Chicago was driven first by the merging of the Chicago Lutheran Seminary with three other Lutheran seminaries from Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa, prompting demands for newer facilities and a new moniker – the Lutheran School of Theology. With residential development in Maywood on the rise, the Seminary’s grounds of untouched land fetched a generous price that aided in the construction of a new facility; the Seminary’s Maywood site was, however, never developed and today remains parkland with a few former educational structures remaining.
Other motives for the School’s move into a metropolis were symbolic ones, reasons that reflected on the possibility of a renewed role for religion in everyday life. After World War II, religious communities worldwide found themselves at odds with age-old religious hierarchies and practices which many believed kept congregations closed off from the events and people in the outside world. Religious from across the spectrum of world creeds, from Lutherans to Jews to Catholics, sought to integrate worship with social engagement both within and outside sanctuary walls. Christianity’s religious struggles with and for modernity in the mid-twentieth century were best represented by new dictums issued in 1965 by the Roman Catholic church’s Second Vatican Council (known colloquially as “Vatican II”) which called for larger roles for laity, reorganization and relaxation of some of the church’s more arcane rules and practices, and incorporation of local customs and language into religious services. I discussed Vatican II and the moving sacred architecture that it produced in my post on Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey.
In a modern climate disjointed by social and political upheaval, American Lutherans of the 1950s and 60s, like their Catholic counterparts, sought newer and more relevant ways to express their faith. Lay people took on a more integrated role in services, and modern music was allowed to replace more traditional hymns. More controversial were efforts to accept women into higher clerical roles, culminating in the ordination of the first North American female Lutheran pastor in 1970.
Change in Lutheran communities in the United States prompted their own upheavals in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in the reorganization of several Lutheran governing bodies, including the Lutheran Church in America of which the Chicago Lutheran Seminary was a part. For students studying at the Chicago Seminary, moving from their tranquil Maywood home to what the Chicago Tribune called the urban “sociological turmoil” of Hyde Park was an affirmation of the importance of their faith’s modernization and of social engagement with those outside of the fold, particularly for those studying to enter leadership in the Lutheran church. “It is there,” one staff member of the Lutheran School of Theology told the Chicago Tribune in the run-up to the organization’s move to Hyde Park, “in cities, in slums – that 90 per cent of our ministers will preach, counsel, and minister. …The concept of training Lutheran ministers in meditative seclusion is passé.”
For its new inner city site, the School commissioned a Perkins & Will-designed campus that used modern architecture as a billboard to express the new progressive mission of the American Lutheran faith. The new structure eliminated all the vestiges of religious function that characterized religious and educational architecture even just a generation before – no historic detailing and no obvious religious decorative imagery. Perkins & Will recalled ancient cloisters in grouping three low-rise glass and steel structures around a center lawn (hiding a 200-car parking area below).
Aspiring clergy in this modern seminary were, however, anything but cloistered. Facades of clear glass allowed uninterrupted views out from – and into – the complex’s many classrooms. The inner “cloister” was also easily visible and accessible from 55th Street with open air access points into the complex located at the site’s northeast and southeast corners. This experimenting with a perforated, outward-looking religious architecture had already been explored in contemporary Catholic monastic architecture like Le Corbusier’s priory at Sainte Marie de la Tourette, completed in 1960, and the 1966 Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Scotland (my personal favorite, designed by a former professor of mine, the late Isi Metzstein).
The School’s north edge was allowed to remain open to the Hyde Park neighborhood the seminarians intended to serve (the community-embracing “cloister” lawn is today fully enclosed by the 2003 McCormick Theological Seminary designed by M+W Zander).
The new Lutheran School of Theology complex offered its 350 active students updated classrooms, a 125-seat lecture hall, a common dining room, a library for 300,000 books, a 600-seat auditorium, and a small meditation chapel…
…all enclosed in stylized bronze glass and aluminum curtain walls.
These educational spaces were seemingly suspended in the air by pairs of enormous concrete Vierendeel trusses, declared “a structural tour-de-force”. The Vierendeel trusses, seen almost exclusively in large bridge projects, transfer their structural loads to the ground by way of large cruciform-shaped concrete piers, metaphorically and literally anchoring the School to its site by way of the symbolism of the Lutheran faith.
Opposition to the School’s chosen site was vocal. Though much of E. 55th Street had met with the wrecking ball in the 1950s, the site the Lutheran School of Theology chose in 1964 for its new Hyde Park home were still built-up functioning city blocks, home to about 600 residents, mostly African American families. These blocks was described by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the best integrated middle rent housing blocks in the community,” a rare example of stable and affordable housing in the center of a neighborhood in flux. Residents and business owners complained to church groups, to newspapers, and to the Lutheran School of Theology itself of the alleged lack of comparable housing in the community and disenfranchisement of local Hyde Parkers from the big decisions impacting their families and livelihoods.
Though the irony of displacing residents the new seminarians were intended to serve could not have been lost on many involved in the deal, land purchases proceeded and work on the new School kicked off on a cleared site in October 1965. The nearly $4 million project was completed and ready for students in 1967.
The Lutheran School of Theology remains a major architectural presence on Hyde Park’s E. 55th Street, still prompting debates about the complicated overlap of religion, architecture, and social justice.