The story of the building of Central Congregational Church, Galesburg, Illinois.
A speech delivered by Dr. John Strassburger, Dean of the College, Knox College, on the occasion of the 90th birthday of the Central Congregational Church structure, December 11, 1988.
It is a pleasure to be here, although it is a bit daunting for me, a relative stranger to these precincts, to be telling you about a building most of you have worshipped in and worried about and care for much of your lives. As I am sure you know in full measure, it is a wonderful building, and it is all the more remarkable when viewed in its historical context. It is a style that was identified in the Church Minutes in 1898 as Romanesque, which is the terminology we still would use.
That word Romanesque is worth pondering. Romanesque describes a style of Catholic church that was popular in the Middle Ages before the rise of the great Gothic Cathedrals. If there is one issue that the intellectual forebearers of the people who built this church would have agreed on, it is they abhorred anything connected to the Roman Catholic Church. I mention that Congregationalists once detested Catholicism to establish that there was nothing automating or simple about the choice of styles that the Congregationalists made for this church.
After all, opposition to quasi-Catholic practices in the Church of England had carried the pilgrim founders of Congregationalism out to Massachusetts. And the first Congregational churches were simple wooden boxes, inside and out; they were carefully designed to look like houses, Meeting Houses.
We can suppose that the people in Galesburg choosing Romanesque had forgotten their Colonial history. But that does not seem likely. George Washington Gale had alluded to the dangers of Roman Catholicism in his published plan for his new college. Jonathan Blanchard, the early force in this congregation, railed in Galesburg in the 1840s against “popery and high Churchism.”
The Old First Church, which once stood on the very site, was very different from this structure. It was, when it was finished in 1846,a Greek temple in form and proportion.
The classical style imitating ancient Greece suited the national pride shaping the Westward Expansion. It was also a style that suited the frontier because it was relatively easy to execute. And in the 1840s Greek temples were everywhere in the West, functioning not only as churches, as was the case on this site, but as homes, for instance in the case of Gale’s home itself on North and Cherry, and in public buildings as well, for example in the old Country Courthouse in Knoxville with it perfect attics columns creating an ideal temple front.
Alas, unlike the first County Courthouse in Knoxville, the Old First Church did not last fifty years. During those years one group had split off to become Presbyterian, and another had branched off in 1855 to form a Second Congregational Church. Then in 1895 the two congregations reunited to start a new building. And we are back where we started, admiring this wonderful Romanesque structure.
In an effort to understand the church, perhaps a little differently than we had before, we should begin where we are, and look at it inside out. Now we need to remember that traditional churches, whether Congregational Greek Temples or Catholic Gothic Cathedrals, were long narrow rectangles, with seating arranged in tight rows front to back facing a pulpit at the narrow end, and in many cases there were rows of pillar running front to back as well, impeding the view of any of those who had to end up sitting on the side. Those rows of pews often suggested a kind of pecking order, one that in Colonial churches was very real because the most prominent people in town owned their pews, which would have been the ones right down front. In the old days, people vied to be in the first pew. What we have in this building in what is not a long rectangle, but almost square with an arc, are the semi-circles or pews. Originally, in 1898, until 1962, there were two curved semi-circles, one where you are sitting and another behind me where the choir would have sat. And enclosing the back in an echoing curve is the rear wall. And unlike a Gothic Cathedral, the minister would have been there in the middle, in this church right in the middle, elevated yes, but circled front and back, at the center of a ring of church members.
It is really wonderful, you see it every Sunday morning, you are not sitting nearly so much front to back as you are sitting together. I am sure all of you are aware of how easy it is to glance around and see who is here and who is not; everyone in the circle is much more aware of everyone else than is the case in rows of pews. The seating plan in this church expresses a wonderful, egalitarian idea.
And in many respects, the seating plan defines the building: see what we have — nearly square; 76 feet by 69 with the highest point over the middle 46 feet up. Above is a graceful dome, umbrella like, encompassing and embracing us all under one sheltered space, no columns except to support the balcony. Ceiling high enough to allow for great windows to cast their light upon the whole, stained windows, for beauty, but also to temper the morning sun. It is a marvelous space in which to congregate; it brings individuals not into ranks or tows but into the whole.
But such an effect, marvelous as it is, is not easy to achieve. The Greek temple shape won’t work, not will the Gothic model. What is called for are some sort of great supports at the corners to carry the weight of the dome. To avoid the need for posts or columns along the way you need arches, not high Gothic arches, which in fact are efficient only when buttressed, but gently curing arches will do, particularly if you also take advantage of the sophisticated trussing system The ideal shape is a square or almost cube in the middle with relatively shallow extensions between the corner posts, forming a floor plan in the shape of a Greek Cross.
Well, the solution is obvious one it is pointed out to us. You build a wonderful Romanesque building. The Romanesque style in medieval France was characterized by relatively flat, circular, rather than pointed or elongated arches. These Romanesque arches had tremendous strength, for more so than post and beam.
Another charm of Romanesque buildings us that they are not symmetrical: windows went where there were needed, rather than in organized rows. This church is remarkably romantic in its array of towers and apses placed in an almost whimsical fashion so that we notices then and enjoy them for themselves. In addition to round arches, great walls, and a variety of towers and windows, Romanesque churches in medieval Europe show an almost naïve attention to beauty. Rich carvings, for example, mark the Romanesque arches above entryways. And in this church as well there was, on the part of the building committee, a great deal of thought given to making this a beautiful building, an adornment to the City of Galesburg.
The seven member committee was chosen in 1895, and it was chaired by Dr. J.J. Holland. The committee determined at its first meeting that the building was to be of stone and pressed brick or just of stone, and that the tower was to go where it is today. These decisions were made before the groups even began talking to architects. Then the committee had an architectural competition to choose the designer. Entries came from first in Rockford, Chicago, Peoria, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but the winner, but a six to one vote, was a Galesburg firm.
But even after the selection of an architect, the building committee itself was directly involved in choices that are hallmarks of this church’s beauty. Rather than delegate to the architect the choice of stone, the building committee itself made the selection. In April of 1897, the committee went to see various stone buildings in Chicago (the committee’s secretary, O.C. Colton, was to try to get free railroad passes for this trip). The stone they chose still impresses us with its beauty, its color, its warmed and its variety. The summary in the Church Minutes for 1897, the year in which the cornerstone was laid, sets out the committee’s thinking carefully. The stone chosen was a sandstone quarried in Marquette, Michigan; it s known as “Raindrop sandstone.” As the Church Minutes describe it:
It is not dark enough to be somber and heavy in its effect, not light enough to quickly soil and stain by the weather and city smoke. It is firm enough in texture o be durable, and of a grain which appears to be self cleaning and non-absorbent, with enough variation to give a sense of liveliness to the stone in the wall, as it blends in color at a little distance.”
The Minutes end by stating that the stone selected promises “to long retain its beauty and grace.”
The committee could hardly have been more right about the tone retaining its beauty and grace. At any time of the day the stone of Central Congregational Church adds an uncommon grace tot he center of downtown Galesburg, and the stone has enough variety that it’s always alive, so that we can never pass by without appreciating this building. Obviously, equal care was lavished on the windows. Less obvious is that the woodwork, to, was designed to be beautiful as well as functional, so as the Minutes note in 1897, it was “treated in soft warm tints largely in amber shades but enough of color to make it bright and harmonize with the art glass of the windows.”
The committee worked mightily to make this building beautiful. Well, in addition to the committee, the architect deserves mention. It was C. E Gottschalk, who had a firm in Galesburg at the time. But an indication of the sophistication of this city is the fact that he was a Californian who had come east to Chicago, where he worked in the branch office of a Boston firm (Sheply, Rutan, & Coolidge). And that firm was the successor firm to that of one Henry Richardson. It was Richardson, who in 1872 made Romanesque style all the rage. Richardson’s Romanesque design had won a competition in 1872 for Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston and that ad established a fashion. But, Trinity in its interior arrangements is much more old fashioned with its ranks of pews than the first Congregational Church. So like all good architects, Gottschalk borrowed, but he borrowed wisely and well to create a marvelous building, an American Architectural treasure.
This is a Galesburg building. It expresses clearly Midwestern values. Beneath the European design references is a building that on its inside breaks with European models, and a building as well that is designed specifically to enhance the town. Its tower planned to serve as a landmark on the square. Its warm hues are meant to grace the city. And its interior auditorium was meant to be sued by one and all, as Paul Clark reminded us this morning, and it has been used: for and by the college, for musical events and for lectures as well as for the congregation. It is a generous building.
And the building was built for the ages. Its predecessor structure could not survive, this church was built strong enough and well enough to last and last. The people of this congregation of the 1890s had confidence enough in themselves and this town to build a place that was to be permanent.
I began by suggesting there was something a little ironic about a Congregational Romanesque building. But as we look at it we realize both how practical this building is and how ingenious. One of its Midwestern aspect is that the building is designed and shaped in harmony with the aims of its users. It is Romanesque yes, but that is a convenient style in which to build a stout shell around a large space promoting community and togetherness; the antique references on the outside allow for the creativity and inspired practicality on the inside.
It is worth noting that one of the first great public events held in this building was a Memorial Convocation after the assassination of President McKinley. And on that occasion in 1901 in this wonderful Midwestern Romanesque structure the Benediction was given by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Costa. Thus it is that this building is worth celebrating. Its distinction as a superb example of American architecture I a tribute to the vision and ambition of the members of this congregation and the people of Galesburg, who were proclaiming the strength and vigor of their society with this great church. They were in this gracious room also demonstrating both their practical nature and their willingness to see to create community through architecture. If we are up to their amibition, we can still help them succedd. Thank you.
~John Strassburger, Knox College
“Building for the Ages”
Talk delivered at Central Congregational Church on December 11, 1988. Listed below are some of the people who helped and to whom I am grateful. Without their work, even this effort would have been impossible.
Gwen Lexow (Knox undergraduate)
Homer Zumwalt, Clerk of the Church
Harvey Safford, Church Historian
The Rev. Paul Clark
Wilbur Pillsbury, Church Moderator
Leta Hendricks (Galesburg Public Library)
Carley Robison (Knox College Library)
Key written sources include Hermann Muelder’s lectures on the history of the congregation, published in 1937 and Harold Griffith’s unpublished paper, copies of which are in the public library and the church’s archives. Needless to say, all mistakes are my own.
~John Strassburger, Knox College