February 22, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Traces of Gilded Age Chicago are rare and to be celebrated – and nowhere do they shine brighter than in the Tiffany windows of the Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 South Michigan Avenue. Builders of Chicago worshipped there and made sure that the soaring spaces matched their expectations for the city. The Armours, Lincolns, Pullmans, and Cobbs made this landmark Gothic Revival church – often known as “the church with the windows” – their spiritual home.
When President Grover Cleveland opened the World’s Columbian Exhibition in May 1893, he attended Sunday services at the Church and placed a $2 bill in the collection plate. From his pews he might have glimpsed what is now the oldest surviving Tiffany window in Chicago, dating from 1892.
First organized in 1842, the Second Presbyterian Church, designed by east coast architect James Renwick, stood at the corner of Wabash and Washington between 1851 and 1871. Just before the Chicago fire, its congregation voted to move to the south side, demolishing what was often called “the spotted church,” because of tar deposits on its limestone blocks. Church fathers voted again to use Renwick, architect of the first Smithsonian building in Washington, D.C. and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Worshippers came from their mansions on nearby Prairie and Michigan avenues, considered to be the most exclusive residential district in the city at the turn of the last century. Grain merchant George Armour, industrialist John Crerar, real estate developer Silas Cobb, railroad car manufacturer George Pullman, owner and editor of the Chicago Tribune William Bross, and attorney Robert Todd Lincoln (who served as church trustee for ten years), rarely missed a Sunday service. And when a large African-American community began to establish itself south of the church in the early 20th century, the congregation welcomed educator Booker T. Washington to speak to standing room crowds at the church on two occasions. All of these worshippers would have been surrounded by nearly two hundred angels in the stained glass and in other ornamentation above them.
“The collection of Tiffany windows is very important because of its breadth. Certainly there are other churches that have more Tiffany windows, but often they were installed as a large grouping at one period of time. Our windows span a 26-year period and therefore represent all the major types of windows Tiffany produced, including figural, landscape, and ornamental,” Board treasurer William Tyre said. “Virtually every innovation Tiffany made in the development of glass is represented in the windows including drapery, feather, confetti, mottled glass and more.”
Another special attraction is the ability to walk up the stairs to the balcony, on an original 1901 Arts and Crafts carpet (installed as part of the renovation to the church in 1900 by church member Howard Van Doren Shaw and muralist Frederic Clay Bartlett, after a fire destroyed much of the roof and the nave), to see and touch the windows. “The special glass-making techniques developed by Tiffany are right before one’s eyes: ripple glass in a stream, feather glass in angel wings, mottled glass on a tree trunk, flash glass in a dedication panel, and drapery glass in the robes. It is a rare treat that awes guests as they gently touch the glass,” Ann Belletire, founding member of Friends of Historic Second Church and tour coordinator, said.
Particularly rare are two windows designed by preeminent Pre Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. How these two remarkable windows, done by Burne-Jones for Morris & Company, came to the church is an intriguing story. “At the turn of the last century, Joseph Twyman, a William Morris disciple, was serving as the chief interior designer for the Tobey Furniture Company, the most prominent Arts and Crafts furniture company in Chicago. In a House Beautiful issue from February 1903, there is a photograph showing the two Burne-Jones windows that we now have in the Morris Memorial Room at the store. How they came into Twyman’s possession is unknown but they were his property and they would have been purchased for the church,” William Tyre said.
This time of year, when the bright winter sun pierces the luminous stained glass images, is one of the best to make a date to visit this Arts and Crafts masterpiece’s interior. Knowledgeable docents are available on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1:00 until 3:00 in the afternoon and Sundays at 12:15, following the service. Group tours can be arranged as well. We highly recommend bringing along your children, because the docent encourages them to count the angels and a scavenger hunt begins. A guided tour of the church quickly becomes a dream experience.
“There are 175 depictions of angels throughout the sanctuary. The four life-size trumpeting angels are only the beginning. Soon children can find angels carved in wood, angel rackets holding up the crown chandeliers, gentle angels in the 13 Bartlett murals, and an angel made of glass,” Ann Belletire, who loves leading children’s tours, said. “Older children like to put their team problem-solving techniques to work by determining which nine of the twelve balcony windows are from the Tiffany studios. A list of 10 characteristics of Tiffany windows gives them the tools they need to make their decisions. However, there is one window that almost always fools everyone.”
Unfortunately, like so many landmark buildings, the Second Presbyterian Church is in need of extensive repair.
“Friends of Historic Second Church was founded in March 2006 to focus specifically on raising funds to restore the artistic elements of the church and to share the beauty of the widows, murals, and other fine arts as broadly as possible, through extensive tour programs, lectures, and special events. In celebrating its tenth anniversary, Friends can point to many restoration projects that have been completed, as well as crucial studies that form the blueprint for its work. However, much work remains to be done, including the entire collection of Tiffany windows,” Ann Belletire said.
Jerry Erickson, retired President and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, who inspired a generation of social workers and community leaders throughout Chicago, devotes significant time to restoration funding efforts. “Inspired by prairie residents after the fire, Second Church is still an architectural and artistic wonder,” he said.
To join the Friends of Historic Second Church go to www.2ndpresbyterianfriends.org and receive news of upcoming events.
To arrange group tours for eight or more guests, call Ann Belletire for eight or more guests at (312) 432-0399 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Historic Preservation Manager Lisa Napoles at 1-800-647-0687 with further questions.