History & Significance

After World War II, the First Presbyterian Church’s congregation outgrew the downtown Stamford, Connecticut site, its location since its founding in 1854. The church had bought a hilly wooded piece of land in 1941 on what was then the edge of downtown on Bedford St. On May 7 1952 the congregation approved building a new church on the Bedford St. property. The Building Committee immediately set to work.

No one on the committee or the pastors had fixed ideas of what the building should look like. As the committee began their work, a building with colonial or Georgian lines was favored by the congregation. Earlier a pastor had commissioned a picture of a Byzantine-style church but, on reflection, a middle-class congregation with a Scottish heritage considered it financially too expensive and visually too opulent to build.

The Subcommittee on Plans and Construction was given the task of interviewing architects in the New York City area and recommending to the full committee the firm best qualified to do the job. The subcommittee did a conscientious job interviewing architects and visiting recommended churches over a period of four months.

As a recommendation to the full committee was being readied, two members of the subcommittee introduced a new thought. They had visited Midland, Michigan and were stunned by viewing two modern churches designed by Alden Dow, a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin Fellow. The subcommittee listened, discussed, and then interviewed three architects in the New York City area who designed modernist buildings.

One was Wallace K. Harrison, of the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz. Another was Willis Mills of Sherwood, Mills, and Smith of Stamford CT. The impression Mr. Harrison made on the subcommittee was deep. At one point he said, “Having seen your property with its tremendous possibilities, and knowing something of the spiritual and material resources your people will be able to bring to this building venture, let me say that I don’t care who you choose for your architect, but if you don’t do something out of the ordinary, you will be accountable.”

In November 1952 the Building Committee chose Wallace K. Harrison as the architect for the Sanctuary and Willis Mills as the architect to design the classroom and office wing and Fellowship Hall. By late Spring of 1953, planning stages were far enough along for the Fund Raising Committee to begin its work. The fund committee’s work, an unexpected bequest, and sale of the old church site raised the money needed to start construction. Harrison’s cost-effective innovations in design and construction, e.g., precast concrete load-bearing panels and dalle de verre (slab of glass) stained glass panels, brought the cost of the Sanctuary down to $800,000, comfortably below the $1 million budgeted.

This was Harrison’s first church design. He met with the senior pastor and members of the congregation seeking their thoughts. Through conversations Harrison learned that in the elements of Presbyterian faith, God is manifested in the material world life even though He is seen to be outside the material world. Music plays an important role in expressing these elements. As he sketched out his first design ideas, Harrison worked with the acoustical consultants Bolt, Beranek & Newman, a firm he previously used when he was U.N. director of planning.. The acoustics in the final design were a compromise between what was best for music and for spoken word. On September 15, 1953 at a special meeting of the congregation-corporation, the congregation had its first view of detailed plans for the Sanctuary.

In 1953, Harrison took a two-month vacation in Europe journeyed to Europe and visited churches and cathedrals in England, France, Germany, and Italy. The great cathedrals of the past, shaped around the outline of a cross, were built of heavy stone. They rise to soaring heights, their walls supported on the outside by flying buttresses, and on the inside by forests of columns and arches. To let in light, and to overcome the chilling effect of the expanses of stone, the walls were pierced by stained glass windows. The windows with glowing pictures told stories from the Bible to a population which then largely could not read.

Harrison tried to retain what gives the medieval cathedral its profoundly moving effect: soaring space and jeweled light. Not building with the massive stone used in the past, he dispensed with the columns and buttresses used in church architecture for centuries. With new methods and new materials, he created a new shape in church architecture.

Panels of precast concrete had been used before to build homes and factories but never before to build a large church. Harrison realized the use of precast concrete could do away with columns and buttresses. In precast concrete construction, structural components are produced in plants away from the building site, and then transported to the site for assembly. In the 1940s this technology attracted Harrison as his firm became involved in pilot-scale projects that used precast concrete panels to develop low-cost housing in Latin America. One of Harrison’s innovations in constructing the Sanctuary was to use a version of the emerging Schokbeton production system, a Dutch method licensed to several companies in the US, to precast high quality concrete panels of exceptional strength and accuracy.

On a pilot-scale, Harrison produced and experimented with small versions of the Sanctuary panels in his backyard on Long Island, NY. He tested the angles at which the panels could be tilted and bear weight. His pilot-scale work involved the advice of Felix J. Samuely, the structural engineering consultant on the project, who had worked before the war with such noted architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff on the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex, UK. Harrison and Samuely produced a design where the walls of the Sanctuary lean inward and are “pleated” like paper in five 20-foot folds. Samuely termed this new way to span space “space construction.” The roof of the north and south window walls is clad with small gray slate tiles. The west and east elevations of the north and south walls are formed of quadrangular precast panels clad in large gray slate tiles.

Harrison worked with a Long Island firm, Precast Building Section Inc. to translate the small pilot model into a full-scale precast version One hundred and fifty two panels, some weighing 11 tons and towering 3 ½ stories, were precast in the firm’s plant and trucked to Stamford. Traditional wood frame scaffolding inside and out and in stark contrast to the innovative form of the evolving Sanctuary held the panels in place in their required positions as rebars sticking out on their edges were connected and the 8 inch gap between the panels were filled with poured-in-place concrete.

Harrison pondered how to retain and yet modernize the great stained windows. “Finally I went to Europe to get away from this thing and perhaps find an inspiration. In Paris I saw two things: Leger’s stained glass windows (at the church of Sacré-Coeur at Audincourt) and the Sainte Chapelle”(1959, Von Eckardt). Through a friend, Harrison met Chartres’ famed Gabriel Loire, an artist in stained glass who had created what French critics called “a new sacred art.” Adapting a technique 16 centuries old, Loire set thick faceted slabs of glass, dalle de verre, into concrete producing windows which “ literally saturated the interior with overpowering color” (2007, SGAA).

The church’s leaders considered themes for the walls’ dalle de verre designs. They chose the Crucifixion as the theme for dalle de verre filling voids in the triangular precast concrete structural elements of the north wall of the Sanctuary. Resurrection was chosen as the theme for the south stained glass wall. Harrison was the artist for the north and south wall designs. For the east wall of the narthex, Loire designed a small stained glass panel on the theme of Christ’s teachings.

Harrison’s designs for the walls were sent to Chartres. Twenty thousand chunks of amber, emerald, ruby, amethyst, and sapphire glass, an inch thick and faceted to sparkle like jewels, were used in Harrison’s designs. In late 1956 there arrived from France panels containing dalle de verre embedded in concrete. These panels, shaped to fit inside voids in the triangular precast concrete structural elements of the north and south walls formed the breath-taking dalle de verre windows. Inside the Sanctuary during daylight the result is, as Harrison remarked “like being inside a giant sapphire.”

Openings in the triangular precast structural elements were filled with dalle de verre panels and the narrow space between the dalle de verre panels and the precast structural elements were filled solid with grout. Construction of the Sanctuary consumed 45 miles of rebar, enough concrete for six miles of sidewalks, and more stained glass surfaces than Sainte Chapelle. In many ways the building of the sanctuary involved principles of prefabrication (precast and dalle de verre panels) and different concrete technologies (precast, poured in place and grouting).

For acoustical purposes Harrison first sketched out the Sanctuary in the shape of a modified megaphone. As the design developed, a dip was incorporated toward the rear where a four-legged carillon tower was to straddle the narthex. (The currently existing carillon tower was not constructed till 1968, also designed by Harrison, is placed as a free-standing element on the campus.) This dip, the canted and pleated panels, and the shape of the nave is what gives the Sanctuary the appearance of a large fish. People noticed this resemblance even before construction was completed and labeled the building, The Fish Church.

The Sanctuary’s blend of innovative design, advanced structural and concrete technologies and medieval mysticism attracted immediate national and international attention. Between 1958 and 1960, the Sanctuary 33 miles from New York City attracted over 100,000 visitors. Harrison’s cost-effective and aesthetic success in using dalle de verre in the Sanctuary inspired architects to incorporate dalle de verre windows in non-load bearing walls in hundreds of ecclesiastical and monumental civic buildings.

The Museum of Modern Art’s important 1959 exhibition, “Architecture and Imagery – Four New Buildings” cited Harrison’s church as one of four examples of a renewed interest in more sculptural curvilinear shapes and the press release quotes Harrison “to build a sanctuary for a Presbyterian church today which might be the same light structure of stone and glass achieved so marvelously in the middle ages.” The other three buildings are world renowned today and include Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal in New York City, Jǿrn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, Australia, and Guilaume Gillet’s Notre Dame Church in Royan, France. In her review of the exhibit Ada Louise Huxtable described Harrison’s church as “an exciting edifice” and cited all four buildings as “striking and controversial examples of a significant new direction in architectural design”.

One of Harrison’s partners marveled at his willingness to devote so much time and effort to so relatively small a project and for so little pay. Harrison said “I guess we’ve spent more time on the Stamford church than on anything we’ve ever built. But it’s been more fun”.

Sources

(1959) Drexler, A. The Museum of Modern Art Press Release No. 12

(1959) Huxtable, A. L. Architecture and Imagery New York Times, February 15

(1959) Von Eckardt, W. A Lay Report on Harrison’s Stamford Church Journal of the AIA, June

(1960) Bland, W. F. Church, Committed to New Life, Takes Its Bearings for Course Ahead First Presbyterian Reflector Vol. 11 No. 2 pp.8-9

(1960) Lamar, R. C. 1952-’53 Year of Revelation and Decision First Presbyterian Reflector Vol. 11 No. 2 pp.4-5

(1960) Stolley, R. B Combined Daring and Faith Capture History’s Most Glorious Tradition In Gothic Cathedral Architecture First Presbyterian Reflector, Vol. 11 No. 2 pp. 6-7

(1989) Newhouse, V. Wallace K. Harrison, Architect Rizzoli International Publications, NY, NT

(2007) SGGA Reference & Technical Manual: A Comprehensive Guide To Stained Glass p.100 SGGA Raytown, MO

(2008) Prudon, T. H. M. Preservation of Modern Architecture John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ