The First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Connecticut was founded in 1853 and dedicated its first house of worship, a white frame colonial church at the edge of downtown Stamford. In 1884 a stone church replaced this building as the congregation’s membership increased and Stamford expanded around it. In 1952 the congregation’s size had doubled and acceptable worship and classroom space, and parking were problems. They decided to celebrate the congregation’s centenary by moving to a new building at 1101 Bedford Street. In the 1940s they had bought this eleven acres of rolling and wooded land, at what had become the new edge of downtown Stamford.
The site’s building committee was originally in favor of building another white frame colonial church. However, some committee members became intrigued with the possibility of building a modern design church after visiting St. John’s Lutheran Church in Midland, Michigan (Designed by Adrian B. Dow who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright). To resolve the question of colonial vs. modern, a firm of architects, Sherwood, Mills, & Smith was asked to study the project in collaboration with an outside architect. One of the partners was acquainted with Wallace Harrison and recommended choosing him as the outside architect.
“Donald F. Campbell, First Presbyterian’s pastor, remembers that at his first meeting with Sherwood, members of the congregation, and Harrison, the latter ‘expressed his interest in getting to know me and our theology. He wanted to go to Europe to look at churches there. Wally didn’t know what he would do, but he was honest about it. He was the only one without preconceived ideas for the project.’ As a result of this meeting, Harrison, in association with the firm of Sherwood, Mills, & Smith was asked to design the church complex: he would be responsible for the sanctuary (and a bell tower added in 1968); Willis N. Mills would take on the rest of the project, consisting of a small chapel and an educational complex” (Newhouse 167).
Dr. Campbell explained to Harrison that Christian theology as interpreted by American Presbyterians “addressed a God who was as much a part of everyday life as he was a transcendental being — a concept that the new sanctuary should somehow convey” (Newhouse 169). In 1953 Harrison visited churches and cathedrals in Europe reflecting on how to design a modern sanctuary, which would express this theology. His design was approved by the congregation, construction began, and the sanctuary was dedicated in 1958. When the sanctuary was completed Harrison declared, “the church was the most satisfying job I ever worked on” (Newhouse 172).
Newhouse, Victoria, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, New York, NY, Rizzoli, 1989