February 20, 2013

Modern Beauty in Gary, Indiana: Edward Dart and St. Augustine's Episcopal Church

Interior of St. Augustine Episcopal Church

photo by: Archive of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church

Interior of St. Augustine's, 1960

In 1927, 30 African-Americans chartered a new Episcopal mission in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, just across the Illinois border from Chicago. Though the congregation struggled in its early years, it was strong and financially stable enough by the mid-1950s to commission its own place of worship. But a chance connection and the unexpected relationship that followed created more than just a house of God.

In the '50s, Gary was a hotbed for the Great Migration. “Most of the blacks that came here were coming because they had job opportunities that they could not get in the South. And that seemed to be the group that founded St. Augustine’s,” says Paula DeBois, a member of the church.

By 1955, St. Aug’s, as it’s affectionately known, was working on the purchase of a pipe organ. When the topic of building their own church came up, the organ sales rep knew just the architect for the job: the Midcentury Modernist Edward Dart.

“I like to refer to this as a unique and very compelling American story,” says DeBois, who contacted me after reading an earlier piece about Dart from this blog. “You have this white, North Shore architect, although he is from New Orleans, and he comes down to what is relatively known as a steel mill, blue-collar town, and he’s working with what is a colored Episcopal mission, and all that entails in the mid-'50s. I’m sure he got ribbed for dealing with a colored mission no matter how well-heeled the congregants were.”

Architect Edward D. Dart

photo by: Archive of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church

Architect Edward D. Dart in Gary, Indiana, 1956

The marriage was indeed unusual at the time, but what resulted was an architectural masterpiece.

Though Dart’s first design was scuttled, the two sides worked together for four years to develop their vision. True to Dart’s philosophy, the design incorporated local materials like Indiana limestone. When it was completed at a cost of $120,000 in 1959 (as just Dart’s second church), it almost immediately won the AIA Citation of Merit and the Church Architectural Guild’s Honor Award. It was also featured in numerous magazines and advertisements, which DeBois is still discovering today.

But even though St. Augustine’s was a media darling, the congregation didn't receive much credit. Congregants noticed that publications never used photos showing members of the church.

“All of us in my age bracket have commented on that,” says DeBois. “The old folks are used to it. But they photographed them and never really let you know it was a colored Episcopal mission, which would be about what they would do back then. It’s kind of like they neutralized you. That’s my best description.”

DeBois adds that it was also unusual that the mission wasn't granted full parish status until 1961 -- two years after the building was completed.

Exterior of St. Augustine Episcopal Church

photo by: Paula M. Debois

Exterior of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 2012

But despite the slights in earlier years, today the congregation remains strong and the church is as beautiful as ever. One of the very few alterations was the commissioning of stained-glass clerestory windows in the '70s. The rest has been preserved meticulously.

“I can remember when they quibbled and squabbled over having air conditioning in there because it might mess up the wood,” says DeBois.

As for future preservation, the church will be included in a book by Gretchen Buggeln, a professor of art history at nearby Valparaiso University, detailing the church designs of Dart and two other architects. In addition, the congregation, which averages about 80 years of age, continues to research new ways to reach out to the community and attract new members. For her part, DeBois is about halfway through the process of getting St. Aug’s added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“I think it’s a source of pride,” says DeBois of the church. “You've got several different things at play there, but yet, they all had the same vision. Once they all got on the same page, look what they could accomplish.”

David Weible

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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