Stained-Glass Windows and a Chorus of Painted Angels Glow Again Inside a Chicago Church
Even if you’re a Chicago native, you likely haven’t stepped inside the Gothic Revival–style Second Presbyterian Church that sits on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cullerton Street. It’s not that it isn’t eye-catching—its limestone exterior by architect James Renwick Jr. (of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral fame) features an elegant belfry. And although the church counts other luminaries among its designers and artisans—including a young Howard Van Doren Shaw, Frederic Clay Bartlett, and William Morris collaborator Edward Burne-Jones—the building has remained surprisingly under the radar.
Its congregation—one of the longest-running in Chicago—now consists of around 125 members, who listen to the Rev. Dr. David Neff’s compelling, inclusive sermons and the 2,600-pipe organ’s celestial echo effect. The church also serves many other visitors seeking meals, music, and community.
And if you’re interested in learning more about preservation, architecture, design, art, history, and hope, then Second Presbyterian Church is a one-stop-shop. Thanks in part to a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places (a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation), along with other grants and individual donations, the South Loop church is finally retaking its mantle as one of the city’s most beautiful houses of worship.
I’ve lived in Chicago for six years, have taken many architectural walking tours (including in the adjacent Prairie Avenue District), and even have a handful of friends who live a few blocks north. Yet somehow I’d never considered this building—a National Historic Landmark for its Arts and Crafts interior—an important destination. To be honest, I hadn’t considered it at all. But then I popped by for a visit on a chilly March day. Now I’m a Second Presbyterian convert.
On that gray morning, I was greeted by Linda P. Miller and Ann Belletire, two board members of Friends of Historic Second Church, a secular nonprofit formed in 2006 that seeks to return this undervalued jewel of the Windy City to its former beauty. They are also docents and were wrapping up a tour with a group of visitors who were there to see the newly restored, Tiffany-made Peace and St. Paul Preaching at Athens windows, both painstakingly refreshed piece by piece, and to marvel at Bartlett’s mural Tree of Life, which Chicago–based Parma Conservation recently restored.
If you’re interested in learning more about preservation, architecture, design, art, history, and hope, then Second Presbyterian Church is a one-stop-shop.
Scaffolding has been on the site on and off since restoration began in 2017. “At this point, it’s just part of the church furniture,” quips Bob Irving, a docent. He points to the Bartlett mural’s choir of angels, their halos illuminated in gold, the rainbow atop which they float done in delicate Pointillist style. He hands me a pair of binoculars so I can look closely. “I’m sure nobody pays attention to the pastor,” Irving jokes.
True enough, if you sit in a sanctuary pew, you can’t help but be overcome by a presence, even if Rev. Neff isn’t speaking. Light streams in through the 21 stained-glass windows, nine of which are Tiffany-made. (None of those nine had been thoroughly cleaned since they were installed between 1894 and 1927.) The golden halos on the mural jump out in subtle relief. The chandeliers emit an ethereal brilliance. “It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk,” Miller tells me. “A total work of art.”
In 1842 a group of 26 prominent Chicagoans got together to organize the Second Presbyterian Church. Originally a modest wooden structure downtown, then a stone church designed by Renwick, the building, like so much else in the City by the Lake, was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. By 1874, Renwick’s firm had completed a new church on land that the congregation had purchased before the fire. But fire struck again in 1900, destroying the sanctuary.
The congregation hired 31-year-old architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who would become a leading figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement. Shaw had been raised in the neighborhood and was a member of the church. He softened the Gothic peaks of Renwick’s ceiling, which he lowered by 14 feet, and increased seating to 1,200. He also commissioned 175 depictions of angels and a limestone baptismal font and sprinkled the plaster-relief ceiling with raised geometric designs and grotesques. Shaw collaborated with 28-year-old Chicago muralist Frederic Clay Bartlett to dream up the chancel painting. When Booker T. Washington came to speak in the early 1900s, after the newly resurrected church reopened to the public, the building was so packed that hundreds of would-be audience members were turned away.
As congregants moved to other areas of the city, the church remained open, if relatively empty. By the 1970s, there were fewer than 70 active members. “But the church members were such careful stewards of this building that even when they didn’t have the resources, they still maintained the building,” Ann Belletire tells me as she tours me around the sanctuary and the adjacent Parish House. “When something needed repairs, the congregation did what it could, but with little money, they really left the sanctuary intact.” Without extra funding, no gaudy renovations took place. “You know, in the 1950s and 1960s, people thought Tiffany was passé, and they got rid of a lot of Tiffany windows around the country,” Linda Miller adds. “Thank goodness that didn’t happen here.”
The interior has long been considered one of the best examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement, and the church was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. But over time, Second Presbyterian deteriorated, its glass panes and its metal chandeliers with sculpted angels’ wings nearly forgotten beneath decades of dirt. “Maybe flying under the radar for a while was lucky,” Belletire says. “It gave us this beautiful space to restore.”
“In the 1950s and 1960s, people thought Tiffany was passé, and they got rid of a lot of Tiffany windows around the country. Thank goodness that didn’t happen here.”Linda Miller
One of the first restoration projects involved replacing the protective glazing on the circa-1893 Burne-Jones windows in the narthex, the anteroom where visitors first encounter religious art upon entering the church. Although the entryway is rather small, it sets a reflective mood. Later, the Friends group hired Parma Conservation to restore the narthex’s stenciled murals. “The church is one of my favorite places in Chicago, and 25 years ago, when I moved back here from Italy, I got in touch with the pastor at the time, but they weren’t ready to do any restoration work,” says Parma principal and cofounder Elizabeth Kendall. “Then 20 years later, Friends got in touch, and we gave them a proposal.”
The Friends were pleased with Parma’s work and rehired the company to clean up the artwork in the arches and the four plaster angels. Last October, Kendall and her colleagues got up on scaffolding and began painstakingly cleaning and restoring Bartlett’s Tree of Life mural, which takes up the entire back wall of the chancel. Once they removed the oxidized resin and grime from the wall, Kendall says, “It was like Christmas every day. Those angel faces are painted exquisitely.” She admits she was a little sad when the scaffolding came down. “We’ll never be that close to those angels again.”
Thomas Venturella, who specializes in stained-glass restoration, was recruited to restore the Tiffany windows, one by one. The first, known as the Peace window, cost about $340,000 and took a year to restore. “It was one of the filthiest windows we’ve ever touched,” Venturella says from his studio in Troy, New York. “There were mud wasp nests attached to the back. The larvae were still alive, crawling through when we took it down.” He had assumed that about half of the panels would need to be releaded, but as he took apart the window—facing the pieces down on a board, extricating the glass from the lead, taking rubbings and photographs, then mounting it to a foam core and driving it back to New York state—he realized the whole window required releading. He cleaned each piece using a paste and soft toothbrushes, polished the edges with an acetone swab, and fixed broken segments with Hxtal NYL-1 (a two-part epoxy developed by NASA). “My goal was to make the window so clean, it would make everything [else] look dirty,” Venturella says.
“To see the windows finished is wonderful, but now that they’ve finished the mural in the chancel, the whole thing is coming to life.”Thomas Venturella
During a site tour after the Peace window’s re-installation, the late Chicago financier and philanthropist Richard Driehaus put his arm around Venturella’s shoulder and said, “‘Which do we do next? I want to finance it,’” the restorer recalls. “I said, ‘St. Paul [Preaching at Athens].’” That one cost around $450,000 and took about a year, with completion in 2022.
When I visited in March, workers were removing another window, Mount of the Holy Cross. It should take about 14 months for Venturella to restore and will cost about $550,000. “To see the windows finished is wonderful, but now that they’ve finished the mural in the chancel, the whole thing is coming to life,” he marvels. “It’s gorgeous. It puts you in a meditative space.”
Rev. Neff agrees, even though his office in a corner of the church remains rather untouched and cluttered with art supplies and books. He’s an affable guy who loves to engage with people of all faiths and backgrounds. Linda Miller told me that although there’s a saying that the most segregated hour in the country is 11 a.m. on a Sunday, that’s not true of Second Presbyterian, where about 40 percent of worshippers are African American, a fair number are African, and the rest are mostly Asian American and white. Neff says many members live in the South Loop, but also in nearby Chinatown and even the southern suburb of Olympia Fields. The skyscraping condominiums that have gone up in the past decade, drawing young professionals to the South Loop, have also helped increase Sunday attendance and diversity. “When I stand and look out at the congregation, it truly is a rainbow,” Neff says, noting that he’s preaching beneath a rainbow mural.
Since arriving in 2011 he’s worked hard to welcome the local community. The church provides free lunches four days a week, suppers on Sundays, after-school tutoring, and a basketball gym upstairs. (All of these take place in the Parish House, which was renovated in 2022 with the help of a $250,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places.) Neff says that sometimes, when he’s alone in the church, he goes into the sanctuary and just sits among all this newly revealed beauty and feels a holy presence. “The building is fulfilled; it’s reached a state of self-realization,” he tells me. “The word that comes to mind is abundance. God is the divine artist, and though the architects designed this space to be measured and proportionate, your mind takes it to the next level.”
Second Presbyterian Church may still fly under the radar, but it’s gaining some more visibility. Presenter Geoffrey Baer recently gave a shout-out to the church on his television show, The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago, which aired in March on the city’s local PBS affiliate. The Friends of Historic Second Church have counted visitors from 63 countries joining their weekend docent-led tours. Sometimes the groups consist of tourists walking by, fresh from the nearby Glessner House museum. Other times they include people wandering back to their Airbnbs from McCormick Place Convention Center. Music fans may stop by services to hear the resident vocal quartet, the beloved organist, or the South Loop Symphony Orchestra.
Increasingly, visitors are architecture lovers and Arts and Crafts enthusiasts. “On a sunny day, these figures in the Tiffany windows dance. They will literally make you speechless,” says Miller. Once the third window is replaced, she and the rest of the team who have helped restore this spectacular sacred space hope it will find its place among the city’s most treasured destinations. “Every detail of that church is magnificent,” says Elizabeth Kendall of Parma Conservation. “There aren’t better examples of the Arts and Crafts movement. It should be better known.”
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