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North Christian Church’s spire reaches 192 feet toward the sky, symbolizing the congregation’s connection to heaven, to God.
But for Senior Minister Lanny Lawler, architect Eero Saarinen’s design of the sanctuary, focusing on the horizontal — symbolizing the connections among the churchgoers — holds equal significance.
Crews broke ground on the structure just over 50 years ago, Sept. 2, 1962, and Saarinen had spent about a year talking to the congregation to make sure he understood The Disciples of Christ, Lawler said.
The center of the hexagonal structure holds the sanctuary, and the center of the sanctuary consists of a large table, made up of 12 smaller tables (for 12 apostles) and one larger Christ table.
Members of the congregation sit on pews parallel to the six exterior walls. No matter where they sit, each member sits across the table from other members, whereas in a traditional church, all pews face the same direction.
Saarinen “got it right,” Lawler said. “We often refer to ourselves as people of the table.”
The physical centrality of the table expresses the spiritual centrality of the church’s holy communion, which it worships every week.
The structure “reflects our identity well,” Lawler said.
North Christian Church is one of seven National Historic Landmarks in Columbus. Three were designed by Saarinen. North Christian was his last one. He died Sept. 1, 1961.
Saarinen was one of the giants in U.S. architecture, said Columbus architect Louis Joyner, who helped the congregation obtain a grant to replace the slate roof in 2005.
Saarinen also designed the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York City, the Main Terminal of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
Joyner said Saarinen designed high-end buildings that were all very different, often moving forward with projects without having a clear understanding of how to build them.
The designs, especially with the tools available to Saarinen at the time, were “just an amazing achievement,” Joyner said.
“He just kind of went on the faith that you could figure this out,” he said. “All his buildings are really groundbreaking, technically.”
Joyner said the genius of North Christian Church lies in the contrast between the simplicity of form and the sophistication of technique.
The building has a simple form, a bowl to hold the congregation, and, above and around the bowl, a shelter that allows light to filter in all around and through the oculus in the center of the ceiling.
But the congregation also wanted classrooms and meeting spaces as part of the church, and Saarinen did not want to add a wing here or there, because it would have destroyed the hexagonal design and the idea of the central sanctuary with the shelter above.
Saarinen addressed that challenge in a book, “Eero Saarinen on his Work:” In the 11th and 12th centuries, the cathedral building dominated everything, he wrote.
“Today, there are Sunday school rooms and good-fellowship rooms and kitchens and gymnasiums and square dancing rooms and so forth,” he wrote. “All these have tended to sprout into separate buildings and to get bigger and bigger and more and more important and finally, the church itself has become an insignificant, almost forgotten little thing.
“So, in this church, I would like to put all that activity downstairs. Maybe underground, hidden away, and put only the sanctuary above ground and make it the significant visual and architectural thing.”
The hexagonal shape continues into the building’s basement, featuring a central auditorium that hosts dinners and meetings of local clubs. Along the outside walls, classrooms provide space for instruction, meetings and the chancel and handbells choirs.
Joyner said that while Saarinen’s design provides a stark contrast to the traditional Gothic church, some aspects nonetheless echo elements of the traditional church. For example, the ambulatory — the circular aisled walkway around the apse of the traditional church — is reflected in the walkway around North Christian Church’s central sanctuary. The walkway separates the sanctuary from the offices, which line the outside walls.
And, Joyner said, from a bird’s-eye view, North Christian Church, together with the parking lot and its hedges, recalls the footprint of a traditional church, with the hedges resembling the pews and the church building mirroring the apse.
In 2007, Joyner helped church officials secure a $300,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program to fix leaks in the building’s concealed guttering, which had begun to damage the roof.
General maintenance on the building is paid through a trust that was established very early, possibly at the beginning, said Jerry Karr, chairman of the church trustees and a 35-year member of the church.
Over the years, the congregation has had to address venting and leaking issues in the spire, roof leaks in the sanctuary and other issues.
Karr said that members of the congregation and guests, which include the Cosmopolitan Club and Newcomers Club, are encouraged to notify the trustees if they see any damage or issue that could cause damage.
“The folks that oversee the physical structure are very dedicated and very astute in the stewardship of their finances,” Karr said.
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