Shortly before his death in 1961, world-famous architect Eero Saarinen wrote a letter to a group in Columbus that was working with him on the designs for the yet-to-be-built North Christian Church.
The letter was in response to a specific problem that had arisen during the planning stages, but it had a meaning that went far beyond any technical glitches. He wrote:
“I really, really want to solve it (the problem) so that ... when I face St. Peter I am able to say that out of the 20-30-40 buildings I did during my lifetime, one of the most important and one of the best was a church in Columbus, Indiana, because that church has a real idea in the way worship is expressed by the architecture and a real spirit that speaks forth to all Christians as a witness to their faith.”
That is a pretty significant comment about the church and its congregation, which observed the 50th anniversary of groundbreaking ceremonies last month.
Some of the “20-30-40” other Saarinen creations include the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; Dulles Airport just outside Washington, D.C.; and the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan. North Christian was his only church design, although he did work with his father, Eliel, in planning elements of First Christian Church prior to its dedication in 1942.
North Christian Church is one of the key icons in the depiction of Columbus as a mecca of contemporary architecture. Once irreverently referred to by local pundits as the “oil can” church because of a perceived resemblance of the 192-foot spire to the spigot of an oil can, North Christian has emerged to be part of the city’s “Unexpected, Unforgettable” brand.
It, along with six other structures within the city, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Three of those six structures also bear the imprints of the Saarinens — First Christian Church, the former Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co. downtown branch and the home of the late J. Irwin and Xenia Miller.
The history of Saarinen’s involvement with the North Christian planning speaks to a commitment that transcended the steel and concrete that formed the final product. Far from supervising the project and turning many of the elements over to assistants, Saarinen approached the undertaking with an attitude reflected in his 1961 letter cited above.
He met with the young congregation repeatedly over a space of more than two years. At one point he expressed his feelings about the “unique” atmosphere among the members that they were part of a “family” church and wanted to express that attitude in their new building.
That sense of family was rooted in the origins of the congregation, which was formed in 1955 and consisted of 43 members. In those formative years, the group met in the homes of the congregation before establishing more permanent quarters in the old Caldwell Mansion on 25th Street.
North Christian Church still has that aura of newness. It is, however, when one enters the church grounds proper and ventures inside the building that a much more personal feeling takes hold. It is the feeling of family that Saarinen witnessed among the congregation.