Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ecclesiastical Wonder of Wichita

Preface:  As I wrote this essay, I realized it was as much a memoir as it was a document of the mid-twentieth century history of the church.  It is a deeply personal remembrance of a place of huge significance in my life.

I want to give a special thanks to First United Methodist Church and to Polly McMillen, volunteer church archivist, for allowing me to research, scan, and use some of the photos and information from the church archives.
I’ve taken the liberty to condense the name of First United Methodist Church to “First Church,” which is how I’ve always remembered it.

Ecclesiastical Wonder of Wichita
Architectural essay and memoir
by Greg Larson, AIA

Crown begins journey to top of tower

     I was one of the ten-year-old children standing on the sidewalk in downtown Wichita in the summer of 1961.  Our vacation bible school teacher corralled us into a safe spot, across the street from the church, away from traffic and the construction site.  Squinting in the daylight, we all looked upward and watched the construction crane lift the modern, giant crown towards the top of the new church tower.  Before our eyes, an architectural wonder was taking shape to create a new urban sanctuary for First Church. 

Sanctuary and tower under construction 1961
(south edge of old sanctuary is on the left)
     It was a fertile time of growth for Wichita and our church.  The post-war economy was booming.  Agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and the aircraft industry were all fueling the expansion of the city.  Young professionals and their growing families came to the church to worship, to create lifelong friendships, and to find a place to nurture their baby-boom children. 

     After sitting and squirming in Sunday school as a young boy, I would play with the drinking fountains in the hall and run up and down the stairways with my friends.  Words of our actions would travel through the “mom” network back to our mothers.  After church, while my dad drove us home, I was given a stern lecture on what constituted proper behavior in a church.  Even so, I knew that our church was a special place.  The church school teachers treated me with love, as if I were one of their own.

First Church building completed in 1923

     In the late ’50s, more church-school classrooms were needed, and the neo-gothic style sanctuary, finished in 1923, was too small to fit the growing congregation.  The young, energetic pastor, Dr. Ronald Meredith, and the building committee began to develop plans for the church expansion.  At that time, there was a keen interest in creating a bold, contemporary building for the urban setting.  The church leaders organized a chartered train trip for the congregation to visit the recently completed modern-style St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.

     To proceed with a contemporary design in the late 1950s was a brave decision, and somewhat controversial.  After the group of church members traveled to Oklahoma City, they decided it was time to embrace the future, and asked the building committee to proceed with a modern design.  Glenn Benedick, an architect and member of the church, began to develop final plans.  Martin K. Eby, a well-known contractor and member of the church agreed to build it.  Mrs. Olive Ann Beech, wife of the deceased aircraft pioneer Walter H. Beech, was a major benefactor.  The new sanctuary with a seating capacity of 1,400 was built to the south of the existing church. Once the new sanctuary was functioning, classrooms and administrative offices were built on the site of the old sanctuary.

   As the church sanctuary neared completion, our Sunday school class was led on a tour by a church member who was knowledgeable about the symbolic elements within the design of the building.  I was just a young boy, but the tour made a huge impression on me, touching both my interest in art and my faith.

Fish and dove ceiling
Abstract window at the nave

     I was struck by the brightness and newness of the space.  The bold colors in the giant window at the nave of the church created an abstract arrangement of lines and chipped glass on a large framework.  Our guide turned our attention to the ceiling above, which was formed in the shape of a fish.  As I looked closer, the fish turned into a dove with wings.  Every direction I turned, there was something unique, from the curved brick walls and modern pews to the gleaming white floors around the altar.  We viewed the pulpit shaped like the prow of a ship, which appeared to float above the congregation.  Above the choir, open circles were arranged on a white curved wall in front of the organ pipes, creating a giant honeycomb appearance.  On the right side of the sanctuary, vertical windows with prismatic colors washed the walls with a pleasant glow.

Abstract stained-glass side windows

     We toured the narthex (lobby area) where light poured through the window wall facing Broadway.  Medallions of jeweled glass were strategically located along the front windows where they created contemporary symbols from nature.  The colorful and playful images of worms, fish, ants, and roosters made me smile.  Our guide told us the images symbolized God’s creation and love of all things.  It was an epiphany for me. As a ten-year-old pipsqueak, I figured there was hope that God loved me, too.

Nature Medallions
"Jewels of the narthex"

     On May 6, 1962, the congregation attended the inaugural church service in the new sanctuary.  The Wichita Eagle newspaper included a full page spread of pictures with an accompanying article to announce the newly constructed building.

     Above the main entrance at Broadway, a 24 feet high by 70 feet wide sculptural mosaic mural was taking shape with swirling symbols for the universe, God and man.  Designed and installed by Bernard “Poco” Frazier, the mural was entitled “Be Still and Know that I am God.”  Over 70,000 glazed mosaic tiles were fabricated from Crawford County clay, fired and used for the mural on the fa├žade of the church.  Poco and his assistants continued work on the mosaic for two years after the building construction was completed.  More than 14,400 man/hours were required to select and install all of the tiles.

"Be Still and Know That I am God"
Sculpture mosaic by Bernard "Poco" Frazier on the church facade

     Our family moved from Wichita in 1964, and my parents often traveled back to visit and maintain friendships with many of the church members.  In 1973, my parents returned to Wichita and First Church.  For five years I was a member in the 1970s when I returned to Wichita after graduation from college.

     The sanctuary has now been in use almost fifty years.  In a culture of impermanence, the edifice remains as a tribute to God and the bold vision of the church leaders of the ’50s and ’60s.  First Church continues to be a vital and active part of the city.  In 1975, it began televising and broadcasting the Sunday morning services.  The weekly broadcasts continue today, sending out the Word to Wichita and the South-Central Kansas viewers. Due to the broadcasts, many viewers think of First Church as Wichita’s Church.

     I visit Wichita occasionally, and when I walk into the church, the memories wash over me like the biblical flood.  I recollect the times I stared into the abstract window in the nave during the countless sermons, trying to think of all the things I could see in the colorful glass.  I remember hearing my older brother singing in the choir, and my younger sister as a member in the youth choir, The Free.  In 1978, my oldest daughter was baptized at the font in the nave.  The sanctuary was also the place where our family and friends said good-bye to my mom and dad when they each passed away.

     As an architect, I now see the church design through trained eyes, and understand the quality and significance of the details.  Modern design in the mid-twentieth century reduced the elements and materials to a raw and abstract state.  The design of this church reflects the basics: a circular building, a triangular tower, a honeycomb wall, and an abstract window.  Even the colorful side windows are symbolic of light broken into the separate wavelengths of pure light.  The multiple surfaces and curved walls assist in creating a balanced acoustical effect. 

     When it is properly executed, good design has a timeless quality.  Although my view of First Church is somewhat subjective, I truly believe the contemporary church passes the test with flying colors.  I never had the privilege of discussing the design with Glenn Benedick, but it is apparent to me that he poured his heart and soul into this church, from the crown on the tower to the stitches in the designs of the altar cushions. Every corner of the new facility was designed with loving care.

    When I walk into First Church in Wichita, I always feel at home.  It’s the place where a seed was planted for my interest in architecture, and a place where my love of God began to grow. 


To the Glory of God, Wichita, KS, First Methodist Church, 1961 budget summary.

J. Lester Hankins, Ten Adventurous Decades 1870-1970. Wichita, KS, First United Methodist Church, 1970.

Harvesting Our Heritage, 1970-1995 Wichita, KS, First United Methodist Church, 1995.

“First Methodist Church Services to Be Held in New Sanctuary Sunday.” The Wichita Eagle, 6 May 1962:  A14 – A15.

Beccy Tanner, “Sculptor left mark on state.” The Wichita Eagle, 22 May 2006, 1B