Part I of III
The story of St. Edmund’s Church is significant in Dad’s career and in the history of American architecture–though he might not want me to make that claim. I can though because I’m not him.
Dad redesigned the house which was to be the new model for a subdivision–a contemporary home. The Milwaukee Journal picked up on the story of the contemporary house and did a feature article on it in the Sunday edition.
There was an architectural magazine at the time called House and Home. They picked up on the newspaper article and included it in their news items and made reference to the house with an article in their magazine. This led to one of the Journal writer’s contacting Dad. He ended up designing the writer’s house in Mequon.
So now he had his second house which led to a third — another Journal employee also hired him to design a house in Brookfield. Then another employee hired him to design his house in a subdivision near HWY 83 and I94. Because they were all connected with the Journal, the stories tended to get picked up from time to time and published in their paper so it brought him some publicity.
Dad had opened his office in 1955. By 1956, he was the first architect to design a hyperbolic paraboloid, thin shelled concrete roof in the United States. The design was for St. Edmund’s Church.
St. Edmund’s was founded in 1947 by a small group of Christian laity and clergy who had been meeting in temporary facilities in the village of Elm Grove, Wisconsin. Within a decade the group had raised enough money to construct their own building on land which had been donated to the congregation by members of their community on Watertown Plank Road in the village. Exciting things were brewing. –Debbie
The owner of Woodlam, which furnished the laminated beams for the church I had designed in Franklin, was Don Osenga. He had become good friends with the house client, Jack Schuldes, who was developing the subdivision we had discussed earlier in Brookfield. I remember so well Dolores had invited them all over for dinner which was a little tight in the kitchen of our upper duplex on Humboldt but it was a wonderful evening. It was Don Osenga who was on the building committee for St. Edmond’s Church in Elm Grove and had arranged for me to be interviewed there.
I was selected as the architect and eventually designed a very nice but rather typical contemporary church for them using laminated arches and beams.
The St. Edmund’s committee reviewed the design as it developed and approved it. After the committee meeting they had a coffee and cake gathering in the fellowship hall of their existing building. During this time, I got into some discussion on one of my favorite subjects which is architectural history.
I explained about Gothic Architecture with its incredible structural system and sculptured art forms. I explained that the two facets — art and structure — were totally integrated into one unit, but that the artwork was always subservient to the structure. As was true of all periods of architecture, the buildings designed for worship up to this point in history were always the most advanced structural scheme known to man. I pointed out how each of the elements of the Gothic structure had structural meaning and was necessary for its stability. This was the Gothic period’s way to express the inexpressible yet real understanding of the mystery of Jesus. By this time, all the committee members had gotten interested in my discussion.
They asked, “What would Gothic be today, following the description you just gave?”
This was the time that Soviet Russia had succeeded in putting an object into space known as Sputnik. As I recall, it was only a basketball sized object with radios contained in it so it could communicate with earth. This of course, was a tremendous achievement for science, fostering a great deal of discussion in all parts of society but certainly most prevalent in the church. There were critics of the church who said that Sputnik didn’t find any heaven in space, implying or stating that Christian teaching was now disproved.
Some of the committee asked me,“How would we make an expression merging science and faith today as was done in the Gothic period?”
“Well, I’m not sure but I’ve been reading about thin-shelled concrete where large structural spans can be developed based on the shape of the form instead of its mass.”
“Can’t we have something out of thin-shelled concrete?” The committee then asked.
“I really don’t know enough about it.” I responded. “I’ll have to do some reading, look into it and get back to you.”
So they all agreed to put my ‘very nice but rather typical contemporary’ design aside until I could look into thin-shelled concrete and see if I could find an engineer that was familiar with it.
for Part II Concept of Mystery tap here
Hi, Debbie. really enjoyed your story and the church is amazing!!! Heidi James Plotkin
Hi Heidi — so great to hear from you! Thanks so much for visiting the blog. It’s great to connect after all these years!
Just a story from my dad about yours. When my dad was chairman of the building committee (or possibly deacon board) they were interviewing architects for the new Elmbrook Church. There was a stream of teams coming through in three-piece suits presenting their ideas. Then a very casually dressed guy came in with mud on his shoes and a canoe on his car. He said he didn’t want to do churches because he though money should be spent on church ministries, not church buildings. Guess who got the job! They just had to convince him that they too had a priority for ministry and missions!
Tom, that is so Dad. Thanks for giving the picture of who he was as an architect. He hasn’t changed. He would still stand for the same points and he’s probably still wearing the same pair of shoes!
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