Not a Coincidence

Part III of III

Dad’s premise in architecture is the importance of structure. The structure becomes an extension of the environment in which it will live, a reflection of what is already created, and an expression of the earth’s beauty through design. I see the parallel in dance which we’ve often talked about together — the discipline, design and ultimate freedom that develops from structure. I understand what it means to give that structure to movement and choreography, to individuals in classes and to kids in our city schools through my work at Danceworks.

Danceworks Performance Company Photo credit: Meredith Watts

Dance under construction: Danceworks Performance Company
Photo credit: Meredith Watts

St. Edmund's under construction

St. Edmund’s under construction

Dad never put his initials on one of his buildings. He never stopped to market his work or even document it chronologically. That’s why I’m doing it now. Much of his work isn’t photographed. If you ask him why not, he’ll say,

“I was always working on the next project.”

He’ll also tell you he prayed a lot. He tried to avoid that last minute pressure by disciplining himself to work on the design during the day. It never worked. It was when he was alone in the office at night, the day before the project was due, that he’d sit down and look at his blank sheet of paper. He didn’t know where the design would come from. He would usually have to be pushed right up to the moment he was committed to meet with the client and then the concept emerged. That moment is still vivid in his mind for every project. –Debbie

I couldn’t help but reflect on the difference between Candella’s approach and Parme’s theory. Candella figured the thrust of the arch had to be resisted with the large buttresses he proposed to add along the sides of the shell. Parme’s theory argued that the thrust remained within the form of the hyperbolic paraboloid shell and therefore no additional buttresses would be needed. All of the thrust came to the support point of the shell.

I designed the buttresses that would receive all the forces out of the concrete shell — which was 85 feet across between the buttresses, 120 feet from tip to tip and three inches thick. Much like the early Roman barrel vaults, we tied the buttresses by connecting them with the post tensioned cables. The tie obviously had to be below the floor-line but the base of the shell was six feet above the floor-line. This created significant forces within the buttresses and in the foundation beneath them. I had sent off copies of the final design to Felix Candella to keep him informed. The buttresses had been poured and the contractor was starting to install the form-work which would support the concrete shell. About this time, I got a note from Candella saying he had looked over what I sent him. It read,

I won’t say it will fall but if it stands it will be a coincidence.

Right after the pouring of the concrete was completed and the 28 day curing period began, there was a family camp from our church at Green Lake, Wisconsin. Dolores and I, with our three children went to the family camp. Needless to say, our prayers during this time were pretty intense. When we got back to Milwaukee the curing period had ended and the form was slowly lowered, stresses checked based on the instrumentation that had been installed, everything was correct and the form was removed.

Mom looking all chic at Green Lake with the other Wenzler building project developing simultaneously

A few weeks later I was on the job overseeing what was going on. The contractor had erected scaffolding under the tip of the shell so they could rub the exposed concrete to give it a finished appearance. While they were doing this I walked up to the tip of the roof and I heard the workman hollering

“Get out! It’s moving! It’s going to fall and collapse!  Get out!

So I got down off the roof and talked to the workman who said it moved every step I took.

Well, just think about it—the shell spans 85 feet, 120 feet tip to tip, is three inches thick. It’s going to be a flexible shape. So I reassured them and left the site.

Confident but needing reassurance, the first phone booth I found, I called Al Parme. I knew that it was structurally sound but I didn’t know how flexible it would be. I told him what I had just discovered and he confirmed everything I had said.

This awareness was important in the detailing of the connection of the nonsupporting walls of the church and the shell.  I designed slip joints in the flashing to allow for movement in the shell due to changes in temperature of the air outside. I had provided a steel pipe column at the mid points of the low side of the shell to control the movement on that side.  This forced all the movement to the high side where I accommodated it with the slip form flashing. This was necessary because the triangular shape formed by the low sides of the shell and the flat roof adjoining, created a triangular space which was glass. It was envisioned that one day this would be stained glass.

St. Edmund's Church 1956

St. Edmund’s Church 1956

I thought back to that critical building committee meeting where I talked about architectural history—especially Gothic which was an expression of the Christian faith for their day. We sought to accomplish that for our day. This church is an expression of the inexpressible mystery of the presence on earth of Jesus, who is more than a prophet but the one and only son of the living Creator God.

Church Interior

St. Edmund’s Interior, 1956



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

Dad's first office

Dad’s first office was in the back of Tom Trump Food Company on Wilson Dr. off
Capital. He and Tom shared Paul Klein Leather Company’s secretary which was next store.

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.

Mom preparing dinner in the upper duplex on Humboldt

Mom preparing dinner in the upper duplex on Humboldt Ave. with baby #3 on the way

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