Jim McKee: First-Plymouth church is Lincoln's second architectural gem

2011-07-24T08:30:00Z 2011-08-05T16:15:43Z Jim McKee: First-Plymouth church is Lincoln's second architectural gem JournalStar.com
July 24, 2011 8:30 am

Concurrent with the sale of First Congregational and First Presbyterian churches on South 13th Street to the Lancaster Hotel Corporation, First Congregational merged with its offspring Plymouth Congregational and moved to the latter's 17th and A streets building. It immediately began planning for a new edifice under the Rev. Benjamin F. Wyland, who had been called to First Congregational in 1926. Wyland envisioned a new form of church architecture that would be a living building not just for the congregation but for the entire community. And to cost no more than $500,000 complete with all furnishings.

A five-member building committee was formed Feb. 20, 1928, followed by a finance committee. The goal was to finance the construction by raising $300,000 from the 14 wealthiest members and sell the old church for $100,000, with the balance coming from the congregation. The site purchased was a half-block then holding the Whitton-Carlisle School, housed in a large mansion on the northeast corner of 20th and D Streets, and the adjacent Clyde Davis home, both of which were acquired for $32,248.

 

Three architects presented proposals for the new church building, including Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, whose design won the Nebraska State Capitol competition. The architect chosen for the church was Harold Van Buren Magonigle of New York City, also one of the 10 finalists in the Capitol competition and the first person to be awarded a doctor's degree in architecture in the United States. A large body of correspondence evolved between Magonigle and Wyland regarding the philosophy of the church's design.

It was agreed that First-Plymouth should represent "a break with the traditionally eclectic approach to church architecture (and tie into) the limitless space of the prairies."

Olson Construction Co. was chosen as the general contractor, Abel Co. donated the bricks and Angelo Tagliabue of the John Donnelly Co. was the sculptor.

To represent the prairie, Magonigle and his associate, Robert W. McLaughlin Jr., chose seven sizes of polychromatic bricks in five native colors. The overall color scheme was centered on the theme of old rose representing the prairie sunset and tawny gold for the harvest.

A general concept supposedly developed around a European manor/farm, with the 800-square-foot enclosed forecourt representing an area where area families and their livestock might be protected from hostile forces, the main sanctuary a barn and the carillon a granary or silo. The primary south entrance doors with polychrome tile surrounds and deep blue tiles recalled the vast expanse of Nebraska's skies, while the rose window above represented the earth supplanted with a cross for the church, which in turn featured a central sheaf of wheat for agriculture.

The forecourt is then surrounded by an arcade on the east, south and west sides and a two-story parish house to the west. The most recognizable feature of the overall church design is the 20-sided, 171-foot tall parasol-roofed carillon, which is reminiscent of the 1928 Magonigle-designed Liberty Memorial Tower in Kansas City, Mo. On completion, the 48-bell carillon was the only true carillon in Nebraska or any state touching it.

The interior of the church, from the walnut pews and decorative floors, features earth colors and 10 varieties of English White Glass overlaid with various Christian symbols in "detailed spun lead." One feature, no longer extant, was the ceiling stars, arranged as they would have appeared at the time of the Nativity with the Star of Bethlehem over the pulpit and the Southern Cross over the south entrance door.

The completed church was to ultimately cost $518,000, only a minor overrun, termed "as unorthodox in church construction as the Capitol was in Capitol construction" and second only to the state Capitol in architectural merit.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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