Urban spelunking: Immanuel Presbyterian brings Mix into the future
The exterior of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 1100 N. Astor St., is a stirring testament to the skill of Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix. I especially love the long shed-roofed dormer that follows the roof line part-way down the long, sloping gable above the sanctuary.
It reminds me of dormers on Mix's Grand Avenue Congregational Church, built in 1887 -- 14 years after Immanuel Presbyterian went up on the lower East Side -- though those are triangular and shingled with scalloped shakes.
But a visit to Immanuel has me wondering if Mix himself ever intended that long string of windows that serve as a clerestory in the sanctuary.
Photographs of the building before a disastrous December 1887 fire testify that it wasn't there. Instead, a pair of small gabled dormers flanked the larger transept gable, their three peaks aligned in a row.
But over time, Immanuel has done a good job of adding to Mix's church in a way that masks the changes unless you look carefully. A new addition on the south and east facades continues that tradition, using the same building materials and erected in a similar style.
Mix -- who worked on a number of fine early churches in the city, including others -- like St. Paul's and All Saints -- drew an eclectic Victorian Gothic church with a pair of square towers for Immanuel.
A colorful blend of materials -- gray and dark red sandstone trim contrasts with buff and rock-faced limestone and there are polished granite columns and wrought iron elements (the gates out front are the work of Cyril Colnik) -- was dubbed "Modern Gothic" at the time.
A 1971 report on the church for the Historic American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service's Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation raved, saying "Immanuel Presbyterian Church is asymmetrical in plan and elevations, picturesque in silhouette, and richly varied in color, texture, materials and ornament. The exterior is a splendid specimen of that bold, eclectic, Gothic style popular in England and this country during the third quarter of the 19th century."
It was quite an achievement for a congregation founded just a few years earlier, in 1870, by a group of parishioners from the First Presbyterian and the North Presbyterian Churches, founded in 1837 and 1849, respectively. Sources place the cost of the original project at anywhere from $160,000 to $200,000.
The interior was the work of Peter B. Wright and was, according to the 1971 report, "colorful and exuberant." Photographs show a balcony running along the back and aisles delineated by tall Gothic arches. There was an elaborately carved pulpit and an organ valued at $13,000 rattled the glass -- there are four gorgeous Tiffany windows in the sanctuary that you must stop in and see in person -- and rumbled the foundations.
(In a side note, the area beneath the sanctuary was unexcavated until now, when a lower level was dug to build a Sunday school area as part of the current project. During the excavation an old safe was found and it was opened with great anticipation. In a Geraldo moment, the door swung open to reveal ... a single coin. It was a quarter, dated 1897.)
All that changed on Dec. 31, 1887, when -- sometime after a choir had performed Handel's "The Messiah" -- a fire tore through the church, leaving little more standing than the exterior walls. An artist's rendering shows the entire structure engulfed, with flames bolting through the windows and having devoured the roof.
"A fierce blizzard was raging at the time," wrote The New York Times in Jan. 1, 1888, "and it was with the greatest difficulty that fire engines reached the scene. A policeman discovered the flames bursting from one of the windows shortly after 3:30 (a.m.) and gave the alarm promptly, but the fire had evidently been burning for hours before it was discovered, and the building was soon a mass of flames from the basement to the battlements of the tall stone tower."
The Times reported that the fire was presumed to have been the result of one of the building's four boilers being "overtaxed."
"The entire city was brilliantly illuminated," the paper wrote, "the northern portion being enveloped in a shower of sparks and firebrands."
Damage was estimated at around $100,000 and insurance covered about 70 percent of that. Other than the walls, one of the few things left in place was the marble baptismal font, which takes pride of place today in the center of the chancel.
When the building was rebuilt, that dormer appeared, though no source I can find reports whether or not Mix had a hand in the work to reconstitute the church. He was still working on projects in the city at the time, so it's possible, but it's also possible that those dormers weren't his at all.
Later, an addition was put on the north end, with a hall and a chapel and in the 1950s, a Sunday school building was erected behind the church on Waverly Place, next to the gorgeous Mix-designed Peck Residence, an 1870 Italianate cream city brick home with a Koch & Sons porch added in 1912. The house was acquired by Immanuel in 1998 and serves as the church offices.
That building was pulled down last year to make room for a parking lot and the new addition, which is being built by Berghammer Construction.
"It was meant for education, community service and our offices," Pastor Deborah Block tells me as we stand in the sanctuary. "Like many utility buildings, it was just not designed for the long run. It was just falling apart."
"Accessibility is so important not only for adults but for children, too," adds Associate Pastor Robert Ater. "The fact (as) that kids with disabilities couldn't get into Sunday school."
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