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Although Frank Lloyd Wright reportedly referred to the unique Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 9200 W. Congress St., as “my little jewel,” he never got to see it anywhere but on paper, and, of course, in his imagination.
The church, often lazily likened to a spaceship, is a little off the beaten path but it will be open again as part of Historic Milwaukee Inc.’s annual Doors Open Milwaukee, on Saturday, Sept, 24, and it’s well worth the trip to the far Northwest Side. (Annunciation will not be open on Sunday during Doors Open.)
One of Wright’s last designs – along with New York’s Guggenheim Museum – Annunciation is rooted in Greek Orthodox tradition, but with a decidedly modern twist.
While a few things at the church have changed over the years – the icons on the altar screen were replaced with more traditional examples (the originals are hanging downstairs), the planned stained glass windows were, indeed, ultimately installed, and the blue roof tile was removed (except on the entry arch, which is somewhat protected from the elements) – much remains the same.
The seats and even their Naugahyde cushions have been there since the building opened on July 2, 1961, and so has the gold carpet.
Like many of Wright’s works – including SC Johnson and Wingspread in Racine – the building was designed with a low-ceilinged entrance, here called a narthex, that opens into a large stunning space, creating the architect's trademark feeling of "compression and release."
In this case that space is a church based in Greek Orthodox tradition and its traditional equilateral Byzantine cross, which is represented in ways big and small, both obvious and less so.
Take for example the three striking light towers.
“There are 12 clusters for the apostles going through the pole with equilateral sides of the Byzantine cross design, and each cluster has three sections: Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” explains church member and tour guide Catherine Spyres, whose father, Judge Christ Seraphim, was the member who suggested initially Wright for the project.
“So even in the placement of the light bulbs you see the cross within the circle and that's the theme ... our central focus.”
The floor plan also references the cross, and the number of pews (the ends of which are shaped like fish) and, well, pretty much everything at Annunciation, has some religious significance.
“It is the – ‘grammar’ is the word he used – of the building,” adds fellow member and tour guide James Pouros, a retired judge whose father was also a key figure in the construction of the church.
Contrary to the architect's reputation, adds Pouros, Wright and his clients in this case had no beefs.
“One thing I want to make clear, and I think this is really important, is he got along swell with the congregation and vice versa,” says Pouros. “For this building, there had to be a lobby, if you will, an entry area. There had to be a raised area. There had to be an icon screen. All Orthodox churches have a screen like that. When you're facing the altar, you are always facing to the east and I could go on and on.
“This was all in the contract, these specifications, and he was a hundred percent cooperative in meeting those specifications.”
A little history
The Annunciation Greek Orthodox congregation was founded by Greek immigrants early in the 20th century and built its first church Downtown at 1300 N. Broadway, on the northeast corner of Knapp Street.
As the parish continued to grow, it found it needed a new, larger home. After World War II plans were begun. A building fund committee was organized in 1953 and a site on the southeast corner of 60th and Burleigh was purchased the following year for $77,500.
By 1955, a list of 10 architects was drawn up and when Seraphim looked at it, he noted the absence of Wright and suggested adding him.
Some committee members, Porous says, asked if Wright was even still alive.
He was indeed, and an approach was made.
“He was only a hundred miles west of here,” says Pouros, “and Judge Seraphim had some connections. So a handful of them went over there to talk to him. They went there with some trepidation, because this guy had this reputation of being a strong personality and they didn't know, is he going to chase us away or whatever?
“He ended up accepting the commission immediately: there was no hesitation.”
Part of the reason Wright accepted so readily may have been that his wife Olgivanna was Eastern Orthodox, a fact she pointed out later at the groundbreaking.
“That was one of the factors that played into him designing this church building and accepting the commission right away,” Pouros confirms.
By July 1956, it was widely known that Wright was in the running for the job, and he came to meet with church officials that month, though one of them told the Sentinel on July 9 that they, “hadn’t reached the stage of hiring Wright or any other architect.”
However, the following month, Wright returned with drawings and he was hired. It was at that meeting that Wright famously laid a saucer over his coffee cup and told the committee members, "here is your church."
Some of the renderings were published in newspapers in September and the characteristically un-shy Wright said the completed church would be, "a world wide attraction for people fond of beautiful buildings.
“‘It appears to me that this should be one of the most beautiful church edifices in modern times. Of course, that’s not saying too much for it. With this building we will bring the romance of the old down to the present’.”
“Annunciation church leaders believe that Wright, who thrives on controversy, has created something entirely different in the plans for their church,” wrote the Journal at that time.
“It will be a cross within a cross, which the people will occupy. In general form it will be Byzantine, which is still the most characteristic memorial form of the Greek Orthodox Church. A glass covered opening in the center of the main floor will provide a view of the Sunday school rooms below. The ceiling of the dome will be Persian blue on the outside and gold inside.”
The pastor, Father Emanuel N. Vergis, who had been at Annunciation just under five years, loved the plan.
“It expresses very well the aim we have had from the beginning, of building a church that would follow traditional forms and at the same time would provide a present day interpretation,” Vergis told the paper.
However, not everyone agreed.
“There was some hesitation obviously, and some people are always going to be traditionalist,” says Spyres. “Once things were explained, why the pews are blue, why it looked like it does – people need education and then they're more willing to accept.”
Among the most important people requiring convincing was New York-based Archbishop Michael, the head of the church in the United States at the time.
“Plans were opposed by the ruling prelate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America Wednesday as ‘modernistic',” the Journal reported in April 1957. “Archbishop Michael, New York, said that the building ‘should conform to Greek Orthodox tradition’.”
Michael asked church representatives to delay any plans until he could meet with them to discuss the matter. According to Vergis, the church could not move forward without approval from Michael.
“Plans for the building have caused considerable comment, both for and against,” Vergis said. “That was to be expected. When Mr. Wright works on something, you get that kind of reaction.”
Although Michael later got on board, that wasn’t the only hurdle that the Annunciation congregation faced.
The land that it had purchased for the new church found itself smack dab in the middle of a proposed north-south expressway route. The congregation was loathe to invest in building a church on a site that it might lose to the County Expressway Commission, even if the planned freeway segment wasn’t expected to be built for another decade.
After 20 months of negotiations – which set the project back a couple years – the commission agreed to buy the Burleigh land for $87,500 and in August 1958 the church building committee announced the purchase of a 20-acre lot on 92nd and Congress for $52,500.
The project was back up and running with construction slated to begin the following spring. The freeway segment was never built.
In February 1959, the church secured a mortgage, which also was not without controversy. Though the financing plan was approved by the building committee at what some said was the largest meeting in the history of the congregation, the Journal called that gathering, “a shouting, arm waving, table pounding meeting.” At one point an angry faction of about a dozen dissidents stormed out.
Then, before shovels broke ground, the 91-year-old Wright died on April 9. But the project now had momentum now and it moved ahead, with Woerfel Corp. as the builder.
The archdiocese approved the financing at the end of April and the groundbreaking ceremony was held on Sunday, May 17 at 3 p.m. On hand were Olgivanna Wright, daughter Iovanna Lloyd Wright Gardiner, son-in-law and Wright protege Wesley Peters, Wright apprentice Eugene Masselink, Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler and Tosa Mayor William G. Knuese.
Peters would take the lead in getting the building constructed in the absence of its original architect, and Masselink was also involved, as was Taliesen-based architect John Ottenheimer.
Many were moved to tears during the 90-minute ceremony at which Olgivanna said, “you made a wonderful choice in selecting an ageless man who could give you an ageless church. I happen to be Greek Orthodox. Often my husband would show me parts of the plans and ask me if it made the kind of house in which I would be satisfied to pray. I always said yes. It will be the most beautiful church in the world.”
And, indeed, when the building opened on Sunday, July 2, 1961, "beautiful" was a word that was uttered a lot.
The poured concrete building with its low-rising 104-foot dome was a nod to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople).
“Frank Lloyd Wright had inspiration, being an historian, from Constantinople, (and the) Hagia Sophia, Saint Sophia, which was a one-dome Byzantine-designed church, and the seat of the Byzantine Empire at one time,” says Spyres.
“That building was the largest interior space in the world for a thousand years,” adds Pouros. “Wright was a great admirer of the inside of that building and actually referred to it in his interviews and so forth. (This building) is also is reminiscent of the ancient Greek theater where you are in the round, similar to American Players Theater in Spring Green (where Wright’s home and studio were located).”
In an interesting side note, Stalin's daughter Svetlana – by then married to the widowed Wes Peters and living in Spring Green – brought her daughter Olga to be baptized surreptitiously at the church in 1971, as KGB agents lingered outside.
It took place after the official consecration of the church, says Spyres, who was there.
"The consecration of the church was another large affair and a very crowded church witnessed this event," she recalls. "Afterwards, people left the church, and we knew, not me so much, but my parents knew and the priest and so on that the KGB was outside because as you know, she would be followed everywhere she went.
"After everyone left, (Svetlana and Wes) approached the hierarchs and said, 'there's the archbishop everybody important (already here),' and they turned to my parents and said, 'and we'd like you, Judge, and your wife Celia, to be the godparents'."
So Spyres and her mother slipped out of the church and went to Marshall Field's to buy a christening outfit and returned and the ceremony was held.
Wright's "little jewel"
In addition to the pew ends that resemble fish and the Conrad Schmitt Studios stained glass windows (not of Wright design), the 261 round glass “clerestory” openings providing copious light, the stunning light spires and the cylindrical staircases, what I like most about the interior of the church is the way Wright played with space.
First there’s that trademark compression and release he loved so much as you enter the narthex and then the sanctuary. But then once again, those spiral staircases offer a return to compression before the biggest release: stepping out onto the balcony. From up here, you feel like you can touch the dome and the church suddenly feels twice as large as it did from below.
You could quite literally spend hours examining the copious details and the alluring curves and lines of this distinctive church, which is a surely an icon of Modernist architecture.
Even at 87 years old – the age at which he designed Annunciation – Wright refused to be predictable; refused to play by the rules. His church was modern, yet traditional. Nearly 90, and in the 1950s, he didn’t shy away for a second from designing a structure that was sure to challenge not only curious passersby, but the very people paying for it.
That the congregation not only accepted, but for the most part, embraced, this unique building – and paid handsomely for it – is a testament to its own vision.
(NOTE: If you want to learn more, check out John Gurda's 1986 book, "New World Odyssey: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and Frank Lloyd Wright.")
Find more great Doors Open sites here in Bobby Tanzilo's 2022 Door Open Milwaukee picks.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.