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Gensler Finds God in Chicago
Fourth Presbyterian Church ditches tower for smaller expansion to its 1914 building
Gensler has designed a new addition to the church that will replace three previous ones dating to 1946.
Courtesy Gensler
The  foregone tower.
COURTESY Wired New York
Inside Gensler's proposed expansion.
Courtesy Gensler
The church is surrounded by big buildings, but the new expansion will not rise above the original 1914 structure. (Click to zoom)
Courtesy Gensler

Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church spent a decade unsuccessfully seeking permission to partner with a developer to expand, proposing multiple iterations of a highrise condominium with the church on the lower few stories, only to be shot down by a public nervous about height and density. “So we stopped, and regrouped. We need to do this on our own,” explained Fourth Presbyterian’s Reverend John Buchanan.

The Neo-Gothic church was built in 1914 by Ralph Adams Cram, the prolific architect behind buildings that include the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and much of Princeton University’s campus. Over the course of its life, the church has expanded as much as possible within its lot, building additions in 1946, 1957, and 1994. At 96, the church now sits in the shadow of the Hancock tower across the street, and strains to accommodate its 6,200-person congregation, nearly three times the size for which it was designed.

Fourth Presbyterian may lack a commercial helping hand, but it has at least acquired public approval, the design expertise of Gensler Architects, and nearly half of the estimated $48 million they will need to carry out their plans. Gensler will be tearing down all the additions of the past, stripping the building to its original 1914 form, and incorporating a structure just large enough to meet increased needs but within the height of the original church’s sanctuary.

Gensler’s design is decidedly modern. “We didn’t want to mimic the old church. We were trying to complement it,” said Brian Vitale, project architect from Gensler. To that end, they will borrow some of the church’s primary design features, including limestone reclaimed from a 1957 addition. Other elements of the old church will be followed in a less-literal sense, such as window proportions that will be echoed in the width and height of the patinated copper panels cladding the new structure. The choice of copper is also a nod to the old building, whose downspouts, dormers, lanterns, and other accents are made of copper and bronze now covered in a greenish bloom.

An airy, double-height atrium will connect the new and old buildings, and feature a clerestory and a grand staircase leading up to the chapel. Within the five stories and 82,000 square feet of the new wing, Gensler is incorporating 22 classrooms, a dining hall and kitchen, an outdoor patio and play area, and a 350-person chapel sized for weddings, funerals, and concerts. Despite a tight lot, the ground floor is set back 28 feet to create public space, with the rest of the building’s stories cantilevered to the property line.

The remaining process requires approval from the congregation, scheduled to vote September 19, and the granting of variances for minor modifications such as curb cuts. “We’ve probably presented this project to 1,500 people by now, and have really gotten no pushback on the design. Everybody’s happy,” Vitale said.

Julia Galef