“Even if you’re a Chicago native, you likely haven’t stepped inside the Gothic Revival–style Second Presbyterian Church that sits on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cullerton Street. It’s not that it isn’t eye-catching—its limestone exterior by architect James Renwick Jr. (of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral fame) features an elegant belfry. And although the church counts other luminaries among its designers and artisans—including a young Howard Van Doren Shaw, Frederic Clay Bartlett, and William Morris collaborator Edward Burne-Jones—the building has remained surprisingly under the radar.
“Its congregation—one of the longest-running in Chicago—now consists of around 125 members, who listen to the Rev. Dr. David Neff’s compelling, inclusive sermons and the 2,600-pipe organ’s celestial echo effect. The church also serves many other visitors seeking meals, music, and community.
“And if you’re interested in learning more about preservation, architecture, design, art, history, and hope, then Second Presbyterian Church is a one-stop-shop. Thanks in part to a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places (a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation), along with other grants and individual donations, the South Loop church is finally retaking its mantle as one of the city’s most beautiful houses of worship.
“On that gray morning, I was greeted by Linda P. Miller and Ann Belletire, two board members of Friends of Historic Second Church, a secular nonprofit formed in 2006 that seeks to return this undervalued jewel of the Windy City to its former beauty. They are also docents and were wrapping up a tour with a group of visitors who were there to see the newly restored, Tiffany-made Peace and St. Paul Preaching at Athens windows, both painstakingly refreshed piece by piece, and to marvel at Bartlett’s mural Tree of Life, which Chicago–based Parma Conservation recently restored.
“Scaffolding has been on the site on and off since restoration began in 2017. ‘At this point, it’s just part of the church furniture,’ quips Bob Irving, a docent. He points to the Bartlett mural’s choir of angels, their halos illuminated in gold, the rainbow atop which they float done in delicate Pointillist style. He hands me a pair of binoculars so I can look closely. ‘I’m sure nobody pays attention to the pastor,’ Irving jokes.
“True enough, if you sit in a sanctuary pew, you can’t help but be overcome by a presence, even if Rev. Neff isn’t speaking. Light streams in through the 21 stained-glass windows, nine of which are Tiffany-made. (None of those nine had been thoroughly cleaned since they were installed between 1894 and 1927.) The golden halos on the mural jump out in subtle relief. The chandeliers emit an ethereal brilliance. ‘It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk,’ Miller tells me. ‘A total work of art.’ (Mitchell, Preservation Magazine, Summer 2023)
Historic mural restored at Second Presbyterian Church; After more than 100 years, the vibrancy of the windows and the mural were hidden by dirt, leading supporters of the church to embark on a campaign to restore the artistic treasures to their original glory, Bob Chiarito, Chicago Sun-Times, 1/6/23