1890, Immanuel Lutheran Church
2 Michigan St. NE
Ten churches, awe-inspiring compositions of historic stained glass, expertly crafted stone and brickwork, intricate carvings and soaring towers, provide markers of not only Grand Rapids’ physical growth, but also its religious and social richness.
By Mark F. Miller, AIA
Photography by Michael Buck
Whether standing in the heart of the Medical Mile, driving down U.S. 131, or simply strolling through downtown Grand Rapids, you are likely to catch a glimpse of one of the city’s many churches. Countless houses of worship dot the skyline, providing an unexpected splendor of high-quality monumental art and architecture woven through the urban fabric.
These awe-inspiring compositions of historic stained glass, expertly crafted stone and brickwork, intricate carvings and soaring towers — some of which have existed since the days of the city’s early beginnings — provide markers of not only Grand Rapids’ physical growth, but also its religious and social richness.
The sheer quantity of sacred spaces, many of which are within the downtown area, seems remarkable for a city of this size, and may, in fact, be one of the reasons we never suffered the same extent of urban decline as other Midwestern cities in the 1960s and ’70s. Many of these congregations elected to remain in the city, even when the strictures of culture and society were compelling them to flee to suburban locations — making them one of the cornerstones of GR’s ongoing renaissance.
The selection of just 10 churches for this article proved difficult. The choice was influenced by the historical and architectural significance of the buildings and shaped by the desire to provide a relevant cross-section of the physical and spiritual framework that these places provide. And while many deserving houses of worship have not been included, I believe that they are represented, both physically and spiritually, by these 10.
The list is dominated by Gothic Revival designs, because many of the highlighted structures were built during the period of time that this style was in vogue: from the 1840s until the early part of the 20th century. It also includes two churches designed and built after 1950, another that represents a simplified Byzantine architecture, and two that are emblematic of the Romanesque Revival style.
All of these structures, while compelling architectural edifices, are far more than simply buildings; they are beautiful extensions of faith, worship, ministry and community.
These are the 10 sacred places that help to represent our history and faith.
Immanuel Lutheran Church
Nestled next to Van Andel Institute, this rusticated-stone, Romanesque revival brick structure anchors the western edge of the Medical Mile. The church’s double spires, crisp yellow brick walls and sensitive contextual additions provide a unique juxtaposition to the surrounding modern medical buildings.
While offering a massive structure on the outside, the church provides a surprisingly intimate sanctuary space because of expertly rendered interior architecture that employs columns, balconies and warm wood details to scale the space. Anchoring the sanctuary at the chancel is a colorful tile mosaic surrounded by intricately carved wood trim. Commissioned in the 1960s, this soaring sculpture, with a statue of Christ in the center, provides rich symbolism for the parishioners. Like many of the churches in this article, technology has been deftly added to the sanctuary without visibly interrupting the grand architecture or historic detail.
In 2008, the congregation commissioned a ministry center addition to the south that includes a large gathering room, classrooms and a glass-walled connector to the historic church. This addition, sitting atop the hill, creatively uses the site topography to provide compelling interior views while seamlessly integrating into the overall composition of its century-old neighbor.
Immanuel Lutheran Church, which has resided in this hillside spot since the congregation built its first lap-sided wood chapel in 1858, has been witness to tremendous growth and resurgence. The congregation has sought partnerships with its medical neighbors and most recently hosted a picnic for incoming residents at the new medical school across the street.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
The city’s oldest building to be in continuous use, St. Mark’s is an elegant Gothic Revival church that typifies the style, including a cruciform plan, lancet (pointed arch) windows and soaring towers with spired belfries. Constructed of Grand River limestone — some excavated and hauled up the hill by parishioners — this church was, at the time of completion, the largest church west of Detroit.
Due to limited funds during the initial construction, the towers (1851), transept (1855), chancel and spires (both in 1872) and buttresses were added over time using brick rather than stone and giving the building a charm that is unique to St. Mark’s. These distinct material changes, including the stone of the 1902 parish house, offer visual queues as to the evolution of the physical church.
Considering the age of this building, the pristine condition of the exterior and particularly the interior is immensely impressive. This is no accident. As is the case with all the structures chronicled here, these churches have been vigilantly maintained by generations of parishioners, who have recognized them for not only their physical beauty but also for their importance as tools of ministry and community outreach.
As might be expected by its age, St. Mark’s has an outstanding legacy that is intimately tied to the growth of Grand Rapids, including being the home church for more than a dozen mayors of the city. The church also has seeded numerous institutions, including the creation of St. Mark’s Home and Hospital (now known as Butterworth Hospital), the founding of St. Mark’s College, and the establishment of four Episcopal congregations in the region.
St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church
St. Mary’s is part of the trio of west side churches (with the Basilica of Saint Adalbert and Saint James) that founded the neighborhood outreach program known as Steepletown. The Gothic Revival structure, made of white brick and Ionia sandstone, sits near the interchange of I-196 and U.S. 131 and has steadfastly remained an anchor to its neighborhood for 138 years.
Most recently, the church was shrouded in a framework of scaffolding as its 200-foot tower and steeple were restored, the large cross at the steeple top recast, and a new roof placed on the entire church. During this restoration, new slate shingles were placed on the steeple, giving it an impressive and colorful mosaic that can be seen throughout the city.
The ornate and compellingly detailed tower is accentuated with smaller spires and pointed arched openings framed with tracery, and houses four large bells dating back to 1877, the largest of which weighs more than 3,700 pounds.
The organ, built by the renowned E.M. Skinner Organ Co. specifically for St. Mary’s, soars above the rear of the sanctuary inside a case from the previous organ, which came from Notre Dame University’s Sacred Heart Chapel.
One of the highlights of the sanctuary space is the apse. Three stained glass windows, created in Germany and installed in 1926, form the walls of the apse and are flanked by piers capped with fleur de lis and olive leaf designs. Contained within the apse and behind the center altar, the statues of St. Joachim and St. Anne (father and mother of Mary) complete this enlightening space.
Cathedral of St. Andrew
1876, Cathedral of St. Andrew
267 Sheldon Blvd. SE.
Even though the cornerstone of the church was laid in 1875, much of what we observe today is the result of a substantial rebuilding effort that took place after a devastating fire in 1901 when lightning hit the steeple. The fire destroyed the roof, windows and a majority of the interior, leaving only the side walls and steeple intact. After the fire, the original cathedral, a rectangular basilica style plan, was remade into a Gothic Revival structure with transepts, arched windows and an elegant vaulted ceiling that ingeniously covered the charred beams of the original roof.
In 1915, donors replaced the existing simple prism windows with the exquisite stained glass that are visible today. These windows were crafted by F.X. Zettler of Munich, a world-renowned stained glass craftsman known for his ground-breaking blending of rich colors and intricate detail.
The interior of the church is lavishly adorned with gilded columns, a sky blue vaulted ceiling with gold-leaf stars and an ornately carved reredos that forms the backdrop to the altar.
The 192-foot spire rises over Piazza Secchia, which is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome and anchors an elaborate urban campus known as Cathedral Square. This campus includes the original rectory, Catholic Central High School, a gymnasium, the recently completed Cathedral Square Center and a currently underway plaza that will eventually extend to Saint Mary’s hospital.
Fountain Street Church
This Romanesque structure replaced the congregation’s previous Gothic revival church, which was destroyed by a fire in 1917. The church’s round arches (rather than the pointed arches of the Gothic revival), variable brick and stone facades, imposing bell tower and iconic rose window are emblematic features that capture the essence of the Romanesque revival.
1924, Fountain Street Church
24 Fountain St. NE.
The sanctuary of the church can seat 1,500 people and served as the city’s civic auditorium in the 1920s because of its capacity. The timbered roof and ornamental trusses frame this majestic space, and a soaring baldacchino (a heavy canopy over the altar) rises above the chancel, helping to frame the immense organ pipes. The arched ceiling of the chancel is covered with an intricate mural that is just one of many that adorn the volumes of the spaces.
The church, like a majority of those listed here, contains an impressive stock of stained glass windows, although the symbolism varies from the other churches. Traditional Biblical windows adorn the east wall of the sanctuary, while the west wall windows provide images of wisdom, service and freedom, including Plato, George Washington and Charles Darwin.
Numerous famous people have performed or spoken from the Fountain Street pulpit, including Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Malcolm X, Robert Frost, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Arlo Guthrie and U2.
First (Park) Congregational Church
This congregation celebrated its 175th anniversary in September and has the second oldest church building in Grand Rapids. The yellow brick, modified Gothic Revival structure is marked by its stately corner tower and a fabulous collection of Tiffany stained-glass windows. The windows, installed between 1904 and 1938 and purchased as memorials to former members, give the sanctuary a stunning ambiance. These incredible windows were recently meticulously restored and even have operable sashes that allow them to be opened on warm days.
Perhaps the most unusual physical characteristic is the church’s second floor worship space. This sanctuary, which was almost destroyed by an arsonist’s fire in 1988, is anchored by an ornately carved wood reredos (or altarpiece) created by Alois Lang, a master woodcarver at the American Seating Co. and one of the artists responsible for bringing the medieval art of ecclesiastical carving to life in the United States.
In 1951, the Thompson chapel was erected as part of a major project that added office space along Library Street and included the construction of the current bell tower. This chapel was funded in part by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who donated the money from his second congressional Collier Award to the chapel fund. Ironically, one of the chapel’s first uses was for the funeral of Sen. Vandenberg, who died a month before its dedication.
St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church
This simplified Byzantine style church sits just north of Wealthy Street, visually connected to both the Cathedral of St. Andrew and LaGrave Avenue CRC. Its three domes are emblematic of the Byzantine style and provide a unique contrast to the steeples that surround it. The chapel, built in 1925, was commissioned by a group of families who had emigrated from a small village in Lebanon. The close-knit group replicated the church in their village, even taking its name.
1925, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church
334 LaGrave Ave. SE
Byzantine architecture, particularly that of the Eastern Orthodox, is rich with religious symbolism. This is evident throughout St. George Church and most acutely expressed in the transition from the outside to the inside, as the building’s austere exterior opens to a richly decorated interior worship space. This juxtaposition represents the heavenly kingdom, which is plain to the world (the exterior) but richly vibrant and joyful (the interior) once you reach it.
The sanctuary space has a barrel vault ceiling with a central relief at the dome that contains a colorful mural of Christ at the top (the highest point of the church), surrounded by saints and prophets. The sanctuary is flanked by stained glass windows and cheerful yellow walls and is anchored by an iconostasis, or wall of icons, that separates the nave from the chancel. This wall, stopping short of the ceiling, is a classically detailed composition of ionic columns, entablatures, dentil molding and arches that is filled with icons (oil paintings of holy persons) that include Jesus, Mary and Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, who was instrumental in the founding of the parish.
Designed by world-renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn, this modern brick and glass structure is capped by an iconic butterfly-wing roof and bisected by a strong vertical element. Completed just a year before his death, the structure is characteristic of Mendelsohn’s mid-century synagogues, which included large expanses of clear glass windows that flooded the worship area with natural light.
At that time, the architect was adamant that the contemporary religious structure should be comprised of three units: the house of God, the house of the people and the house of the Torah. This building includes all three. An electronically controlled moveable wall separates the sacred space (the house of God) and the adjacent social hall (the house of the people), effectively doubling the size of the sanctuary when it is open. The third house, that of the Torah scrolls, is masterfully included in the rear wall just above the Bema, or raised platform, at the rear of the worship space, where a door reveals the sacred scrolls, one a survivor of the Holocaust.
This rear wall is defined by an expansive mural by Lucienne Bloch Dimitroff, the prolific multi-talented artist who apprenticed with Diego Rivera on his frescoes in Detroit and New York. This 1,000-square-foot oil and gold leaf painting covers the entire sanctuary wall and is a genuine work of modern art.
The congregation did manage to sneak one stained glass window into Mendelsohn’s creation. This window, from its original Ransom Street Synagogue, was crafted by Tiffany and has been placed as a link to the congregation’s long history, which began in 1857.
First United Methodist Church
This 175-year-old congregation’s church is a robust Tudor Gothic Revival structure made of Sandusky limestone. While almost completely covered with stone, the building’s superstructure is made of brick and concrete, with a steel frame supporting the roof — a relatively new innovation in the early part of the 20th century. The massive square bell tower, made only of masonry, soars 115 feet over Fulton Street and is visible from many vantage points throughout downtown. The rear addition to the church, completed in 1969, blends seamlessly with the turn of the century architecture and houses educational facilities.
The sanctuary contains the original pews, constructed by American Seating, and a large number of exquisite stained glass windows that accentuate the scale of the space. The windows along the east and west sides, including the clerestories, were crafted by Willet Stained Glass Studios in Philadelphia. The large chancel window, extending 14 feet high and 26 feet wide, consists of seven large lancets with tracery and was created by Tiffany. It dominates the front of the sanctuary and is one of the jewels of this fine church.
A Mathias Alten painting of the church from the 1930s hangs in the narthex, and the entire facility is filled with prized oil paintings, watercolors and sculptures that have been purchased through The Celebration of the Arts, an annual, juried, sacred art show sponsored by First United Methodist Church.
LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church
While the newest of the 10 churches, LaGrave Avenue CRC will be celebrating its 125th anniversary in February, and the current building sits at the same site as the previous church, erected in 1887 and designed by local architect Osgood and Osgood. The neo-Gothic structure, designed by the Grand Rapids firm Daverman and Associates, is a simple, clean, modern interpretation of that historic church.
Sitting atop the vertically accentuated bell tower, the iconic steeple — perhaps the most unique in the city — is represented by an uncovered, exposed structural framework that is symbolic of the unfinished work of Christ. The bell tower anchors the church at LaGrave Avenue and provides a focal entry into a large atrium space that connects the sanctuary, chapel and educational wing.
The interior of the sanctuary, replicating the clean lines of the exterior, has an exposed laminated timber column and beam composition that hold up a simple gable roof. A wood Gothic arch extension connects the column and adjacent wall, giving the perception of a historic exterior flying buttress.
Massive stained glass windows, similar to those on historic gothic churches, fill the side walls of the sanctuary, and the historic rose window, taken from the 1887 structure, sits high in the rear gable of the sanctuary, providing a connection to the past.GR
Mark F. Miller is an architect and urban designer at Nederveld and the former chairman of the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission.