The Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin, Ill., last month was on a tour of the PastForward Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. About 40 people from around the country took the bus tour from Chicago to Elgin for a “field study” of mid-20th century buildings. “Working Around the Clock to Preserve the Mid-Century” provided the theme.
Other stops in Elgin included City Hall, the Elgin Post Office, Illinois Second Appellate Court, Union National Bank, and a laundry building on the campus of the Elgin Mental Health Center, among others. In addition to architecture, the tour also paid attention to original furnishings.
Leading the tour of the General Offices were Elgin Historic Preservation Planner Christen Sundquist, Anthony Rubano of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, and local historian Bill Briska, with Brethren Press publisher Wendy McFadden hosting the group.
The General Offices is considered a fine example of the mid-century modern movement in architecture. It was built in 1959 by Frazier, Raftery, Orr, Fairbank of Geneva, Ill. As the tour made its way around the building, leaders pointed out the walls of stainless steel-bordered glass windows and doors, which also surround two courtyards. The design intentionally brings the outdoors in, and allows natural light into almost every office space.
As a contrasting element, solid granite fieldstone makes up the walls of the chapel, considered by many to be the building’s “gem”--a unique elliptical worship space dotted with small, jewel-like stained glass windows.
Stone also is featured on the front terrace. In another example of thin boundaries between natural and human space, glass front doors “float” in panels of glass that make visible the continuation of flagstone into the main lobby, which is floored with polished Pennsylvania bluestone.
Modular oak paneling makes up the interior office walls, and was admired for its flexibility. Rubano noted it as a precursor to the cubicle. Each panel--some with inset window or door--may be moved, which has allowed the configuration of the offices to be remade to meet different needs over the years.
Shortly after construction, the building was fully furnished with high-quality contemporary furniture. Much of that original furniture is still in use. As the tour progressed, staff found interested preservationists inspecting their office chairs, desks, and tables, delighted to discover pieces by some famous designers.
Among the pieces pointed out by Rubano: a coffee table by Eero Saarinen, Finnish architect and designer who teamed up with architect Charles Eames to develop furniture using molded, laminated wood; sofas by Florence Knoll, an architect and designer who trained under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eliel Saarinen; a wall clock by architect George Nelson for Herman Miller, who founded Star Furniture Company in 1905--the two worked together to produce some of the most influential furniture of the time, said one of the tour leaders. The yellow cafeteria chairs are by Charles and Ray Eames and produced by Herman Miller.
McFadden gave credit to the Brethren leaders of the mid-20th century for working with the architects to create a building and a work space that is practical, sturdy, durable, and beautiful in its simplicity. More than a half century later, their choices still serve the denomination well.
Go to www.brethren.org/album to find a link to a photo album of the National Trust tour of the General Offices.