Lately the Church of the Brethren General Offices have been getting a lot of hometown love. At 60 years old, the building is turning heads.
Last fall it was the first stop on a field trip to Elgin for the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference, held in Chicago. On a smaller scale, the building has been featured twice on the Open Elgin architectural tour. And last month, the Church of the Brethren received a Mayor’s Award from the city of Elgin to honor the preservation of the building and its furnishings.
The attention has some employees a bit bemused because this low-slung building of glass and steel and fieldstone is simply the place they work. Most did not know that they were sitting on Eames chairs and Knoll sofas, setting their cups on a Saarinen coffee table, checking the time on a Nelson clock, and passing Bertoia benches in hallways. They did not know that these are envy-inducing artifacts of cutting-edge design in the 1950s—and now valuable collectors’ items. The church leaders who developed the building weren’t being extravagant. They were buying good quality of the day. They wanted a workplace that was sturdy, practical, and beautiful—guiding words that are preserved in the historical record of 1958, as architectural plans were being created.
The most dramatic part of the building is the chapel, whose thick walls are punctuated by jewel-like stained-glass windows. The elliptical lines of the chapel focus on the cross as symbolic of the centrality of Jesus. The walls of native granite boulders suggest the strength and ageless character of the Christian faith. The skylight conveys openness to God. I’ve always loved that space, and research for these events has given me a keener understanding of its creation and meaning.
I learned from our architectural friends that the chapel’s “floating” ceiling is a feature popular in mid-century buildings. But all that looking up caused me to notice that some of the tiny stained-glass windows are almost hidden by the ceiling. Why wouldn’t they all be placed where they can easily be seen by worshipers?
And then, while we were craning our necks, a couple of us realized that those highest windows weren’t there for us. The placement and proportions were for those looking from the outside. Windows let light in, and they also glow in the darkness.
Whether your space is a sanctuary for weekly worship or an administrative hub for ministries around the world, what does it look like to those outside your walls?
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.