Second Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest congregations in the city of Chicago and has played a prominent role in the history of the city from its inception. Located in a landmark building known for its stained glass windows and Arts & Crafts interior, the church has seen dramatic changes in its congregation and surrounding neighborhoods over the past 173 years.
The congregation was organized on June 1, 1842, just five years after the incorporation of the city of Chicago. Dr. Rev. Robert W. Patterson was ordained and installed as the first minister. All 26 charter members transferred their membership from First Presbyterian Church. This split represented two factors – the growth of the city and a difference of opinion over the issue of slavery. Although members of both congregations agreed that slavery needed to be abolished, there were considerable differences in the way this was best accomplished.
In September 1842, Second dedicated its first building, a modest frame building along the lines of a meetinghouse, at the southeast corner of Randolph and Clark. The congregation grew rapidly, and the building was expanded twice within the next few years. By 1847, the business district of the city was encroaching, and a new lot was purchased at the northeast corner of Washington and Wabash.
By this time, the congregation had grown significantly, so a much larger building was planned. The well known architect James Renwick Jr. of New York was hired to design a building in the Gothic Revival style. It was a significant building in the city as it was the first church to be built of stone, and it also introduced the Gothic Revival style which was quickly adopted by other congregations as they constructed new buildings. The limestone used in the construction contained bituminous tar deposits, creating a spotted appearance, earning the building the name of the “Spotted Church.” The church became well-known for its music program, and a fine organ was purchased and installed and a professional paid quartette was organized. (The structure of a paid quartette is still used today).
In 1856, the Lake Forest Association was formed by members of Second Church. The next year, Lake Forest College was founded, and Dr. Patterson was appointed president. In 1859, Lake Forest Presbyterian Church was organized. The two congregations have maintained close ties since that time.
The explosive growth of the city in the 1860s required the trustees of the church to look for yet another location. In September 1871, Second merged with Olivet Presbyterian Church and the combined churches (maintaining the Second name) agreed to build a new church south of downtown. The last service was held in the “Spotted Church” on October 1, one week before the building was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. (Two pulpit chairs survived and are now displayed in the narthex. The spotted stone was later used to construct the present building for Lake Forest Presbyterian Church).
Construction on the present building, also designed by James Renwick Jr. was begun in 1872 at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Twentieth Street (now Cullerton). The design of the large structure was based on English Gothic churches of the 15th and 16th centuries. It took two years to complete. During that time, in 1873, Dr. Patterson retired after 31 years of service to the congregation. The neighborhood around the church became the most exclusive residential district in the city. Two blocks east of Michigan Avenue, Prairie Avenue became known as the street of millionaires, and was lined with costly mansions housing the business and social leaders of the city, many of whom also worshipped at Second. Prominent members, attendees, and trustees of the time included Robert Todd Lincoln, John Crerar, and members of the George Pullman, George Armour, Timothy Blackstone, Silas Cobb, and William Blair families.
During the 1880s the building was significantly improved. Following the death of George Armour, his widow and children provided the funds to build the bell tower and equip it with a two-ton bell manufactured by the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Company, installed in 1884. It is still rung every Sunday morning. Four years later, a major remodeling of the church was undertaken including the addition of the oriel window in the original pastor’s office, a redecoration of the sanctuary, and the presentation of a marble baptismal font by Mr. and Mrs. Norman Williams in memory of their infant daughter. In 1891 Mrs. Emily Eames presented the church with the beautiful silver communion service made by Tiffany & Co. which is still used today.
The late 19th century saw the establishment of several mission Sunday Schools by the congregation including Crerar Chapel which eventually grew into an independent church, known today as Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church. Along with the Bethany Mission, Moseley Mission, the Eleanor Reid Kindergarten and others, these missions served hundreds of children and families in various parts of the city, many of whom were immigrants and struggling to make a living.
To give some idea of the prominence of the church at this time, it is interesting to note that when President Grove Cleveland came to Chicago to open the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, he worshipped at Second Presbyterian. The following year, the second of the Tiffany windows, Angel in the Lilies, based on a window displayed at the fair, was installed in the church. By this time, a total of 2,395 members had been received during the first 52 years of the church, of which 791 were active at the time.
In March 1900, a devastating fire destroyed the interior of the church, but the stone walls survived intact. Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, a life-long member of the church and a trustee, was hired to redesign the new sanctuary. Rather than recreate the original Gothic Revival interior, he chose instead to design a beautiful new space in the Arts & Crafts style, incorporating beautiful carved wood, molded plaster, pre-Raphaelite murals, metal, and glass that exemplified the tenets of the style including unity of design and a focus on hand craftsmanship. The baptismal font was recarved in limestone, based on the original design. The sanctuary has been virtually unchanged since it was rebuilt in 1901, except for the addition of memorial windows, making it one of the largest and most intact Arts & Crafts interiors in the country.
In December 1901, just a few weeks after the new sanctuary was dedicated, the prominent African-American educator, author, and orator Booker T. Washington was asked to speak, and the crowd was so large that hundreds were turned away. He returned to the church for another speech in 1908.
A number of significant memorial windows were added to the church between 1901 and 1918. At present there are nine in the sanctuary by Tiffany Studios, and two important windows in the narthex designed by Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by Morris & Co. Additional windows in the sanctuary are the work of McCully & Miles, Louis J. Millet, William Fair Kline, and Gianini & Hilgart. Three of the Tiffany windows were installed in 1927 and came from First Presbyterian Church when that congregation opted to move farther south to their present location in Kenwood. Many of their members chose instead to transfer to Second, bringing their windows with them.
During the 75th anniversary celebration of the church in 1917, Howard Van Doren Shaw was asked to design the present one-story addition to the north side of the building which houses a kitchen, Sunday School rooms, and a library. This addition brought the structure to its present size. That same year, the four-manual pipe organ was rebuilt by the Austin Organ Company, featuring 50 stops and 2,600 pipes.
By the 1920s, the neighborhood around the church had changed dramatically. Most of the wealthy families had moved away to other areas, and many of the mansions were converted to business use, or now served as boarding houses. Others were simply boarded up or torn down. Industry, primarily serving the printing and publishing business, came into the neighborhood, completely transforming its character. Michigan Avenue itself was converted from an elegant residential street into “Motor Row,” featuring nearly 100 buildings housing automobile dealerships and other business related to that industry.
The congregation declined steadily during these years, and more than once various ministers advocated abandoning the building and moving elsewhere in the city, closer to the membership, where the church could continue to be the heart of a neighborhood. Many of the other churches in the immediate area did relocate, most farther south.
In spite of these changes and years of decline, a tour program was started in November 1940, with ushers trained to provide information on the windows and other artistic features of the sanctuary. Tours have been maintained consistently since that time, making ours the oldest continually operating tour program in the city of Chicago.
One of the most dramatic changes to the congregation took place in 1958 during the pastorate of Rev. Ernest Ackerman. It was at this time that the church became integrated, with Nixola Barnes becoming the first African-American admitted to membership. The issue was hotly debated, and Rev. Ackerman resigned soon after. He is remembered for his courageous service with a plaque in the sanctuary, and the bronze Celtic cross on the communion table is a gift to the congregation from Ackerman and his wife.
By the late 1960s, church membership was under 70. Serious discussions were undertaken as to the future of the church, and the decision was made to keep the doors open. Extensive renovations to the building were made with the hope and belief that the church and neighborhood would thrive once again.
In recognition of the architectural significance of the building, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The City of Chicago designated Second Presbyterian Church a Chicago landmark in September 1977, one of the few churches in the city to be awarded that status.
In 2006, Friends of Historic Second Church was organized as a separate non-profit organization and is charged with the restoration and interpretation of the significant art and architectural treasures of the church. Several projects have been undertaken including the cleaning of selected murals, the restoration of the front doors, repainting one section of the sanctuary in the original Shaw color palette, and new Lexan protective glazing for the Burne-Jones windows.
A capital campaign begun by the church in 2008 raised significant funds for new boilers, new gym windows, and other much needed repairs. A second campaign undertaken in 2015 will address exterior repairs, primarily on the bell tower.
National Historic Landmark status was conferred upon the church by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service on February 27, 2013. It is the only church in the city of Chicago and one of only three in the state of Illinois to be so designated.