The First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Connecticut was founded in 1853 and dedicated its first house of worship, a white frame colonial church at the edge of downtown Stamford. In 1884 a stone church replaced this building as the congregation’s membership increased and Stamford expanded around it. In 1952 the congregation’s size had doubled and acceptable worship and classroom space, and parking were problems. They decided to celebrate the congregation’s centenary by moving to a new building at 1101 Bedford Street. In the 1940s they had bought this eleven acres of rolling and wooded land, at what had become the new edge of downtown Stamford.
The site’s building committee was originally in favor of building another white frame colonial church. However, some committee members became intrigued with the possibility of building a modern design church after visiting St. John’s Lutheran Church in Midland, Michigan (Designed by Adrian B. Dow who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright). To resolve the question of colonial vs. modern, a firm of architects, Sherwood, Mills, & Smith was asked to study the project in collaboration with an outside architect. One of the partners was acquainted with Wallace Harrison and recommended choosing him as the outside architect.
“Donald F. Campbell, First Presbyterian’s pastor, remembers that at his first meeting with Sherwood, members of the congregation, and Harrison, the latter ‘expressed his interest in getting to know me and our theology. He wanted to go to Europe to look at churches there. Wally didn’t know what he would do, but he was honest about it. He was the only one without preconceived ideas for the project.’ As a result of this meeting, Harrison, in association with the firm of Sherwood, Mills, & Smith was asked to design the church complex: he would be responsible for the sanctuary (and a bell tower added in 1968); Willis N. Mills would take on the remainder of the project, consisting of a small chapel and an educational complex” (Newhouse 167).
Dr. Campbell explained to Harrison that Christian theology as interpreted by American Presbyterians “addressed a God who was as much a part of everyday life as he was a transcendental being — a concept that the new sanctuary should somehow convey” (Newhouse 169). In 1953 Harrison visited churches and cathedrals in Europe reflecting on how to design a modern sanctuary, which would express this theology. His design was approved by the congregation, construction began, and the sanctuary was dedicated in 1958. When the sanctuary was completed Harrison declared, “the church was the most satisfying job I ever worked on” (Newhouse 172).
The sanctuary is constructed of 152 precast concrete panels, which rise to a height of sixty feet and span the sanctuary space without supports, forming a canopy. For eighty percent of the side wall length, the panels are inlaid with 20,000, one-inch thick pieces of colored pot-metal glass manufactured in Gabriel Lorie’s atelier in Chartres. Harrison, depicting themes from the crucifixion and resurrection, arranges the stained glass in abstract designs. This main portion of the sanctuary, the nave, is entered from the narthex, mostly in darkness except for a small amount of light entering from stained glass at the rear of the narthex. Although it was not intentional by Harrison, the sanctuary is in the shape of a fish leading to the name “the Fish Church.”
The chancel of the sanctuary is dominated by a 32-foot high cross, faced with wood from the library of Canterbury Cathedral in England, damaged by bombing during World War II. Seating capacity in the nave is 670, with 50 more seats in the balcony above the narthex.
The Maguire Memorial Carillon Tower, designed by Harrison, rises to a height of 260 feet and is located along side of the sanctuary. It contains fifty-six bells and incorporates thirty-six bells, which were given to the City of Stamford in 1947 by the Nestle Company. The Church holds these bells in trust for the city.
Wallace K. Harrison first became aware of Gabriel Loire’s technique of embedding colored chunks of pot-metal glass into concrete during his European tour of churches after receiving the commission.
"(He) turned his attention to Loire’s béton-glas to see if this material of medieval origin could be used with a structural system of folded concrete that would span a space without supports. On the grounds of his Long Island home, in the same area where he had worked out the problems of prefabricated housing, Harrison spent painstaking hours tilting heavy concrete panels to test the angles at which they would stand and hold weight. The result was the use of 152 similar precast concrete panels for the sanctuary, rising to a height of sixty feet to support the structure. Each concrete structure element is reinforced with rows of protruding steel rods (reinforcement rods) that are fastened to the rods of adjoining concrete sections and then reinforced with larger rods and a layer of cement (concrete) (Harrison is forming a cast in situ vertical joint which combines the precast panels). For almost the entire width of the side walls, the panels are inlaid with thick chunks of faceted, multicolored glass. At either end, where the church is made of concrete unrelieved by glass, the exterior walls are covered with slate shingles, as is most of the roof. … the church is 234 feet long, fifty-four feet wide, and covers an area of 11,500 square feet” (Newhouse 169).
“There are, however a few noteworthy exceptions that embody his (Harrison’s) personal style; among them are the First Presbyterian Church at Stamford, Connecticut, two auditoriums, one for Rockefeller University in New York and another for the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D. C., and a small lodge for Nelson Rockefeller at Pocantico” (Newhouse 166).
In 1964 Harrison employed the béton-glas technique he first used in the First Presbyterian Church, in construction of the Hall of Science for the New York World’s Fair. The Great Hall is constructed of an undulating eighty-foot high, fifteen-inch thick wall. The wall is formed into 5,400 rectangular coffers of about twenty-eight by forty-eight inches. Inside each rectangle is a thin panel of concrete studded with chunks of cobalt blue Dalla de verre glass. Standing in the Great Hall, the effect is … as Harrison intended … of floating in the void of space. In 2014 a major renovation of the Great Hall, now known as the New York Hall of Science, will be completed.
Newhouse, Victoria, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, New York, NY, Rizzoli, 1989