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The First Presbyterian Church of Stamford
Published by Liz Waytkus on
"It’s like living inside a giant sapphire"
In the early 1950’s, the building committee of the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT was evaluating where to put a typical white-steeple New England church on their vacant 11-acre campus. A member of the committee had just returned from a business trip in Michigan. There he saw a church in Midland designed by Alden Dow, a modernist architect. The committee’s dialogue changed in mid-stream. The result was a exemplary, modernist sacred space designed by Wallace K. Harrison.
Image (left): First Presbyterian Church in winter, photo: Liz Waytkus
In 1953, after he received the commission to design the sanctuary and the campus, Harrison visited cathedrals in Europe particularly those making use of extensive areas of stained glass. The sanctuary’s two long walls … the north wall and the south wall … 200 feet wide and 60 feet high, are set with 20 thousand, one-inch thick chunks of sapphire, ruby, emerald, amethyst, and amber glass. The effect on Harrison when stepping into the sanctuary was … “Have you ever thought what it would be like to live inside a giant sapphire?”
Harrison also designed the campus and the 255 feet Carillon Tower. He chose the themes and designed the abstract stained glass murals … on the north wall depicting the Crucifixion and on the south wall depicting the Resurrection. The First Presbyterian Church of Stamford is the only church Wallace K. Harrison designed. He described it as “the most satisfactory job I’ve ever done.” Substantial descriptions of the building are contained in two major books, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect Victoria Newhouse, Chapter 15, Rizzoli (1989) and Preservation of Modern Architecture Theodore H. M. Prudon, Chapter 16, John Wiley & Sons, (2008).
Image (right): Sanctuary interior, photo: Theo Prudon
Downtown Stamford has grown in the past 60 years to surround the campus. During a typical week hundreds of city residents use the grounds to walk, to jog, and to meditate. During the summer months, Concerts on the Green hosts jazz concerts and family picnicking. In the Fall, bag-pipers and drums march down the main aisle on Scottish Sunday and partner with the organ in playing the Highland Cathedral.
In 2011 an informal group of Stamford and New York City residents, concerned about preserving the campus, founded the Highland Green Foundation (a 501(c)3 public charity). The Foundation established the Wallace K. Harrison Secretariat as an umbrella organization for local and national representatives of architectural and preservation groups interested in preserving modernist architecture. The Foundation held its first Docomomo Day [Docomomo US Tour Day] in 2012.
On the Wallace K. Harrison web site the home page has a map locating the campus in downtown Stamford. The church is located at 1101 Bedford Street, Stamford, CT, a 1.3-mile walk from the Stamford Amtrak station. It is the first express stop for trains from New York City (45 minute ride). Another DoCoMoMo site, the Phillip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, CT, is 7.3 miles and an eighteen-minute car ride from the church. (Also on the web site’s Visit Us page is a video www.wallacekharrison.org filmed in part by a drone helicopter, showing the campus and moving into the sanctuary to the strains of Highland Cathedral.) The YouTube video can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u12wJ3KmUos.