Dalle de verre at Fish Church


Amanda Gruen


Newsletter, Wallace K. Harrison, The Fish Church, dalle de verre, Loire
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… when you’ve plodded through it all methodically from the beginning—the human needs, the floor plan, the economics, the structure—you still must get an emotional reaction.  The answer is to merge art and architecture.  At Stamford we did it by bringing in color and the stained glass design.  I would have liked to get sculpture, too.  I don’t mean going out to buy it, but sculpture which grows out of the architecture.  The future belongs to the integration of architecture, painting, sculpture and landscaping—to what has been called ‘total architecture’.[1]

Wallace Harrison came to be regarded as an architect who connected the world of high art with that of a new form of monumental architecture. At the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT, he began with a curiosity about Gothic space as a prototype for the integration of the arts, with the intention of designing a “place of worship with some of the splendor of colored light found in the great Gothic cathedrals.”[2] In 1956, Harrison made the second of two trips to Europe over the course of the First Presbyterian Church commission. He wanted to see examples of Gabriel Loire’s abstract stained glass designs, as he sought inspiration for the colored glass he imagined for the congregation’s new Sanctuary, a structure designed with a Gothic sensibility and modern features. Later reflecting on his accomplishment, he described the visual impression as being inside a giant sapphire.

Most known for some of his larger scale commissions such as Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and the United Nations complex in New York City, Harrison’s design ability is particularly well showcased in his smaller achievements such as the First Presbyterian Church, also known colloquially as the Fish Church.[3] He in fact preferred small-scale work, and of larger projects he said:

I hate it.  But I’ve had to do it because I’ve had to make a living… I get more fun out of designing a small thing than a big one.  Architecture is something small—something you can touch with your fingers.[4]

Harrison learned of stained glass artist Gabriel Loire (1904-1996) through another artist—his friend Fernand Léger—with whom he had collaborated at the church at Sacre-Coeur at Audincourt. At the time, American stained glass companies did not have the expertise required to manufacture the thick dalle de verre and the panels, though many had begun to create the panels using European-produced glass with ready-mix concrete. Loire had worked in Chartres with techniques based on early Christian art, and he was one of the forerunners of dalle de verre in the 1930s; he then became one of its leading global practitioners in the 1950s and 1960s.[5] Loire’s use of faceted dalle largely led to his success.

At the time of Fish Church’s construction (mid-1950s), dalle set in concrete corresponded with contemporary architecture. Its strength allowed for its structural use, which meant that entire walls could be opened up, and its characteristics when chipped, or faceted, contributed to its beauty. The material was suited well for modern construction and, at the same time, Loire felt the dalle allowed him to continue the medieval glass tradition he had experienced for twenty years in Chartres. For the Fish Church in Stamford, Loire transformed his conception into visually stunning dalle de verre infill panels. Constructed of 152 large precast concrete panels anchored into position with reinforced concrete poured between to create a framework, the Sanctuary contains decorative dalle de verre panels installed within openings of the central wall and roof precast concrete units. Loire also created a dalle de verre sky-facing window (designed by local artist Matthew Wysocki) for the small chapel in the church’s Parish Unit.

Wallace Harrison worked with Reverend Dr. Campbell to select themes and color palettes for the two primary facades in the Sanctuary. Loire designed the narthex glass in its entirety, from selecting the theme and colors to execution. Harrison detailed the claustra grillwork and sketched ideas for representational suggestions and abstract patterns; he sent these to Loire in France, who created concrete panels embedded with 20,000 one-inch-thick chunks of amber, emerald, ruby, amethyst, and sapphire glass (86 different hues).[6] When the panels arrived from France containing dalle de verre embedded in concrete, they were placed in the openings left in the precast concrete panels.

The Fish Church was Loire’s second commission in the North Americas (the first was a window in Montréal), and the project was the first introduction of dalle de verre to the United States. Logistically and technically, the Fish Church was the studio’s largest and most challenging to date, partly due to the design being mainly worked out through the mail. The project also marked a turning point for Loire, as his work became more abstract in composition, as seen in his international projects such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin (1960), the Symphony Tower of Joy for Children in Hakone, Japan (1973-76), and Philip Johnson’s Thanksgiving Chapel in Dallas (1976).

Following Harrison’s innovative integration of a traditional stained glass technique with a new set of modern design principles, he sought further experimentation; in 1964, he presented the material in the Hall of Science at the World’s Fair in New York. The Fish Church and the Hall of Science distinctively feature dalle de verre. Both were accomplished within modern precast systems and have separately been subjects for conservation assessments regarding preservation of the precast concrete and dalle de verre.


[1] Wallace Harrison on the First Presbyterian Church commission as quoted in Von Eckardt’s “The Final Question: A Lay Report on Harrison’s Stamford Church.” AIA Journal, June 1959, Wallace K. Harrison Archive, Avery Library, Columbia University, New York.

[2] “W.K. Harrison’s statement for MoMA.” 15 February 1959, Wallace K. Harrison Archive, Avery Library, Columbia University, New York.

[3] The form is a fish-shaped symbol, which was recognized after construction of the Sanctuary had already begun.  The fish, one of the earliest Christian symbols, found its way into the architecture of the building. 

[4] Wallace Harrison as quoted in Helen Dudar’s “The Road to Success, Five Famous Men Take You Along.” New York Post Daily Magazine, 4 December 1962, page 37.

[5] Charles W. and Joan C. Pratt. Gabriel Loire: Les Vitraux / Stained Glass. Translated by Annie Loire. Chartres: Centre International Du Vitrail, 1996.

[6] First Presbyterian Church: Celebrating Our First 150 Years in Stamford. Pamphlet. FPC Archive.

About the Author

 Amanda Gruen is an architectural researcher at Prudon & Partners. She has studied and written extensively about architectural history, urban design, and historic preservation in New York City. Amanda lives in Queens, New York and holds a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Pratt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Design & Architecture Studies from New York University.