So much has happened since our last post. Surely I could go into great detail, but I think I will be coy and mysterious. You can’t see it, but I just winked. More regular posts to begin again though, we promise. One thing that is extremely notable, however, is that we won an Elgin Mayor’s Award!
Wow. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Wow.
This blog grew out of our love for Elgin, and we are so grateful for the love we have received in return. We are continually humbled by your support. This small brainchild of Maddie Richmond and I, young purveyors of preservation, has turned from a little idea out in the world into an online community fostering Elgin’s history in a way we never imagined. If we are good, it is only because of you, the readers. A gracious thanks to every single one of you.
In this post we are researching St. John’s Lutheran Church.
On July 4, 1859 a group of German immigrants including Henry Wunder and J.A.F. Mueller organized a Lutheran constitution. Six months later, the group purchased a small church for $550 and their congregation began meeting at the corner of Spring and Division in present-day downtown Elgin.
St. John’s sits close enough to the Downtown Elgin Commercial National Register Historic District to cast its shadow over the boundary line; its history looming equally as large. From the mid-1800s, St. John’s has remained a constant source of spiritual guidance and religious education amidst a backdrop of a fluid and dynamic Elgin landscape.
(Map image courtesy of: Historic Architectural Resources Geographic Information System via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)
A previous post in which we covered the First Universalist Church, noted the role immigrants played in developing Elgin and its religious institutions. It is worth noting again here, particularly given the importance German immigrants played in the early years of Elgin’s rise and the fact that this week’s post is about a Lutheran Church. German heritage and Lutheranism are regularly intertwined. The early days of Elgin saw a great number of Germans emigrating into town. The chart seen here, from E.C. Alft’s “An Elgin Almanac” notes a period just after the start of St. John’s Lutheran Church but attests to the same purpose. The city of Elgin had 46% of its immigrants come from Germany, a percentage more than 10% higher than the state as a whole and almost double the national percentage.
Church architecture is not something in which I am particularly well-versed, however, I will do my best. In a bid for transparency, I will divulge my methodology on my analysis of St. John’s style. Here, rather than using my go-to A Guide to American Houses or the individual application for the National Register of Historic Places, I mainly focused on the National Register of Historic Places nominating form for the Elgin Historic District. St. John’s is not a part of that district but is geographically close and that district has a number of churches that bode well for comparison. Two churches I used to help compare were St. Mary’s Catholic Church located at 390 Fulton Street and the Calvary Baptist Church at 270 E. Chicago Street.
As such, I believe that St. John’s Lutheran Church is of the Victorian Gothic style.
Some of the features characteristic of the style seen on St.John’s include the following:
- Arched windows with stained glass
- Polychromed features
Deep breath. Ok, here we go.
So I will begin with the easy one: the tower. St.John’s has two, one on the south end of the church’s facade and one on the north. The north tower was built later, in the early 1900s, increasing the height of the church and making it stand out on the downtown skyline.
The arched windows and polychromed features are two features discussed in the post about the Elgin Professional Building. Polychromed features defined in an architectural sense means that “[m]aterials of differing colors and texture are juxtaposed, creating decorative bands highlighting corners, arches and arcades.”
Now on to the fun sounding words. A Corbel is (FYI I really wanted to make a John Corbett joke here because I thought his last name was Corbel until I Googled to clarify, ugh I’ve lost my touch) a projecting bracket of varying shapes that can be made out of stone, brick, metal, etc. to support architectural features like oriels, arches or cornices. If you scroll back up to the first big photograph in the post, you can see an arcaded corbel table on the cornice of both towers, just below the roof line.
Both the quatrefoils and battlements are located near the front entry doors. Quatrefoils come in a few variations, with the prefix changing depending on how many “foils” exist. So here, there are quatre (French for four) foils (French for flower). Trefoils are also common, and have three parts to the flower.
Looking at the picture above, there are six quatrefoils. They sit on the right and left sides of the arches, two per door. The battlement is situated just above those quatrefoils. A battlement is the altering, squared, regularly spaced projections on a parapet. Battlements are essentially what make a crenelated parapet if that is a term more familiar to you. Common on castles and medieval forts so people could shoot through them defensively, they are often seen on churches of the Gothic style.
St. John’s leaders went through trying times in the eight years that followed the start of its congregation in 1859. From St. John’s Lutheran Church, Elgin, Illinois: A Century of God’s Grace, 1859-1959, “[a] liberal and conservative faction struggled for supremacy. During this time efforts were made to alter the name of the congregation to ‘St John’s United Evangelical Church’ and later ‘St. John’s Protestant Church.’ Four pastors served the congregation during this brief span of seven years.” This dissonance within its own ranks is not all too surprising given the timeframe in question: the 1860s. From April of 1861 to May of 1865 American brothers took arms against one another in the Civil War. It remains America’s bloodiest conflict taking the lives of over 600,000 soldiers. While Illinois was a rather steadfast Union stronghold against the slave-holding states of the southern Confederacy, disagreements over politics in general were particularly virulent across America. Notions of conservatism and liberalism contrasted starkly. (Something we know nothing about in this, our time of political tranquility) While these nationwide political battles may not have played much direct influence in this noted period of dissidence, its broader context seemed interesting to consider.
In years following, St. John’s found a number of pastors to help provide faithful guidance, with one of the more notable being Reverend H. F. Fruechtenicht. Coming to St. John’s from Ottawa, Illinois in October of 1875, he spent the next 33 years serving the congregation. After stepping down from the pastorate, Reverend Fruechtenicht continued to help his successor until he passed away in 1918 at 82 years old. Rev. Fruechtenicht’s leadership marked a period of tremendous growth for St. John’s, with new additions being made to the building to accommodate for more worshippers. Again, from St. John’s Lutheran Church, Elgin, Illinois: A Century of God’s Grace, 1859-1959, “[a]t the close of the Rev. Fruechtenicht ministry the congregation number 240 voting members, 1,068 communicants and 1,400 baptized souls.”
Continued growth spurred the need for a larger church, which was officially celebrated in 1912. Even during this growth, services were largely held in German. In fact, services in English were only on Sunday nights by Reverend W. J. Kowert until they transitioned to the morning in 1920. A second set of services in English began in 1938, with German services continuing until 1952. Even as the congregation diversified to necessitate English services, all meeting minutes remained in only German until 1922.
The St. John’s School has also been an important piece of the church’s history. First started in ernest under the tutelage of Reverend Fruechtenicht, it surpassed 100 students in 1888 and kindergarten was added in 1946. In the mid-1950s, a former student named Harold Hoffman helped run the effort to expand the school to have its own space. The new school and parish buildings were completed in 1956.
Additionally, from 1962 until 1983 the house at 715 North Spring Street was owned by the St. John’s Lutheran Evangelical Society who used the home as a parsonage.
WHAT IS IT NOW?:
Today, it is still a church and school that serves its congregation, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Recently, St. John’s produced a video about their educational program with some cool aerial shots via drone, which you can view here.
Here are a few links to press about Pedaling Preservation:
- The Courier-News published an article “Restoration, history projects honored during Elgin preservation awards“
- The Courier also wrote about the website project called Historic Elgin that maps out all of Elgin’s plaqued homes set up by our City’s Preservation Planner and the Historic Commission. Read up here: “New website highlights Elgin’s historic homes“
- Post-Mayor’s Awards interview with Jeff Meyers featured on the June edition of Elgin Today.
Marks for your calendars:
It is never too early to clear your calendar for the 2016 Historic Elgin House Tour put on by the Gifford Park Association. This year marks its 35th edition and will be on Saturday, September 10th and Sunday the 11th.
Speaking of September, this year’s Elgin Fringe Festival just had their button release party and I can’t wait until September 15-18th when events will be going on across downtown Elgin. Please consider kicking in a few dollar-y doos to support the arts on their funding page.
An all-the-time announcement:
Elgin has a Bungalow Thematic Historic District, meaning its based on theme rather than place. If you have a bungalow and think it is the tops, consider looking at the requirements. Here is a link to the City’s page on the District.
Mueller, Ann, Joan Klinkey. St. John’s Lutheran Church, Elgin, Illinois: A Century of God’s Grace, 1859-1959. Elgin: St. John’s Lutheran Church, 1986
Schwartzkopf, Louis J. The Lutheran Trail: A History of the Synodical Conference Lutheran Churches in Northern Illinois. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950.
Alft, E.C. An Elgin Almanac: A Book of Stories, Records, Lists and Curiosities. Elgin: City of Elgin, Illinois, 2004.
McAlister, Lee and Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/hargis/ [Searched 115 N Spring]
Blumenson, J.G. Identifying American Architecture. New York: Norton, 1981. 33.