Published October 22nd, 2020 at 10:41 AM
Community Christian Church has been baptized officially as a historic building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a designation that’s sparking a fundraising campaign to rekindle its signature “Steeple of Light.”
The church at 4601 Main St. is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, part of a strategy to revitalize the aging structure that opened in 1942. It’s near the planned Main Street streetcar stop at 45th Street.
“The last two years have been about making friends for our building,” said the Rev. Shanna Steitz, senior minister at the church.
She said the effort to achieve historic designation began two years ago when she was alarmed that the congregation of the nearby Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, at 47th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, was planning to sell its building as a development site.
While that plan ultimately fell through, Steitz was impressed by the effort of Historic Kansas City and other preservation-minded people to save it.
“I thought, we’re trying to preserve our building, these are folks who could help us,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the falling-down church selling their property to developers.”
She reached out to then City Councilwoman Jan Marcason for guidance. That led to a meeting with Lisa Briscoe, Historic KC executive director, and Councilwoman Katheryn Shields in early 2019.
“I asked, ‘where do we start to do what we need to do for this building?’ ” Steitz said. “It became clear to us that being listed on the National Historic Register was a great first step.”
While many people believed the three-story, concrete building designed by the world-renowned architect already was listed, that was not the case. Wright famously dropped the project when it was far along in construction.
“He never got crosswise with the congregation, but with the city,” Steitz said.
The first step was documenting Wright’s work.
Avery Library at Columbia University in New York is the repository for Wright’s archives and the church was able to obtain 91 digital copies of his original drawings for Community Christian, invaluable in preparing its National Register application.
The Kansas City church is one of 10 in the country designed by Wright.
Steitz said Elizabeth Rosin of Rosin Preservation educated church members about what it meant to be listed on the Historic Register and prepared the application.
About 250 people worship there on average Sundays, although services have been online during the pandemic.
“She dispelled a lot of myths,” the pastor noted.
In her application, Rosin acknowledged that while Wright didn’t finish the project, the structure clearly belonged to him:
“Although some portions of Wright’s original design were not built as drawn, such as an attached parking garage and chapel, the Community Church clearly conveys Wright’s design intent and provides an excellent example of the shift in his body of work from Prairie to Usonian while maintaining his consistent design philosophy that the site should provide inspiration for the building.”
Parallel to the push for the historic designation, the church established a “Wright on Main” non-profit group to allow individuals and foundations to make donations to help preserve the church without it being a religious donation.
The decision was made to kickoff fundraising by setting a $100,000 goal to relight the Steeple of Light. It was envisioned by Wright and designed into reality by Dale Eldred in 1994, according to the church.
By the time Steitz arrived at Community Christian five years ago, the steeple had dimmed considerably. The church finally pulled the plug on its architectural feature about a year ago.
“The restoration of the steeple isn’t cheap, but it seemed to be something that would gather enthusiasm and attention to the building,” Steitz said.
“It was a good kickoff for us so people could learn more about us and what we want to do.”
An Omaha firm, Strong Lighting, has been retained to replace the four “light cannons” that transmit the beams. It also does the lighting for the St. Louis Arch. The dome protecting the equipment also needs temporary repairs.
Once the funding is raised for the lights, the next phase will be lining up money for what’s called a historic structure report. The church already has been helped by Strata Architecture + Preservation on that front.
The report will be necessary to guide what Steitz ultimately will be a plan for a complete restoration of the building, which like many of Wright’s renowned designs, has its practical problems.
“We have all those issues of leaking buildings and internal plumbing,” she said. “That’s where the historic structure report comes into play to create long-term sustainability plans.”
Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is founder and publisher of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.