Fourth Presbyterian Church
126 E. Chestnut St.

Fourth Presbyterian Church



Fourth's courtyard is a verdant sanctuary just a few paces off the Magnificent Mile

2003 NB

My first glimpse inside Fourth Presbyterian Church came in the 1997 movie My Best Friend's Wedding, in the scene where Cameron Diaz races down the center aisle to congratulate the supposedly engaged Julia Roberts, her squeals echoing throughout the venerable church's sanctuary. 

Now that my wife and I have begun regularly attending Fourth, I have taken a more deliberate interest in studying the physical space that encompasses our Sunday morning worship. Until I took the building tour and picked up the church's brochure about its architecture, I remained, as do most worshipers, largely oblivious to the symbolism of its physical features--the way the proportion of the nave (the pews for laypeople) to the crammed chancel (the front area for the clergy) reflects a Protestant rejection of church hierarchy and appreciation for the participatory role of the laity in worship. Or the way the the east stained glass window, which was endowed by the family of Cyrus McCormick--the inventor of the reaper and co-founder of Fourth's predecessor--bears the images of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in correspondence to Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, respectively, suggesting thematic links between the work of each. Fourth's magnificent timber ceiling illustrates why the sanctuary is called the nave. The root word is the same as that of navy, and the shape and beams of the ceiling do indeed evoke the image of an upside-down ship.

Fourth is not only an essential outpost of the gospel to the proximate Cabrini-Green housing projects, it is also welcome respite from the commercial onslaught of Michigan Avenue, onto which its doors open. The church was built in the nineteen-teens (by Ralph Adams Cram, the neo-Gothic revival architect who designed St. John the Divine in Manhattan) on unwanted real estate across from an open field; now the malls and high-rises of the “Magnificent Mile” bear down on it from all sides. So its interior is a place to ponder the immaterial amid the siren calls of materialism. 

Still, I wonder if Fourth itself is becoming something to look at, another stop for tourists traversing its mall-lined block. Such is the fate of any site of a Hollywood movie, especially in Chicago, with its inferiority complex over film fame. Add to that the anonymity that comes with a church that size (and its high proportion of visitors each week), and soon the magnificent building and its historic institution detract attention from the task of forming a community of believers. -NB

-More about Fourth Presbyterian at its official site, including its history and West window.
-More about Fourth and three essays about church architecture at my Books&Culture weblog


© Copyright 2001-2003
Nathan L.K. Bierma