The Christian Scientists in Kalamazoo trace their beginnings to 1896 when four people came together to learn more about this religion, which began in the United States in 1879. Two years later the group had expanded to fifty, legally organizing and incorporating as a congregation. By 1902 they purchased a house on the northwest corner of West South and South Park Streets for their first home, and three hundred people attended the first service held there. Ten years later, they voted to build a church choosing to look outside of Kalamazoo for both the architect, William Jones from Chicago, and the contractor, William Groetzinger. October of 1913 saw the formal laying of the cornerstone of the First Church of Christ, Scientist with the building completed eleven months later. The congregation did not dedicate the building until 7 June 1920 after retiring the debt, having received funds from the estate of Mary Baker Eddy. This was not unusual as the founder of the Christian Science church left a million dollars at her death for constructing, remodeling, furnishing or purchasing what were called “branch churches” across the country.
The architectural style of the building is Neoclassical. It was no coincidence that this style was chosen by the Kalamazoo congregation, as it was one used for a great number of Christian Science churches from the 1890s until the 1930s even though the Church leadership in Boston did not require it. This was the predominate style for the buildings at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago which influenced not only architecture but also urban planning in this country for years to come. The Neoclassical style borrowed elements from both Greek and Roman architecture and was considered to be very progressive. The Christian Science Church saw themselves as being progressive and adopted this style because they felt it gave them visibility, respectability, stability and permanence which was important to them as they were a relatively new religion.
The basic characteristics of the Neoclassical style can be found in the exterior of the building. A major one is the front portico composed of a triangular pediment and massive columns. The pediment is repeated over several of the windows and main doorways at the front entrance. At the corners of the building are a type of column called a pilaster. Above the front columns is another element which spans the entire exterior typical of classical architecture called the entablature which is composed of three basic parts, the architrave, the frieze and the cornice. Also, many of the windows on the exterior have a semi-circular arch with a keystone at the center.
Whereas the exterior of a Christian Science church was the public face of the religion, the interior was to be functional, efficient and comfortable. The foyer was a gathering place and fireplaces were scattered around to create that atmosphere. Interior decoration overall was kept to a minimum and women, who had predominant roles in the Church, had a hand in making the space comfortable and homey. The first floor also contained rooms for Sunday School and for Church practitioners.
Light and ventilation were important throughout the building especially in the second-floor auditorium where services were held. Most auditoriums, like the one in this building, were in a semi-circular shape. Newspaper articles claimed the room could seat 600. A classically-inspired arched ceiling and arched windows are a major feature in this auditorium along with columns and an entablature. The stained glass in this room, especially the oval skylight, is what captures people’s attention. Christian Science churches used stained glass, many having skylights like this one; however, it was typical for stained glass to be plain rather than filled with Biblical images as it was felt to be important to place more emphasis on the Word rather than on symbolism. Ironically the Mother Church in Boston, completed in 1894 has stained glass windows with images from both the Bible and Mrs. Eddy’s writings. There is no information about who produced the stained glass windows for the church in Kalamazoo.
Renovation and Relocation
The church underwent a renovation in 1953. In 2006 the congregation sold the building to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and moved to their new location at 1225 Portage Street in the Edison neighborhood.