Updated: July 23, 2014 6:13AM
Paula DeBois looked up at the renowned architecture of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, with its sweeping design that leads in one direction — toward heaven.
For a moment, though, she appeared to stare straight through its praying hands-style roof to memories of her father, who died in 2008. Dr. Elon DeBois died at Methodist Hospitals, where he served the community for more than 40 years.
His funeral was conducted at that notable church in the Tolleston section of Gary and, on that sad day, his daughter experienced an inspiring epiphany. Their church, she concluded through a cloud of grief, should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That daunting mission soon became her passion.
DeBois compiled reams of detailed research on the church, which was built in 1959 at 19th Avenue and Ellsworth Street, amid much fanfare. It was designed by Edward Dart, a highly respected Chicago-based architect who also designed several other notable churches, modern-era homes and celebrated buildings, including Chicago’s Water Tower Place. He died in 1975, amid its construction, at age 53.
Before his death, Dart described his intent with St. Augustine’s Church and its rooftop design, saying its tabernacle resembles the “tent of the meeting for which Moses received instructions from the Sinai.”
At that time, the church was marveled for its structural beauty yet functional design. One local architect called it “an honest building” and a region artist called it “the church of my generation,” according to a Post-Tribune story on May 14, 1960.
The story lauds the church and its award-winning architecture, noting it was built for $99,000 from a patchwork of gifts, grants, donations and a bank loan. However, no banks in Gary would give a loan to the church — comprised of an influential black congregation of about 300 — so the loan had to be secured from a New York City bank.
The eye-catching church stood out compared to conventional churches of the day due to its “unusual structural form which contrast sharply with the triangular prisms and cubes that marked the design of low-cost chapels of recent years,” the story stated. With an altar carved from Indiana limestone and a terrazzo-patterned asphalt tile flooring, it was featured in “Architectural Record,” honored by the Church Architectural Guild, and it won an American Institute of Architects Distinguished Building Award.
“I call it the Lena Horne of churches,” said DeBois, who was baptized, confirmed and raised in the church. “It never takes a bad photo.”
DeBois, the church historian with an encyclopedic memory, authored the nomination herself for the National Register of Historic Places. This included an exhaustive 18-page registration form, complete with photos, diagrams and more fine print than a sales contract.
“We were lucky to have quite a bit of oral history right here in the congregation,” she told me while touring the church. “If the old guard told me a story, I could research that information for the registration form.”
That old guard includes Felicia Childress, the eldest member of the church who was around when it was built. She was watering flowers the day I visited, still nurturing the faded old rose of a building that once blossomed with home-grown parishioners.
Back in the 1950s, the congregation outgrew its first home in a former Roman Catholic mission building in Midtown. A new building was needed, one they could feel welcomed in, not shunned.
It would be the members’ first real home because, just as everything else at the time, even faith, prayer and worship were segregated.
“Our founding congregation was chartered in 1927 as the only Episcopal Colored Mission in the state of Indiana,” said DeBois, whose pride couldn’t be contained. “In a segregated era, our congregation was not welcomed in the established Episcopal church in Gary. Yet they had the means and the sophistication to secure Edward Dart to build their new church.”
Construction on the church began in June 1958. Its first service was held in April 1959.
The structure was heralded as something special — and for good reason. It’s simply a beautiful church, even in its older age as the city decays, the population dwindles and abandoned homes punctuate the neighborhoods.
Rendered in brick, red oak and redwood, its curved tent-style roof provides a feel of airiness with a hint of stained glass windows on each side for quiet contemplation.
Its heyday, so to speak, was in the late ’60s, when it boasted its largest congregation. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 100, on a good Sunday, reflecting the same “empty pews, graying hair” reality of many churches across the region.
DeBois, an optimistic realist, proudly pointed out several photos from the church’s glory days, which are now relegated to the basement of the church. These include the lone image of Dart, a Yale graduate who studied with modern masters such as Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn and Marcel Breuer.
“This is typical Dart,” explained DeBois, showing minimal natural sunlight seeping into the church.
She knows the church inside and out. She knows Dart’s famous work. And she knows the two formed a marriage decades ago that would honeymoon on the National Register of Historic Places.
Her work, and faith, paid off.
On Sept. 18, 2013, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church was officially placed on the list for its architectural, historical and cultural significance.
It’s the first single-site church to be listed on the National Register, according to Tiffany Tolbert, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Northwest field office in Hobart. (There are several other churches that are eligible but not listed, she said.)
It’s also the first Edward Dart property to be listed on that register, DeBois added.
“This is my gift to St. Augustine’s,” she told me. “And to my father.”
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