Community worships in a one-of-a-kind space designed by Frank Lloyd-Wright. The building received a National Register of Historic Places designation in 2020.
Community Christian Church, located in the heart of Kansas City at 46th and Main Street, first commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design this now historic structure after a fire on Halloween night 1939 destroyed the previous building. The Wright-designed “church of the future” opened its doors for the first worship service in the new sanctuary on January 6, 1942, and a vibrant, progressive congregation has called it home for more than 80 years.
In April, 1940, Frank Lloyd Wright, world renowned architect, was commissioned to design the new building for Community Christian Church after fire destroyed the original building on Linwood. Wright envisioned the entire lot being devoted to parking with the church building supported on graceful pillars over the parked cars. The building would front on 46th Street with the main level of the church to be near the street level at that point. Entrance to the parking facilities, in all probability, would be made from the south and west. Plans included a 1,000-seat auditorium with accommodations for a Sunday School of more than 700. Also included were a roof garden to be used for entertainment and other church functions, as well as a radical approach in construction of heating and cooling systems.
Wright was considered a genius by some in the architectural world and was known for his complete departure from the ordinary. It was expected that the new church building would be no exception.
“What?” one member was to exclaim later, “A building on stilts? Why, it might get to rocking and lull some of the church members to sleep.” Wright dispelled any ideas of a building “on stilts,” hinting that the pillars he was suggesting would be similar to the mushroom-shaped supports on a $1,000,000 office building in Racine, Wisconsin.
The idea of air-conditioning for the building was met with much disfavor from Wright. “Why, I’ve gotten more colds in so-called air conditioned buildings than any other place,” he exploded. He went on to explain that the building he envisioned would be comfortably cool in the summer and warm in the winter using a floor heating and cooling system, the floor being heated or cooled as the season demanded, gravity taking care of the rest. He also suggested removable pews in order to give the auditorium capabilities for varied uses.
Wright presented his finished plans to the building and finance committees in June 1940. Parking for 150 cars was allowed; construction of the building would be of steel and rose-tinted concrete. A green copper dome would sit above the chancel area. Wright claimed the building would be "fireproof, earthquake, and vermin-proof” and upkeep would be virtually nil.
The building was designed in three sections which could be constructed separately. The main part – the auditorium – would cost approximately $100,000. The second part, the chapel and social service rooms, would be $50,000; the third, with the parking areas, would be $25,000. The walls were to be 2-3/4 inches thick made from two sheets of corrugated steel with air space between. Gunnite (concrete in color) was to be sprayed on the exterior surfaces. “This is a type of architecture that should be a lesson to this city,” said Wright. “It is no mere church building, but a new order dated 10 years ahead of its time. If begun immediately, the building could be ready for occupancy by October.”
The first drawing of the Frank Lloyd Wright design concept was published in The Kansas City Star on June 13, 1940. One outstanding feature of the design was the tower of lights which would beam from openings in the roof over the chancel area. The lights, along with bells, were to be above the sounding board that formed the ceiling of the chancel. This sounding board was to be perforated to allow light to streak the cancel area. The steeple lights were still planned as late as December, 1941, projected to consist of eight 1,000 candle power lights which would “probably be used during the holiday season.” However, this feature of Wright’s design was never completed. A 1,200-seat auditorium, sloping to a platform as in a theatre, was an integral part of Wright’s concept. The 46th Street entrance would be designed without steps, an early recognition of the needs of the disabled.
On October 30th, Wright sat in a lengthy conference with city officials, struggling to keep his patience as he listened to the Director of Public Works and the Commissioner of Buildings. The city refused to grant a permit for the building on the grounds that it was too radical to meet the provisions of the city’s building code.
“It is a question,” said the famous architect, “whether the city officials are going to abide by the letter of an outdated building code, or will permit it to be liberalized as a tool for progress. I plan to put the weight of my building on steel and concrete piers and then put an envelope around them. I don’t need ponderous walls, such as the city code engineers think are necessary. I have no basement in this church and the weight of the congregation is going to rest right on the ground through a concrete floor. The problem of stresses and weights, as worked out in my plan, is absolutely correct and guarantees the most safety. Another thing the city engineers don’t approve is my plan for heating the church through heat units built into the floor. What more logical place could there be since heat rises?”
At the end of the conference, Wright was accused of planning to put up a circus tent, a mere shell of a building. Wright’s plans were considered “skimpy” and the city officials insisted on “plans that any good engineer could understand.” Not until a redesigning of the foundation had been accomplished was the way paved for a foundation permit. This compromise utilized concrete foundations instead of the floating foundation originally planned by Wright. Once construction began, the Commissioner of Buildings made daily inspection tours at the site and forced builders to add tons of steel to insure safety.
The construction superintendent, Victor Olle Holm, was quoted as saying of Wright, “You can learn the 5-foot modules and the angles of the building fairly easy, but it takes a lot of study to understand Frank Lloyd Wright. Me, I call him more an artist than an architect. He is like the surgeon who is trying a new operation, or an old operation in a new way. Wright is the experimenter looking for new and better ways, and usually his experiments set a new mark for architects to shoot at. Sometimes his new ideas may have their faults, but they can be ironed out.”
Dedication of the new church building at 4601 Main Street (a modification of the Frank Lloyd Wright design) was held on January 4, 1942, with over 1,500 persons looking on. At the ceremonies, some $10,000 was donated toward the building fund. “In the words of the architect,” said Dr. Jenkins, speaking at the dedication, “this edifice will be here for 300 years. It is fireproof, earthquake proof, cyclone proof, and termite proof.”
The Wright on Main organization was created exclusively for charitable, scientific and educational purposes, more specifically to maintain and enhance the historic Frank Lloyd Wright structure at 4601 Main Street, Kansas City, MO and to provide the facility and programming for the cultural enrichment of the community.
Wright on Main is a separate entity from Community Christian church, the ecclesiastic Frank Lloyd Wright building within which the church worships.
For more information on the historic designation or the Steeple restoration, please contact Ingrid Busch with Wright on Main at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tax-deductible donations to assist with the ongoing preservation or with funding the Historic Structures Report can be made by clicking this button, and selecting “Building Fund” on the “Fund” drop down menu.