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Landmarks: St. Charles a modernist gem

St. Charles Catholic Church is at 4515 N. Alberta St. It has an interesting hyperbolic parabolic design –sometimes described as resembling a Pringles potato chip. (Dan Pelle)
St. Charles Catholic Church is at 4515 N. Alberta St. It has an interesting hyperbolic parabolic design –sometimes described as resembling a Pringles potato chip. (Dan Pelle)

In the 1950s, only a few years before the Second Vatican Council brought reforms and modernization to the Catholic Church around the world, a new parish in Spokane took a leap into modernization.

In 1958, St. Charles Borromeo parish, founded in 1950 to serve congregants in the Shadle Park area, set about building a new church alongside its recently completed school. Using the local architectural firm of Funk, Murray & Johnson for design, a house of worship that truly was a one-of-a-kind structure was erected, following a $324,832 fundraising effort.

When viewed from the outside, the roof of the church looks like a saddle – or as the Rev. Tom Connolly said, “a lot like a Pringles potato chip.” The roof is a 3-inch-thick-shell hyperbolic-paraboloid made of concrete and reinforced steel held up entirely by the two points where it touches the ground, a construction made possible by a folding technique that makes the beams seven times stronger than normal. This kind of construction had been used in Europe and Russia but was quite new in the United States at the time.

Construction began in 1959 and when finished in 1961, St. Charles was the largest unbalanced hyperbolic-paraboloid in the world – “unbalanced” because the sections of the shell roof that extend up and out from the two balance points are different in length (longer for the section over the seating area for 800 inside and shorter over the entrance and baptistery). The similarly designed TWA Building at JFK International Airport in New York was under construction about the same time and is much larger, but it is “balanced.”

Two other design elements make St. Charles unique – metalwork done by not-yet-well-known local artist Harold Balazs and the faceted glass work of artist Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France. Balazs’ touch is everywhere throughout the church, the first of which is seen in the 12 torch-fired enamel panels on the entry doors, together telling the story of Jesus’ life. Flush to the edge of the doors, they look like murals made of approximately 780 uneven-shaped plates held in place by an estimated 10,000 brass nails. Balazs created the baptistery gate (the design being cut with a welding torch from a single piece of iron plate) just inside the front doors. There is also the marble-topped altar’s grillwork, which is a see-through screen of pierced iron plate metal representing the saints of the canon of the Mass. His 17-foot-tall welded black metal sculpture of St. Charles Borromeo contours to the face of the curved front of the church’s exterior. And there’s more from him as well.

Loire, who came into prominence reconstructing stained glass in churches damaged during World War II, was known for taking thick pieces of irregularly shaped colored glass and setting them in epoxy concrete, creating a modern stained glass. Perhaps his most prominent work inside St. Charles is the “sky window,” a lengthy stained glass strip depicting the passion of Christ above the nave and following the roofline. The idea was to create the sense that the thin-shell roof floats in space above the pillarless interior, with the undulating vertical lines in the glass representing rising prayers of parishioners.

There are no statues inside the church. Where statues might otherwise be located in a church, such as at the Stations of the Cross, St. Charles uses Loire’s stained glass pieces. In total, 10 tons of his stained glass elements (13,000 square feet) were shipped from France for the project.

The campanile, a 92-foot high steel bell tower containing pierced copper shafts cut with an acetylene torch by Balazs, is modern in design as well as in its placement. It stands apart from the church itself, probably for the same reason bell towers were constructed closer to roadways in other locations where nontraditional church architecture exists – to signal passersby that the building, not easily recognized as a church, is indeed a house of worship.

This elegant church is feeling some aches and pains after 50 years, most notably in its leaking roof, and the parish is conducting a $676,392 fundraising campaign to restore the building at 4515 N. Alberta St. Repair work is expected to begin this summer.

This church, created at the leading edge of the era of 20th century modernism in church design, is often overlooked when discussing Spokane’s intriguing architecture, said Robert Carriker, a parishioner and professor of history at Gonzaga University, who has written about the church for various publications. But when the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its national conference in Spokane in 2012, he noted, a special visit was made to the site.

Connolly said that as wonderful as the design is (and he agrees it is spectacular), the church’s original pastor, the Right Rev. Monsignor Oakley F. O’Connor, ensured that it wasn’t just about design, that the design should enhance the worship and spiritual mission of the church.

“A man ahead of his time, he ensured that the rich symbolism and design supported the theology of the church,” Connolly said. “We know what’s most important of all in a church is what happens inside it.”

Landmarks is a regular feature about historic sites, buildings and monuments that often go unnoticed – signposts for our local history that tell a little bit about us and the region’s development. If you have a suggestion for the Landmarks column, contact Stefanie Pettit at upwindsailor@ comcast.net.


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