This story begins, as good ones often do, unexpectedly. My decision to take a random string of back roads from Memphis to a family reunion in central Illinois was driven by an urge to explore and treasure hunt the off-the-beaten-path antique stores that dot rural America. After a number of interesting stops, I found myself northbound on US Route 51, a highway with its own unique history, with the sun setting. As I pulled into the small town of Clinton, two thoughts came to mind; first, even if there are any antique stores they are bound to be closed by now and second, I need to keep moving anyway because, at the rate I am going, central Illinois may as well be central Wisconsin. However, logic and reason quickly went out the car window once I caught a glimpse of what looked to be an interesting piece of architecture.
Compelled to park and have a closer look, I spent a few minutes in front of the First Christian Church gazing at its curious architectural arrangements when I noticed in my peripheral someone pulling up in a truck. After briefly reassuring myself I was standing on a public sidewalk and surely innocent of any city misdemeanors, I continued with my perusal when I heard a voice say, "it's open." Now we're talking, I get to go inside too! Maybe I'm not that far from central Illinois after all. Without hesitation, I opened the front doors and entered, initially oblivious that the gentleman in the pick-up had followed closely behind. Mr. Joel Ferguson informed me he had been affiliated with the church his entire life, beginning when he and his twin brother were infants. It soon became clear his connection with the church was a deeply personal one.
The following is therefore a brief review of the building and its characteristics based on my visit with Mr. Ferguson. It is not intended as a formal architectural assessment, nor does it include the appropriate level of scholarly research, to include verification of historical facts associated with its founding, key patrons and members or the frequency with which its architectural characteristics can be found in contemporaneous examples. Only a simple visual assessment is offered as seen through the art historical lens of a self-identified medievalist. The motivation for documenting my thoughts is provided by Mr. Ferguson and others I encountered as a result of my visit who clearly and understandably take great pride in their church.
What first caught my attention as being somewhat out of the ordinary was the general style and overall compactness of the structure and its bell tower, reminiscent of much larger Romanesque examples which survive in Europe. A primary characteristic of Romanesque architecture is its use of rounded arches versus the pointed windows and portals found in later Gothic structures of the thirteenth and fourteenth century. The high-pitched and decorative multi-spire roof of the First Christian Church, which screams late Victorian era, also suggested a building at least one hundred years old.
According to the Historic Society Marker, the First Christian Church was established in 1876, our nations Centennial, on this site; a claim disputed by Mr. Ferguson who suggests the original church actually stood elsewhere. It must be noted the term "established" may not necessarily have been intended by the plaque's author to mean "built." The marker further notes that a first structure of frame burned in 1896 and that the present brick structure was built three years later (1899). Also noted, a 1951 fire which caused damage (as evidenced in part by charred bricks pointed out by Mr. Ferguson during our visit), but which ultimately saw complete repair. What is not clear, however, is when the frame structure was first constructed or if the later brick replacement shared any of its design characteristics. Identifying the original designer and/or architect of each or other related plans or documents could help establish possible stylistic influences for its seemingly uncommon plan.
The exterior compactness is soon explained upon entering; a church plan not with the more typical rectangular nave, built on what is referred to as a longitudinal axis, but instead a polygonal structure with central axis. In harmony with its octagonal design are its beautiful, curved pews. Curiously, although the entry and windows of the building itself feature Romanesque-type round arches, each pew row is capped with a decorative Gothic pointed arch.
Three large stained glass window sections, each divided horizontally and twice again vertically, form six individual windows which visually dominate the walls of the nave interior. The result of the odd number of window groupings in a room with an even number of walls is an asymmetrical arrangement when viewed from the entrance, but a symmetrical presentation when viewed from the pulpit.
Portions of the stained glass arrangements share another trait with some sacred medieval and Renaissance art, the inclusion of patrons. Portraits, said to be those of J. W. Higbee and J. M. Samuels (said to have married to two of the three Beeler family sisters) crown two of the three primary stained glass groupings and the letters T P A appear in alternating triangles atop the third. The Travelers Protective Association of America, also recognized by their abbreviation T. P. A. of A., is a fraternal organization still active today. According to their website, they began when:
"In January 1882, at a Chicago hotel, a small group of traveling men chanced to meet and discuss the problems that confronted the salesmen. The importance of these problems, and the necessity for cooperation in solving them, caused these men to invite a number of other salesmen to a meeting at the Lima House, Lima, Ohio, on February 12, 1882. At that meeting, attended by twenty-four traveling salesmen, a temporary organization known as "The Traveling Men's Club" was formed."
Whether by subtle design intent or coincidence, it is perhaps noteworthy that the lower left and right sections of each of the three primary window groupings contain spheres divided into eight sections; the same number as there are walls in the nave which contain them. Though outside the focus of this review and a potentially lengthy discussion itself, suffice it to say there is a long history of sacred buildings featuring octagonal designs and various explanations associated with the meaning and significance of the number.
Impossible not to notice is the impressive and unique exposed wood beam vaulted ceiling. Extant medieval examples can still be found, perhaps nowhere more impressively than at the magnificent cathedral in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England. Built between 1083 and 1375, Ely Cathedral, known in full as the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, features an octagonal "Lantern Tower" at the intersection of its cruciform plan. The vaulting of the First Christian Church is also what necessitates the use of buttressing, as seen in the tapering brick sections which stand perpendicular to its exterior walls. These buttresses provide the structural support necessary to counter the lateral thrust created by the building's ceiling.
Lastly, it would be a shortcoming of this review not to mention the charming portrait of Moses holding the Ten Commandments located in the church basement, which Mr. Ferguson says was drawn by his mother. Also not to be left out, the large skink (a type of lizard for the herpetologically impaired) which I could not help noticing as it lay curled up on the floor directly in front of the prophet. Joel tells me that he (or she) is a long time resident and apparently effective at handling any potentially annoying cricket chirping during church services.
The initial impetus for this brief discussion was a passing personal interest in the curious characteristics of an old building. However, perhaps it might provide the catalyst for further research and evaluation of its architectural significance, to include the stories of the people instrumental to its design, construction and patronage; an undertaking worthy of the First Christian Church and the people of Clinton, Kentucky.
Notes: while not a focus and invalidated, a brief search suggests that, based on a Porter County, Indiana Obituary/Death notice, J. W. Higbee was a reverend who died in 1890 and is buried in Clinton, KY. Assuming this is one of the men featured in the stained glass and that the windows are contemporaneous with the building, the likeness was included as a memorial. Mention of a J. M. Samuels, Clinton, KY can also be found, interestingly, in an 1896 publication of the Indiana Horticultural Society. Other sources which may provide further detail and clarification include "The Commercial History of the State of Kentucky: Kentucky Division, Travelers Protective Association of America, by T. Edgar Harvey, 1913" and "Church of Christ: A Historical, Biographical, and Pictorial History of Churches of Christ, John T. Brown, 1904."
Daniel Keith Patterson earned his Master of Arts, Art History from the University of Missouri - Kansas City and has a particular interest in the medieval art and architecture of Western Europe. Following a career with Hallmark Cards, he completed an internship with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City which focused on provenance research for a number of medieval objects in the museums decorative arts collection. He is currently employed with the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee.
Editor's Note: Since Mr. Patterson visited, the Church has gone into private hands. The new owners are in their early stages of bringing the church back to full use. Initially, they are scheduling special events in the building. The first wedding under the new ownership happened the first week of January.