I first became aware — well, REALLY aware, I should say — of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church a few years ago when my friend, David, and I, for seemingly the millionth time, found ourselves discussing local mid-century architecture. (If you’re thinking that we’re a couple of geeks to spend our time on such topics, I have nothing whatsoever to say in our defense — geeks, I guess we are).
Since he’s an architect with all kinds of formal training and knowledge, I was curious to find out David’s favorite local building. When I asked, without a second’s hesitation, he decisively blurted, “St. Patrick’s, no question.”
“What, you mean that windowless concrete slab against the sky on Portland and 23rd?” I creplied. I had driven by the monolithic facade tons of times and never given St. Patrick’s a second thought.
“Really?” I thought, “that’s the best you can do? Of all of the great buildings in the city, you named THAT one?”
With a superior sniff, I mentally derided David for his choice. I mean, there were so many BETTER buildings he could have picked — The Gold Dome, St. Luke’s, even the old State Capitol (now Arvest) Bank that has been so lamely altered in recent years. He could have mentioned my personal favorite (for obvious reasons — my grandfather designed it), the First Christian Church, or he could have picked one of Goff’s amazing homes in the area. He could have gone with something older like the Deco delight that is the First National Bank building or something newer like the sexy Chesapeake Boathouse … but he went with St. Patrick’s?!
David gave my incredulous stare a knowing, confident nod that told me I was obviously and completely clueless.
“Just go check it out,” was all he said in an almost-whisper before he got up to get another beer, effectively ending the conversation.
The idea for Oklahoma City’s best kept architectural secret was born when the congregation of mostly blue collar families received an enterprising new priest, Monsignor Don J. Kanaly. Before arriving in Oklahoma, Kanaly had studied and traveled throughout Europe, where he had become intrigued with the Medieval tradition of common villagers coming together to construct the great Gothic cathedrals that still dot the landscape centuries later.
The idea of doing the same thing in America fermented in Kanaly’s mind for years and finally found fruition when he arrived on the plains of Oklahoma and joined a parish that had a school and an auditorium but no real sanctuary. If such architectural miracles could be performed in Europe before the Industrial Revolution, surely the same feat could be accomplished here and now, he must have reasoned.
Kanaly decided to conduct a test project to see if his instincts were correct. He and the parish would build a rock wall along Portland to insulate the school from the busy road just a few feet away. If they could build a wall, they could certainly build a church.
So, work began.
The parishioners spent the sweltering summer of 1959 constructing a six-foot high, 50-foot-long stone wall. By the end of the summer, the wall was complete, and since the wall continues to stand strong over 50 years later, I guess you could say the experiment was a grand success.
With work completed on the wall, it was now time to find an architect to design a church that the congregation could work as a community to build. Kanaly and the congregation chose Tulsa architect Robert Lawton Jones, an Oklahoma native who studied under the great Mies van Der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology and attended the Technical University in Karlsruhe, Germany, on a Fulbright Grant before returning to the Sooner State and setting up shop with brothers David and Lee Murray to form one of the state’s great firms, Murray-Jones-Murray.
During the diagnostic phase of the design process, Jones met with the priests and parishioners to determine the needs of the congregation. He learned that, during normal Sunday services, the school’s small auditorium could somewhat comfortably accommodate all of the worshipers since there were several services a day. However, on holidays and during special events when the entire congregation gathered together, it was impossible to meet inside, so church members had no option but to erect a platform in the adjacent field to handle the large crowds of people. As you might imagine, the congregation often fell victim to our fickle weather and found themselves attempting to focus on religious celebrations while dealing with torrential downpours, sudden tornado threats, dress-lifting wind, and stifling heat.
Armed with this knowledge, Jones began sketching plans that incorporated the Miesian box he had so successfully used in his firm’s designs for the Tulsa Airport, as well as his own, award-winning home in the same city. The church would be made up of 52 pre-cast concrete panels that the parishioners could lift into place, forming the outer, windowless walls of the building. Using concrete and having no exterior windows would allow the congregation to both save money and do most of the construction work themselves.
Also, using a simple box as the basic form allowed Jones to get creative with the interior space, which would be a church within a church … literally.
Picture those cute Russian matryoshka (or nesting) dolls where a small doll fits into a bigger one that fits into an even larger one, and you get the idea. Jones envisioned a small, glass-encased sanctuary where up to 500 of the congregation could meet for weekly services and feel cozy yet comfortable. Surrounding the glass sanctuary would be a larger concrete building that could be used for overflow when the entire parish gathered for special events. The idea was simple yet brilliant, but in order for the design to work, the glass sanctuary had to be an entirely open space without any kind of internal support.
That’s where Felix Candela comes into the story.
Candela, a Spaniard exiled to Mexico after fighting on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War, was one of the first to embrace the use of thin-shell concrete in his incredibly futuristic designs. Lightweight, malleable, and perhaps most importantly, inexpensive, thin-shell concrete allowed post-WWII architects to play with roof designs in a way they were never able to before. Instead of traditional, heavy roofs that had to be supported by several interior beams, which, therefore, dictated the design, the lightness of thin-shell concrete (sometimes only an inch or two thick) removed the need for interior support altogether. Walls could be rearranged or completely removed, and interior space could be opened up and played with. This new freedom allowed a kind of uninhibited creativity for the first time in architectural history.
Already an internationally-known figure in architectural circles, Candela came on board as the project’s structural engineer, and the way he solved the problem of creating the glass sanctuary as an open space was to incorporate the thin-shell supporting “umbrellas” he had used so effectively in a previous design, Mexico City’s High Life Textile Factory building.
Basically, Jones used 10 of Candela’s hyperbolic parabaloid umbrellas as the roof for the glass sanctuary, which enabled it to be an open, free-standing space within the larger building. With Candela’s contribution, Jones had his church within a church.
Soon, however, the pleasant working relationship between architect and engineer tensed when Candela expressed his dislike for Jones’ Miesian design, saying it didn’t look at all like a church. Instead, he suggested that, since the sanctuary was named after St. Patrick, it should be designed like a shamrock (Seriously … a shamrock).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Jones balked at Candela’s whimsical suggestion and told Kanaly, “Either you have the right architects and the wrong engineer or the wrong engineer and the right architects.” Jones’ more sophisticated vision prevailed, and no shamrock church was built in Oklahoma City. However, Candela was never happy with the design. When he penned a book about his remarkable career later in life, Candela never mentioned his participation in the St. Patrick’s project, and the church is not included in any of his online project lists.
With the basic design complete, it was time to think about more artistic aspects of the church. Kanaly brought in art consultant, Frank Kacmarcik, to help. A true Renaissance man, Kacmarcik was a monk, a gifted writer and artist, and a scholar who was uniquely suited for the job at hand. He had worked with architect Marcel Breuer during the design and building of Breuer’s St. John’s monastery in Minnesota and was also friends with Bauhaus-trained artist, Josef Albers, who headed Yale’s design department at the time.
Kacmarcik’s contribution to St. Patrick’s is perhaps the church’s most dramatic and awe-inspiring feature, the design for the 50 giant, stylized angels symbolizing the “heavenly Jerusalem,” which would be imbedded in the interior concrete panels and protectively surround the glass sanctuary. He also asked his friend, Albers, to design the embellishments for the alter — a gold brick wall and abstract, Bertoia-inspired hanging sculpture.
The final adornment would be the elegant and ultra-modern bell tower dramatically jutting up from the earth in an elongated vertical sweep, dwarfing the horizontal line of the church and making the combination of the two very cross-like in appearance. Made of concrete pillars and topped by a redwood cross, the bell tower would house three bells symbolizing Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Patrick.
With the design complete, it was now time for the true hard work to begin. Ever the motivator, Kanaly rallied his congregation, and they all rolled up their collective sleeves and began the task of building their own modern-day village cathedral in the heart of Oklahoma. During the next two years, over 500 parishioners spent their spare time hammering, pouring, sanding, cutting, and carving Jones’ blueprints into reality. They excavated the site and poured the foundation, cut the stone floor, built the wooden forms used to cast the angels, carved the long, wooden pews, applied gold leaf to Albers’ dramatic brick alter screen, and finished out the walls. At the end of the day, only the steel, concrete, and electrical work was outsourced to professionals.
Finally, many calloused hands, hammered fingernails, and long work weekends later, St. Patrick’s was finished, and “the church the people built,” as it came to be known, opened for its first service on September 23, 1962. Jones’ only Oklahoma City building was a masterpiece and was immediately recognized as such by the North American Liturgical Conference, who awarded the building the Cardinal Lercaro Gold Medal, the first of 28 architectural awards the building would receive.
St. Patrick’s also appeared in many national magazines in the ensuing months and received a coveted cover shot in Progressive Architecture by famed architectural photographer, Julius Shulman. When he came to OKC to photograph St. Patrick’s, Shulman was particularly taken with how beautifully the natural light filtered into the building, giving it a peaceful, serene “glow.” He wanted to capture that glow in Kacmarcik’s angels and patiently waited hour after hour until the sun perfectly glinted in an angel’s eye behind the alter, then he clicked one time and had the perfect shot.
When I met him years later, Shulman told me how impressed he was with the simple elegance of St. Patrick’s (and with Jones’ work in general). When I told him the church hadn’t changed a bit since he first saw it nearly 50 years before, Shulman smiled and said, “There’s no need to tamper with perfection.”
After my conversation with David, I was still skeptical but even more curious. One crisp-but-cloudless fall afternoon, I decided to take his advice and stop and have a look at what lies behind that huge, almost fortress-like concrete facade on Portland. I entered the church and walked through Monsignor Don Kanaly’s glorious brainchild, taking in Bob Jones’ masterful vision, protected by Felix Candela’s graceful umbrellas and watched over by Frank Kacmarcik’s stunning angels.
David was right! This place is AMAZING!
Instead of force feeding you details of my impressions of this architectural marvel, I’m going to follow David’s lead, offer up a knowing, confident nod, and gently whisper to you…
“Just go check it out.”