Modern Beauty in Gary, Indiana: Edward Dart and St. Augustine's Episcopal Church

Posted on: February 20th, 2013 by David Robert Weible 22 Comments

Interior of St. Augustine's, 1960. Courtest Archive of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church.
Interior of St. Augustine's, 1960

In 1927, 30 African-Americans chartered a new Episcopal mission in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, just across the Illinois border from Chicago. Though the congregation struggled in its early years, it was strong and financially stable enough by the mid-1950s to commission its own place of worship. But a chance connection and the unexpected relationship that followed created more than just a house of God.

In the '50s, Gary was a hotbed for the Great Migration. “Most of the blacks that came here were coming because they had job opportunities that they could not get in the South. And that seemed to be the group that founded St. Augustine’s,” says Paula DeBois, a member of the church.

By 1955, St. Aug’s, as it’s affectionately known, was working on the purchase of a pipe organ. When the topic of building their own church came up, the organ sales rep knew just the architect for the job: the Midcentury Modernist Edward Dart.

“I like to refer to this as a unique and very compelling American story,” says DeBois, who contacted me after reading an earlier piece about Dart from this blog. “You have this white, North Shore architect, although he is from New Orleans, and he comes down to what is relatively known as a steel mill, blue-collar town, and he’s working with what is a colored Episcopal mission, and all that entails in the mid-'50s. I’m sure he got ribbed for dealing with a colored mission no matter how well-heeled the congregants were.”

Architect Edward D. Dart in Gary, Indiana, 1956. Courtesy Archive of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church
Architect Edward D. Dart in Gary, Indiana, 1956

The marriage was indeed unusual at the time, but what resulted was an architectural masterpiece.

Though Dart’s first design was scuttled, the two sides worked together for four years to develop their vision. True to Dart’s philosophy, the design incorporated local materials like Indiana limestone. When it was completed at a cost of $120,000 in 1959 (as just Dart’s second church), it almost immediately won the AIA Citation of Merit and the Church Architectural Guild’s Honor Award. It was also featured in numerous magazines and advertisements, which DeBois is still discovering today.

But even though St. Augustine’s was a media darling, the congregation didn't receive much credit. Congregants noticed that publications never used photos showing members of the church.

“All of us in my age bracket have commented on that,” says DeBois. “The old folks are used to it. But they photographed them and never really let you know it was a colored Episcopal mission, which would be about what they would do back then. It’s kind of like they neutralized you. That’s my best description.”

DeBois adds that it was also unusual that the mission wasn't granted full parish status until 1961 -- two years after the building was completed.

Exterior photo of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Gary, Indiana. Credit: Paula M. DeBois
Exterior of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 2012

But despite the slights in earlier years, today the congregation remains strong and the church is as beautiful as ever. One of the very few alterations was the commissioning of stained-glass clerestory windows in the '70s. The rest has been preserved meticulously.

“I can remember when they quibbled and squabbled over having air conditioning in there because it might mess up the wood,” says DeBois.

As for future preservation, the church will be included in a book by Gretchen Buggeln, a professor of art history at nearby Valparaiso University, detailing the church designs of Dart and two other architects. In addition, the congregation, which averages about 80 years of age, continues to research new ways to reach out to the community and attract new members. For her part, DeBois is about halfway through the process of getting St. Aug’s added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“I think it’s a source of pride,” says DeBois of the church. “You've got several different things at play there, but yet, they all had the same vision. Once they all got on the same page, look what they could accomplish.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Architecture, Modern Architecture

22 Responses

  1. Paula M. DeBois

    February 20, 2013

    Thank you for writing this piece on St. Augustine’s. Well done!

  2. Chelsea Whittington

    February 20, 2013

    Another one of Gary’s treasures!

  3. Karen Freeman-Wilson

    February 20, 2013

    I began scouting at St. Aug’s under the watchful eyes of Lola Stephens McCants. A real beacon in our community. Great job Paula.

  4. Evelyn H Reaves

    February 20, 2013

    Fantastic job,as usual, Paula. We, your fellow parishioners, are extremely proud of all your expertise and efforts to gain us national recognition. Is the average age of communicants really 80? :-)

  5. Gretchen Buggeln

    February 21, 2013

    Wonderful recognition of the church and your work, Paula. Both the building and and its history are surely treasures to preserve.

  6. John Littman

    February 21, 2013

    Paula:

    I admire and appreciate the attention to detail you lend in sharing the treasure that is St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. I look forward to be educated and inspired by the work you are doing.

    John Littman

  7. Mrs. Elon DeBois

    February 25, 2013

    Thank you for writing a wonderful piece on St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.

  8. Matt Seymour

    February 25, 2013

    Great article, David and Paula.

    For all of you Indiana architecture fans, Edward Dart also designed part of the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church complex in Indianapolis (100 W 86th St, Indianapolis, IN) and the Presbyterian Church of La Porte (307 Kingsbury Ave, La Porte, IN).

  9. Dolly Harris

    February 25, 2013

    Thank you for a wonderful article on St.Augustine. It is a beautiful church and has faithful members.

  10. Elmyra Powell

    February 27, 2013

    I will be 70 years old this year. I was raised at St Augustine, mostly in the original church, and over 20 years ago, I became a Quaker. But it was in my Episcopalian childhood at St Augustine that I first experienced the quiet stirrings of the Holy Spirit. And for that, I am forever grateful.

  11. Allan Brown

    February 28, 2013

    Paula
    Your dogged persistence and inteligence, I believe will get Saint Augustines into the National Historical Register and beyond. Please keep doing what you are doing, hopefully your efforts will help is as a congregation to focus on a active future

  12. Ralph Clark

    February 28, 2013

    As a long time member of St. Augustine Church, I appreciate all of Paula’s efforts. I think getting St. Augustine into the National Register is a wonderful thing.

  13. Angela L Smith-Davis

    February 28, 2013

    St Augustine’s Episcopal Church still stands as symbolic tribute to what happens when strong and passionate parishoners commit to faith and worship. Thank you Paula for your passion and tenacity to see this through. Your efforts are much appreciated.

  14. Chris Roach

    February 28, 2013

    This is the only church I ever attended growing up in Gary . Still amazed at it’s history.

  15. sharon tyler

    February 28, 2013

    As a newer parishoner of our church, I am proud of the the history that this church has and the faithfulness of our members. We truely are blessed to have Paula and her passion for our parish. Thank you for all of your hard work Paula.

  16. Paula Page Avila

    February 28, 2013

    There is much to be said for St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, not only because it is a beautiful place of worship and fellowship, but also a truly unique and amazing architectural piece of art work. Growing up in St. Augustine’s, I can still smell the sweetness of frankincense and myrrh upon entering the sanctuary on Sunday morning. One is immediately filled with a sense of peace and reverence. I am humbly blessed and grateful for the foundation of faith that was laid for me in this place. From the sweeping curved redwood beams to the huge pipe organ in the loft, it is still as breath taking now as it was many years ago. The founders, one of whom was my grandmother Anna Washington, would be truly be proud of it’s pristine preservation to date, and how it has been well loved by it’s parishioners and leaders throughout the years. Although I have traveled and visited many churches in the United States, St. Augustine’s remains the ultimate beauty, with it’s stained glass windows and communion alter that beckons to all who enter it’s doors, providing a place of peace, warmth, quiet contemplation, fellowship, familial bonding, sanctity and prayer. Thanks to the founders and the architects Mr. Dart and member/architect Richard Johnson, who designed, laid the foundation and built this awesomely inspiring piece of artwork that has become so much more to so many. And a special thank you to Paula M. DeBois for bringing attention to a church that truly deserves to have it’s mark forever remembered in the National Registry.

  17. Jan Monique Lawshe

    March 5, 2013

    This article is such a wonderful reminder of many good times at St. Augustine’s and also an education on the beginnings of the church. I had no idea about the architect selected and I think it is marvelous that the church is being considered for the Nat’l Registry! Kudos to Paula D. for spearheading this effort and remaining “faithful”!

  18. Dorothy Lawshe

    March 5, 2013

    Thank You, Paula for all of the work you are doing to keep our beautiful St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in publications for all to see.The Chuch should be recognized as a historical landmark. The unique roof of St. Augustine’s has always reminded me of “Praying Hands” and the sanctuary as a warm and peaceful place. Your article brought back many fond memories. May God bless you for your dedication.
    Dorothy Lawshe

  19. Gina V. Shropshire

    March 6, 2013

    Thank you for this outstanding article about St. Augustine’s; truly a gem in the heart of Gary, Indiana. Thank you to Paula for spearheading the drive to let the world know about our church.

  20. William Mott,Jr.

    March 9, 2013

    I have always been inspired by the internal and external architectural beauty of my childhood church!!! To boot, I have been imbued with the knowledge over the years that the ultimate blessing of this church has consistently been the unparalled beauty of the countless families within its structure that have faithfully served the Lord and the community at large!!!May you as a church family continue your good work and may God’s hand guide all that you do!!! Special thanks to you Paula!!! You make us proud. The continued best, William Mott Jr.

  21. Anthony Dunn

    March 11, 2013

    I was a member of St. Augustine’s from 1954 to 1968, and, at the time, I was the youngest Acolyte to serve.

    In the summer of 1985, my oldest son, Anthony William Dunn, was baptized there.

    In 2004, a Mass of Resurrection was held there, in memory of my mother, the late Rose Dunlap Dunn, a fellow Cincinnatian of Mrs. Charlotte Shropshire, and the late Quentin Paige Smith, Sr. served as the lone Acolyte.

  22. Henry James

    March 16, 2013

    Having grown up in St. Augustine’s, it is very familiar to me. Even still as I look at the pictures above, I am struck by the beauty and uniqueness of both the exterior and interior of this magnificent structure.