When the people of First Christian decided to build a new sanctuary in 1958, they went way out on a limb and built a wonderfully unique facility under the direction of architect O’Neil Ford.
First Christian Church of Denton
The unique architecture of First Christian Church was created by a world class architect who was also a native son of Denton. While it is the sanctuary that commands the most attention and admiration, the fellowship and educational wings also have a distinct character of their own.
Erected in 1958, dedicated in February,1959, the structure was designed by O’Neil Ford, who has been described as the most prominent architect of Texas and the Southwest. Born in Pink Hill, TX (near Sherman), in 1905, Ford moved to Denton in 1917, graduated from Denton High School, and attended North Texas State Teachers’ College (now UNT) for two years. His formal study of architecture was by correspondence, and practical experience was gained by working briefly for a Dallas firm. An appreciation of nature (he called it God’s art), a love of earth tones, and the use of natural materials (wood, bricks, glass) were the principle marks of his work.
During the 1930’s he designed several Denton homes; later he was the architect for Denton’s City Hall and Civic Center. He first received wide recognition and acclaim for the Little Chapel in the Woods, which was constructed on the TWU campus by unskilled members of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration. Dedicated in 1939 by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Little Chapel has been designated a Texas Historical Landmark, and remains one of his best known works. A Ford biographer has described First Christian Church as “architecturally the most sophisticated of his Denton works.”
It was their youthful pastor, James R. Reed, (not yet 30) who led the members of First Christian Church–then worshiping in a condemned building at the corner of Hickory and Piner Streets–to select Ford as the designer of their new church home on the Fulton Street property they purchased in 1956 with coins collected in “magic boxes” over a period of years.
The most distinctive feature of the sanctuary is the delicately thin concrete roof. It is a parabolic paraboloid supported by ten columns anchored in the foundation, rather than by the walls–which were added after the roof was completed. Regrettably, more than fifty years of maintenance has blurred the geometric beauty of its bold lines and sharp angles; but inside, looking upward from the sanctuary floor, one sees a mirror image of the roof with its original lines and angles intact. This is the view that most dramatically reveals Ford’s ingenuity and artistry. The five concrete columns on each side of the sanctuary symbolize hands lifted in prayer; and the ridges and valleys of the roof represent hands folded in prayer.
Entering the sanctuary through two massive and intricately hand carved wooden doors– the work of Ford’s brother, Lynn–one’s attention is drawn to the chancel, where the pulpit and lectern flank a unique communion table A gift to the congregation from Ford, the table consists of a simple steel frame, originally bearing a top of exceptionally rare and beautiful Italian pink marble. (Unfortunately, the marble was broken several years ago, and replaced with a less valuable and imposing material.) Directly behind the communion table, doors built into the chancel wall open to reveal a ceramic tile baptistry. Rising above the baptistry, again as an integral part of the wall, is an eighteen foot high cross. Made of wood covered with Italian Smalti (a form of mosaic consisting of 14 caret gold covered with glass), it was designed and crafted by Marie Delleny, a TWU art professor and member of the church. The metallic gold in the cross is picked up in the light fixtures, and in other appointments of the building.
The glass walls on either side of the sanctuary carry out Ford’s concept that nature is God’s art and allow the building to blend with its surroundings. Worshipers are thus reminded that religion does not isolate them from the world, but prepares them for service to and in it.
Three significant additions to the original building all have remained faithful to the design concept of O’Neil Ford. In 1960 a children’s wing–actually a part of the original plan– was completed. Installation, in 1990, of a 16-rank Reuter Pipe Organ provided the sanctuary with a musical instrument worthy of its superb acoustics. A few years later, new structures were added at the southeast and southwest corners of the sanctuary. The west wing, connecting the sanctuary to the children’s section, features a gathering area, administrative offices, and porte-cochere; the east wing includes a chapel, brides’ room, and music room. Architects for this project were Jim and Pringle Patrick, who were selected because of their affinity for Ford’s architecture. The precise match of the original and new brick, achieved by extensive searching in Mexico, speaks to their success in remaining true to the original design.
Note: There is a beautiful cross in the center of the chancel wall. It is an unusual work of art that graces our sanctuary. If you click here you will see an article written in the Denton Record Chronicle on March 29, 1959. The cross was made by Miss Marie Delleney, a member of the congregation.
Links to web sites about O’Neil Ford