A midwestern midcentury monastery
I grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., a midsize, Midwestern city with many lovely qualities, but not necessarily known as a mecca for modernism. However, it is home to a community conceived by one of the icons of 20th-century design.
As a girl, I knew it as ‘The Sem’—a campus just outside of town that trained Lutheran ministers. My parents had friends on the faculty who lived in on-campus housing. I loved visiting because it was like I had stepped into a TV rerun—very Brady Bunch or I Dream of Jeannie. There were staircases you could look right through, entire walls of windows and dresser drawers built right into the bedroom walls. “The buildings were designed by the guy who designed the St. Louis Arch,” the grownups would tell us.
“To this day, art schools & architecture students from around the region visit the campus to study Saarinen’s designs.”
“Look at the diamond-shaped bricks!” I do not recall being particularly impressed, but eventually it sunk in that the architect was famous. Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m back in Fort Wayne, the proud owner of a 1949 California modern–style ranch. MCM design has become a passion, and while poring over furniture catalogs one day, it occurred to me that the marble-topped Tulip table I was coveting for the dining room was designed by the same guy who designed the St. Louis Arch. Wait a minute: Did that mean The Sem was designed by Eero Saarinen?!
Architecture to Chairs
Anyone with an interest in midcentury design is familiar with Saarinen’s large-scale public projects, such as the TWA Terminal at JFK and Gateway Arch. Or you may know his iconic Tulip furniture and the Grasshopper and Womb chairs. While he received various commissions for corporate headquarters and university buildings, this is the only campus where the entire plan and all of the buildings are solely his design, very much in the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art. Saarinen and Associates was chosen for the project in 1953 from a field of 20 firms from around the country.
This 1960s photo shows the interior of the library with its striking floating staircase. The lattice of glass block and diamond shaped bricks covers the west wall.
Known as Concordia Senior College (in the 1970s it became Concordia Theological Seminary), the Lutheran Board for Higher Education was responsible for selecting the architect. They stated their reasons for choosing Saarinen in true academic fashion: “It was apparent he represented outstanding architectural achievements which gave preeminent promise of a sustained interest in the spiritual ideals and the educational philosophies which are basic to the success of this new college. In addition, the majority of the buildings he has designed exhibit such honest functional solutions and structural clarity that the Board felt no doubt about his ability to design a complete campus which would aid the Church in achieving the unique purposes of its new school.” The campus plan acknowledges the German birthplace of Lutheranism and Saarinen’s own Finnish heritage, and is still referred to as ‘Saarinen’s Village‘ because of the similarities to a northern European hamlet. The chapel is strikingly tall, with a steeply pitched roof. It and the surrounding plaza are the center of the community’s daily life. The dining hall, student commons and library surround the square, and academic buildings and dormitories spread out from this central social and spiritual hub of the community.
Mainly on the Plain
The site chosen for the college was typical Midwestern farmland with nary a tree or a body of water to add visual interest. Saarinen compensated by installing a manmade lake and planting trees in a pattern complementary to the layout of the buildings. The chapel was situated on the one slight hill on the site and given a dramatic roof. The other buildings are similar in style but on a smaller scale, naturally emphasizing the height of the chapel. (It is said that the roofs all pitch at 23.5 degrees from the horizon—the same angle at which the earth’s tilt axis relates to the sun.) The continuity of appearance was enhanced by the use of buff-colored brick cladding and black-tiled roofs on all buildings, along with color-block accents in classic MCM orange or blue. As was so frequently pointed out to me as a child, the bricks on all of the facades are an unusual diamond shape. Saarinen did not want to cut the bricks where they abutted the roofs, so he worked with the local contractor to design and produce the unique form.
The dormitories, which house only men, were designed to hold 36 residents and are clustered in groups of four. The village feel of the campus is enhanced by these groupings of dormitories, which are each no bigger than the largest faculty houses on campus. Apparently, the administration had originally requested dormitories holding at least 150 students, but Saarinen resisted, believing that smaller structures better fit his vision and would encourage stronger social responsibility for the group living in each house. Every cluster of dorms includes a faculty advisor’s home—similar in exterior appearance, but designed for raising a family, with an eat-in kitchen, a basement rec room and built-ins in every bedroom. Just a few minutes walking distance outside of the central campus is a grouping of more faculty homes. These are classic simple ranches, ranging from two to four bedrooms in size. All are similar in appearance, with deep overhangs on each end, picture windows, freestanding garages and clad with siding—the only buildings on campus that don’t use the buff-colored, diamond-shaped bricks.
The original buildings still stand today, appearing basically as they did when completed in 1958. An $8 million library expansion has recently been completed and, while it is not completely clad in diamond bricks, the architect used Saarinen’s architectural vocabulary and it strays very little from the feel of the other buildings.
The opening of the college was an immediate sensation in Fort Wayne. The construction progress had been closely followed in both of the local newspapers and, as The News-Sentinel proudly proclaimed, “This institution is a thing of beauty, not only for home folks to be proud of but for passers-through-town to gape at.” To this day, art schools and architecture students from around the region visit the campus to study Saarinen’s designs. Recently, I took my 11-year-old son out to see The Sem for the first time. In typical tween style, he wasn’t expressing the enthusiasm I had hoped for. Before long, I heard myself brightly exclaiming, “This was designed by the same man who designed the St. Louis Arch! And look at the diamond-shaped bricks!”