This church designed for the Greek orthodox congregation in the suburbs of Milwaukee was one of Wright's last commissions. In the last few years of his life he completed almost seventy works, several of which illustrate his interest in the circular form. (See, for example his Guggenheim Museum in New York City.) Wright died, however, in 1959 before the ground breaking of the church.
Wright's circular design uses two important elements from Greek Orthodox churches, the dome and the Greek cross. The shallow concrete dome (106 feet in diameter) is superimposed on a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross; the Greek cross inscribed within a circle is a key design element in the details of the church as well.
Originally designed not long before Wright's death in 1959, the main construction was completed in 1961. Later additions included the art glass Icon windows, as well as some repairs and revisions along the way.
As the story goes, it was not an easy time getting people to agree on Wright as the architect. It seemed that each group in the building committee had their own choice for an appropriate architect. When they finally agreed on Wright and notified him of this agreement, the waiting began. They waited and waited for a design... most on the committee growing increasingly more anxious about the wisdom of selecting Wright. One day, Wright had one of his apprentices bring him some fresh paper and pencils and he sat down and wrote up the design, in its entirety, in a single morning.
Wright had to do some research over this time to understand the nature of Byzantine architecture so that his creation would fit in well with the faith and beliefs of the congregation. Byzantine architecture is primarily horizontal and uses domes and features in an odd number... usually 3. The Orthodox cross is an equilateral cross that usually appears within a circle. This theme of a cross within a circle appears throughout the design of the church.
The layout of the pews and altar are in the shape of a cross, with the dome of the church providing the circle. On the lower level you can see one of the points of the cross ahead and another to the left.
The brass work that sets off the altar and holds the painted icons is all made up of stylized crosses within circles.
Even the lights around the outside of the sanctuary, when put one on top of another, make up a cross within a circle. There's one light on either side of the spiral stairway.
Air conditioning vents are hidden within this design.
Looking up the center of the spiral staircases reveals a cross within a circle. The list goes on and on.
Spiral staircases add a lot to the decor.
The spiral staircases each surrounded a light spire.
Interior stained glass
The other side of the front door.
Stained glass icons in the top floor of the sanctuary.
After the extended wait for the design, the building committee was certainly a bit shocked at the drawings that finally arrived. Wright certainly had his work cut out for him when it came time to sell the design. As the story goes, his most basic description of the church involved a cup of tea. He took the cup, placed the saucer upside down on top of the cup, held it up and said, "This is your church."
Stitched photo of the sanctuary
The most amazing thing about the construction of the church is the dome. As with any Wright building, light is very important. There needed to be a way to let natural light into the building in such a way that it really brought out the beauty of the interior. If you look at photographs of the inside of the dome, you'll notice that it is completely bounded by these small portal windows. That means that the entire weight of this 104' dome is held up by the small spaces between these windows. In addition to this, it had to be done in such a way that the structure could handle the seasonal forces that cause expansion and compression with the constant freezing and warming. Though there were some problems with the initial implementation of the design, the principles behind its structural integrity held true. The dome is quite secure with what appears to be a minimum of support.
Another view of the outside. Notice the Orthodox Cross at the top of each vertical member.
Stylized Orthodox Cross at the entry of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.