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The classical Greek appearance of St. George Church belies its Scottish origins as a Presbyterian church. In 1905, a new Presbyterian congregation, including Henry C. Wallace (editor of Wallaces Farmer and later to become Secretary of Agriculture under President Warren G. Harding) was holding services at Elmwood School at 31st and University. In October of that year, the church announced plans to construct a suburban church building at 35th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.
Original donors of several of the stained glass windows in the nave.
Read on to discover why the Greek congregation preserved so many of the original features of Elmwood Presbyterian Church.
Designing the building
Des Moines architects Proudfoot & Bird (now Brooks Borg Skiles) produced a design that The Des Moines Register described as "a pleasing combination of Doric and Roman styles." Groundbreaking for Elmwood Presbyterian Church occurred on May 10, 1906. Just six months and a day later, the $12,500 structure was dedicated in a fraternal service presided over by Rev. Charles S. Medbury of Drake University and a number of local ministers.
Greek and Western Features
The St. George Church building retains much from its Presbyterian beginnings. Luckily for the Greek church, the Presbyterians chose a neoclassical design with Doric columns and a portico reminiscent of a Greek temple. The domed ceiling of the nave, a necessary element in any Orthodox church, was also part of the original plan. The pews were originally arranged in three sections with two aisles. They still retain the brackets for communion wine glasses that are often found in Presbyterian churches of this era.
The arched stained glass windows are also artifacts of Elmwood Presbyterian. Allegorical landscape scenes representing the life of Christ fill the south windows, while the north wall windows tell The Parable of the Sower (the theme of agriculture being important to the Wallace family). The window depicting the seed that fell on the rocky ground was donated by May Brodhead Wallace, wife of Henry C. Wallace.
Appropriately, a Scottish thistle dominates the weed patch in the window illustrating the seeds that fell among the weeds.
Why does our church preserve so many artifacts
of the original congregation, such as the windows?
When St. George Parish acquired the building in 1930, the parish chose to preserve the windows because they were a) beautiful, b) fit in with Orthodox theology, but most importantly, c) the Greek congregation wanted the people who originally built the church to be remembered.
The result is that the church building became very much a Greek Orthodox church building while preserving a strong connection to Iowa history, given the important contributions of the Wallace family to Iowa agriculture, and to the other families who originally founded and built Elmwood Presbyterian Church.
Scottish thistle growing in a Greek church!
Detail from the Weeds window, stained glass, 1906.
"A Church Without a Congregation"
In 1926, the Elmwood congregation merged with First United Presbyterian and moved out of the building. The combined congregation built the Beaver Avenue United Presbyterian Church (now Westminster Presbyterian Church) at Beaver and Franklin Avenues. Highland Park Baptist Church then moved into the building and renamed itself "Elmwood Baptist Church." The Baptist church was unable to attract a west side congregation and folded in 1930. The building became, according to The Des Moines Tribune, "A Church Without a Congregation."
St. George Parish moves in
Upon moving into the building in late 1930, the Greek parish wasted little time in converting the building into an Orthodox church, immediately erecting the iconostasis, or icon screen, in front of the altar. However, the direction the church building faced created a problem because the altar of an Orthodox church is traditionally located in the east end of the church. The parish considered moving the facade to the building's west side but abandoned the idea because reversing the slant of the inclined floor was structurally and financially impractical.
The icons on the iconostasis were painted in 1930. The icons hanging on the north and south walls date from 1946.
Growth and changes
The church building changed more in the 1980s than it had in the previous five decades. In 1986, the altar space was enlarged and the icon screen shortened. This allowed the installation of a wall on which Greek artists painted an egg tempera platytera, or Holy Mother and Christ Child, accompanied by angels and the parents of the Virgin Mary. The dome painting of Christ Pantocrator was also repainted, replacing a version executed by a parish priest in the 1940s. The icons on the iconostasis, our church's oldest icons, are influenced in style by the realism of Western Renaissance art, while the newer icons represent a return to the more ancient and formal Byzantine style of iconography.
What does the design of an Orthodox church building symbolize?
How and why is it different from
Western church design?
To learn more about Orthodox art and architecture and its relationship to Orthodox Christian theology, click the following links to read Orthodox Art and Architecture, by John Yiannias, Professor Emeritusof the University of Virginia Department of Art, and House of God, by Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald. These links will take you directly to each article in new browser windows. These articles are published on the Greek Archdiocese's website.
By 1981, the parish needed more meeting space and considered building a new church in the west suburbs. However, the parish ultimately voted to stay in the Drake neighborhood. In a major building project, the parish expanded the building by adding a new fellowship center and converting the basement into Sunday School classrooms. Later, in a second major building project in 2002, the space between the fellowship hall and the church building was enclosed, providing desperately needed office and storage space. New refrigeration equipment was installed, including a walk-in freezer directly under the new office and accessible to the kitchen. This freezer eliminated a dozen home refrigerators that were being used to store food for our annual Greek Food Fair. Lighting equipment and skylights ensured that the windows in the south wall would remain illuminated and visible inside the nave. Finally, the wall separating the original office from the nave was reopened and the old office was converted into our present choir loft.
The building is placed on the National Register of Historic Places
On March 16, 1997, St. George Parish celebrated an Ecumenical Doxology with Westminster Presbyterian Church to commemorate the placement of the church building on the National Register of Historic Places.