Art & Architecture
Built 1913 - Renovated 2013
Plymouth Church, formed in 1841, moved to this building in 1913. Alexander Eschweiler, who designed many prominent houses and buildings throughout Milwaukee, served as the architect of the original building. His design harkened back to an older pastoral age, replicating the image of an old English church. The sanctuary is notable for its nine Tiffany windows.
The congregation later added the gymnasium in 1919 - dedicated to “youth in the neighborhood” and the school building in 1928 - the top floor of the gym and the education wing, which now largely houses Milestones Programs for Children.
The congregation undertook a significant renovation of the Eschweiler portion of the building in 2013. Vince Micha of Kubala Washatko Architects led the project. It added an elevator and bathrooms, and adapted our building to contemporary needs. We received a “Mayor’s Design Award” for our renovation project. (Photo shows the congregation returning the to renovated sanctuary the day we rededicated the building.)
Plymouth Church Courtyard Gardens
The renovation added a courtyard and gardens to provide a welcoming entrance to the building, an invitation to join us in meditation and fellowship both inside and outside these walls. The gardens reflect Plymouth’s loving, creative, and inclusive community.
The courtyard itself takes the shape of an octagon. Additional octagons can be found throughout the building - in the oculus over the main stairs, in the baptismal font, and in the base of the pulpit. Early Christians saw in a regular octagon a shape formed by two squares; it symbolized the mingling and balance between earthly and spiritual realms (or squares).
In Hebrew the number eight is symbolic of overabundance. As seven reminds us of the seventh day, a day of completion and rest, so eight, as the ..eighth day, was over and above this perfect completion, and was indeed the first of a new series. Eight is 7 plus 1. Hence it is the number specially associated with Resurrection and Regeneration, and the beginning of a new era or order.
These multiple meanings of eight and an octagon can add spiritual symbolism to a shape recurring throughout the building.
The Reception Hall (formerly the dining room) originally served as a public library for the City of Milwaukee. We use it today as a reception area for coffee and meals after worship, and to host community events.
The artwork in the Reception Hall relates to Old Testament stories of creation and redemption.
Congregation Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue, uses the Reception Hall for services several times a month. Rabbi Michal Woll is pictured here with the congregation's Torah. The Coffeehouse also uses the space on many Saturday nights.
Originally the church used coal to heat the building. The church stored the coal in a subterranean bin. During the renovation the city allowed the church to reconfigure the square footage of the coal bin into a new space, the Lower Study. We use it for meetings and classes.
Sunday School takes place in the classrooms off of Graham Chapel, named after a wife of Rev. Roscoe Graham. In Graham Chapel itself, a "timeline" of photos and prints runs along the wall, starting with creation and ending with Pentecost. The pictures relate to the Storymaker Lessons taught in the Sunday School.
The collection includes images such as James Lewis' portrait of Jesus from his collection, "Icons of the Bible."
Tia Richardson worked with youth from Plymouth Church and Pathfinders to create a mural of forgiveness in 2015. The collaboration began with a study of sacred stories about forgiveness among adults and youth from Pathfinders, Plymouth, and Shir Hadash and then a 3-month creative process of sketching and conversation by youth as a group. Adults worked on their own artwork individually. At the end of the project everyone came back together to share their artwork about forgiveness.
A year before, a youth brought a weapon to the Pathfinders Drop-In Center. The incident prompted reflection and study by Pathfinders, including a survey of youth about weapons, violence, and safety. Among the insights from the survey came a clear indication of the kinds of messages Pathfinder’s youth heard at home: if hit, hit back harder. The survey pointed to a growing edge in the developmental assets of youth: social competencies for resistance and peaceful conflict resolution.
Homeless and at-risk youth are not the only ones who struggle with such competenties. All of us struggle in various ways with the ability to forgive. People at Plymouth and Shir Hadash do not come to a conversation about forgiveness as experts seeking students to teach, but as people who shared a struggle to learn and live.
Sacred stories and traditions probe the question of forgiveness and even the possibility of forgiveness. Our own personal stories contain insights into forgiveness, too. Participants from our organizations drew on our personal and sacred stories to dialogue about the challenges, limitations, and opportunities of forgiveness.
Originally the Commons contained a library, parlor, church office, coat closet, and storage areas. During the renovation we opened up the space to create a welcoming gathering space. We named it the “Commons” in a nod towards the gathering spaces in the center of old New England towns. In 2014, it was named the Douglas Commons to recognize the years of service William Douglas gave as a volunteer to the congregation.
Artwork in the Commons celebrates “Home!” The theme arose from Isaac Watts’ hymn “Our Shepherd Is the Living God” and its verse: “O may your house be my abode, and all my works be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others come and go - no more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.” As a congregation, we want people to feel like a child safe at home. The artwork around the Commons reinforces this theme.
Mother and Children
Marvin Creager gave this painting by Evert Pieters in memory of his wife Helen. Marvin was the editor and then president of the Milwaukee Journal in the 1920’s and 30’s.
At first it seems a simple scene, mother and children at home: domestic coziness. The painting reflects European romanticism of hearth and home as a response to the increasingly gritty life of many during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. People romanticized rural life even as they moved to the cities. At the same time, the movement lifted up and honored everyday and ordinary people in opposition to wealthy elites, valuing the commoner over the aristocrat. Lastly, in the midst of scientific discoveries and rational inquiry, the romantics celebrated the natural world and our connection to it.
We can see all the romantic themes in Pieters’ piece itself. Its setting is a rural home far from the bustle of cities. The pose of the figures suggests the tenderness of their care for another. Notice the things not there: little furniture, plates but no food, and children but few toys - a family of the working poor. The eye moves to the open door and the light pouring through, the woods beyond, a sense of the inviting mystery of the natural world.
The Wealthy Man & Lazarus
William and Lou Frank donated a print by Sadao Watanabe (1913 - 1996). Jesus told a parable of a wealthy man who disregarded the poor man, Lazarus, at his door. Watanabe focused attention on the men before their deaths, emphasizing the way one ignored the plight of the other. Do we see the people outside our own doors?
Thoughts of the Heart
“Prayer” Robert Overman Hodgell (1922 - 2000) speaks to the longing for home we all have in our hearts. It is a gift of Mary Ann Neevel.
“Margot Embracing Her Mother” by Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926) might remind us of scripture, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66: 13).
“The Moorish Kitchen Maid” by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez (1599 - 1660) [shown here] shows a maid cleaning up during the Last Supper. What does she think as she overhears the disciples at the table? Does she catch Jesus saying the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?”
Two Views of Trinity
“Trinity” by Andrei Rublev (1360 - 1427), a gift of Sarah’s Circle in honor of Alan Brooks, and “Embrace of Peace II” by George Tooker (1920 - 2011), [show here] hang together. The Trinity welcome the viewer to their table. Tooker provides another image of hospitality. He said in a 1957 interview that he wanted to paint "reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream.” Do we experience the reality of hospitality impressed so hard that it returns as a dream of God?
“The Return of the Prodigal” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 - 1669), [shown here] given by friends in honor of Steve Teicher, depicts the parable of Jesus. The father welcomes home the returning son under the disapproving glare of the older brother, a tenuous moment of reconciliation and recrimination.
Contrast Rembrandt's painting with the watercolor by Francis van Vreeland (1879 - 1954), a donation of the J.G. and Linda Clark Family Fund. The watercolor reflects a Romantic concern about urbanization. Working in Los Angeles in the 1920’s, van Vreeland witnessed urbanization first hand; his work yearns for an slower and more rural kind of life, suggesting the longing of a prodigal son.
Plymouth received a print of an Anja Niedringhaus (1965 - 2014) photograph of ISAF soldiers with the German Federal Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) in Fayzabad, northern Afghanistan (taken Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008). Niedringhaus, an Associated Press photographer, was recently targeted by the Taliban and murdered. Her photograph shows soldiers flying to a new mission; in the foreground, the soldier reads with a photo of his family stuck into the book. One wonders where the soldier’s flight will take him and into whose house he will enter.
In 1913, our plaster bas relief was mounted over a fireplace on the north parlor wall. It is a reproduction of a marble piece created in 1431 by Luca della Robbia (1399-1482) for the Cathedral of Florence. As part of our renovations we removed the fireplace in order to access the stairwell now connecting the lower and upper levels of the church with the Commons.
The trumpeter children is one of ten panels comprising “The Cantoria,” an 11½ foot by 25 foot marble choir loft once located in the Old Sacristy of the Cathedral (now in the cathedral museum). The panels translate Psalm 150 into three dimensions, with each panel depicting one of the ways of praise and with the words of the Psalm in Roman lettering surrounding the whole. The Cantoria is considered by some to be della Robbia’s most important early work, especially admired for its animation and vividness.
Who created our plaster reproduction of the original marble? We know that from 1893 to 1906 a della Robbia workshop was established in Birkenhead, England, called the Della Robbia Pottery and Marble Company. It specialized in the embellishment of architecture and interior decoration in the style of the della Robbias. Perhaps our bas relief was created in that English workshop.
Bilhenry Walker's "Christus Resurrexit," constructed out of aluminum and coated with a wine-colored lacquer, hangs from the ceiling of the Commons near the elevator and a bank of windows. The sculpture alludes to Keith Haring's abstracted figures and Salvador Dali's "Christ, St. John of the Cross." It depicts the resurrected and ascending Jesus and yet the impact of the crucifixion still shapes his body. Looking closely at the wine lacquer paint one might notice the subtle variations in tone and glint, which give the metal an 'alive' feel. "Christus Resurrexit" invites us to reflect on Jesus as he heads home.
The sanctuary was also altered during the 1991 renovation. Several rows of pews were removed to allow for a larger chancel with raised platform. The remaining pews were replaced with new pews, and improved lighting was installed.
The pulpit is original to the building; however, it has been put on a movable platform and slight alterations have been made to it over the years (such as adding the “wings” on the sides).
The baptismal font was designed by William Edge, Senior Pastor in the late 1960’s and 70’s.
The cross hanging in the sanctuary was designed by church member Richard Eschner in the 1980’s. The orange, black, and gold details were added to the cross in the 1990’s.
The papier-mâché Bible was made by Steven Klebar, who is serving a prison sentence. The Bible depicts a portion of the Book of Ecclesiastes which ends with the quote, “One can indeed come out of prison to reign, even though born poor in the kingdom.”
The collection of signed Tiffany windows, depicting episodes in the life of Jesus, are our greatest artistic treasure. The design of the sanctuary symbolizes the way God is both mysterious (darker lower windows) and radiantly transcendent (translucent upper windows).
See the Tiffany Windows for details about each window.