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Inside the world’s tallest church

Inside the world’s tallest church

The Sky Chapel at First United Methodist Church in Chicago, which claims to be the world’s tallest church. | Dennis Lenno

It is the world’s tallest church, though that claim comes with an asterisk because Chicago’s downtown First United Methodist Church consists primarily of two spaces.

The first, accessible through street level, is the main gathering place for worship. It consists of a nave with loft and chancel in the liturgical east end. The style could be called art deco gothic. Hardly authentic gothic revival, but clearly inspired by the style that defined ecclesiastical architecture from the second half of the 19th-century until the early 20th-century.

The second space is what puts the church, commonly called Chicago Temple, in the guidebooks.

Located at the very top of the 23-story building, the Sky Chapel is accessible after climbing a couple flights of stairs — the building’s elevator doesn’t actually service the floor. It was added in the 1950s, thanks to the generosity of the Walgreen family of Walgreens drug store fame.

The chapel itself is small with space for maybe 20 or 25 people, which explains why it is only used for occasional services. The focal point is the ornate carved altar or communion table depicting Jesus weeping over Chicago. Flanking it are diagonal support beams that coincidentally resemble the cross of St. Andrew.

Not only is the church the world’s tallest, but it is purportedly the oldest in Chicago — a city best known for its Roman Catholics — having been established by Methodist circuit preachers in 1831.

The present early 1920s edifice was designed by the architectural firm of Holabird & Roche, which was also responsible for Chicago’s City Hall, Palmer House Hotel and Board of Trade Building.

In a downtown dominated by skyscrapers it is easy to overlook the City Temple as it blends in with other similar buildings, especially at street level. Only the gothic-style spire gives observers of Chicago’s cityscape a clue that this building is actually different.

If you go

The First United Methodist Church is open daily with scheduled tours of the Sky Chapel at 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is no charge to visit.

Spires and Crosses is a weekly travel column. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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