Celebrating 60 Years: A History of the First Christian Church, Part 2
by Lynne Rostochil
After years of dreaming of a modern, youth-oriented church campus for his growing congregation, the First Christian Church’s pastor, Bill Alexander, secured 40 acres of prime real estate at NW 36th and Walker in 1946 to make his dream come true. Now, it was time to get to work and make his dream become a reality.
Enter Oklahoma natives R. Duane Conner and Fred Pojezny, who met as engineering students at Oklahoma A&M (now OSU) before there was ever an architecture department at the university. Both men had served during WWII – Pojezny as an active duty Navy man and Conner as an engineer on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, TN. Upon their return to Oklahoma City after the war, the two twentysomethings found themselves toiling away as draftsmen at the architectural firm of Coston & Frankfort, but neither was happy working for others, so they decided to form their own partnership, Conner & Pojezny, in 1946.
R. Duane Conner around the time the church was completed
Fred Pojezny in the 1940s
Soon after, the two men met Alexander to discuss the minister’s ideas for his revolutionary “Church of Tomorrow.” The congregation had purchased land that was once home to the Edgemere Country Club, which had recently closed. With 40 acres to play with, Alexander, Conner, as principal architect, and Pojezny had the latitude to bring to life the Reverend’s dream campus that would be one of the largest in the country, complete with a thoroughly modern sanctuary, an education building, a theater, a youth center, picnic and camping grounds, baseball fields, tennis courts, and as the first completed project in 1947, a 3,500-seat amphitheater where patrons could enjoy services and events under the stars:
Duane Conner showing off the newly completed amphitheater, 1947
Upon completion of the amphitheater, the church’s musical director, Tracy Silvester, organized several Twilight Time productions a year in the space, providing the only regular summer music and drama performances in the Metro from the time it opened an throughout the 1950s:
A Twilight Time production
Musical director, Tracy Silvester
Also in 1947, the architects surveyed the land and came up with preliminary drawings for a youth center in the Miesian style while Alexander focused on stretching his reach as a minister while helping to raise funds for his grand project.
An Oklahoman article showing the architects’ Miesian vision for the youth center, which would be the first campus building to be constructed
The proposed Youth Center and pool in detail
The following year, Don Sheridan joined the staff as Alexander’s right hand man and associate pastor:
He worked for a church in Bartlesville then headed to OKC and a stint at the Daily Oklahoman before joining First Christian. Upon his arrival, Sheridan quickly became everyone’s favorite grandfatherly advisor and friend. With Sheridan there man the helm, Alexander was free to leave on speaking engagements around the country and spread his message of love and hope. His nationwide recognition grew mightily due both to these speaking engagements to civic and religious organizations and also to a flattering appearance in Look magazine…
Alexander was becoming so popular, in fact, that even movie stars came a’callin’! When Roy Rogers and Dale Evans decided to get married in Oklahoma, they asked the minister to officiate at their wedding:
He would later go on to appear on a This is Your Life segment in 1953 devoted to Rogers — click here to see the episode.
The reverend’s positive message of living a joyful life through God appealed to so many post-war Americans that Alexander was tapped to run on the Republican ticket for the U.S. Senate in 1950. Life magazine even captured Alexander during his campaign “winning the approval of squaws by admiring their papooses.” (Yes, the article really says that!)
Although it may be difficult to believe in an age when Oklahoma is the reddest state in the Union, from statehood until the late 1960s, the Sooner State was a Democratic stronghold, so it was no surprise when Alexander lost the election to his opponent, Tom Monroney. The defeat didn’t hamper the Reverend’s popularity, however, because just two years later, he became the national chaplain for the Republican party during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first run for office.
All was not well on the Alexander home front, however. Shortly after he became the national chaplain, news broke that Alexander’s wife, Charlsie, was suing the minister for divorce, claiming that she had been “unrelentingly dominated” by her husband and that he treated her more like “a servant than … a wife and companion.” The divorce was granted in July and less than six months later, in January 1953, she wed the also-recently-divorced manager of Alexander’s failed 1950 senate campaign, F. Marshall Hulett, and settled in Denver. The following year, Alexander turned around and married Hulett’s ex-wife, Mary Louise:
Even with all of the turmoil, Alexander’s popularity continued to increase and his thriving congregation now claimed over 3,800 members. Here are a couple of photos of a new member picnic from the mid-’50s — lots o’ people!
As for the church building, by 1953, Conner had abandoned his original boxy ideas for the church and replaced them with a much more ambitious and striking design that featured a three-building campus with rounded theater and educational buildings offset by a crystal-like glass sanctuary that looked like something out of “Logan’s Run.” (Due to the church’s limited finances, the Youth Center that Alexander longed for would have to wait awhile longer.)
Duane Conner, his wife, Jean, and Bill Alexander in San Francisco, 1953
The congregation was so enamored with the new design that a promotional booklet was published featuring Conner’s brainchild:
And here is Conner showing drawings of the proposed design:
Unfortunately, when building estimates came back for the new complex, they far exceeded the church’s modest $1.1 million budget, so it was back to the drawing board for Conner.
The young architect had worked on a couple of small projects that employed thin-shell roof designs and thought that this might be a perfect opportunity to use the innovative method on a much grander scale. Thin-shell concrete was durable, lightweight, and could be molded into nearly any shape, which allowed architects to design buildings without the interior supports that had always been necessary and open up spaces like never before … and all for a fraction of the cost of more conventional construction methods.
So, Conner returned to the congregation with a completely new sanctuary design that abolished the crystal in favor of a dramatic concrete dome with minimal interior supports, and once again, they heartily approved of his ideas. Now, all that stood in the way was the money it would take to complete the project, so it was time to do a little fundraising! Conner painstakingly built a detailed model of the proposed church buildings in his bathtub — his four scruffy kiddos could go nowhere near the tub during the model’s construction, which must have presented quite a dilemma when it came to bath time!
The First Christian Church model
Fund raising began in 1953 to pay for the $1,250,000 church complex. From this fund raising brochure that was sent out at the time, it looks like plans were also back on the boards for the youth center, but that required raising even more money than their stated goal:
How sexy is that building?! With the plans in place, fund raising began in earnest and many parties and events were held to get money in the band for what would be the largest church campus in the nation. Here’s a photo of one very packed fund raising planning session:
Even with all of their work, the congregation managed to raise just $851,000 of their $1,250,000 goal, but that was enough to get started. With most of the funds raised, ground breaking celebrations took place at the base of the old Edgemere Golf Course clubhouse on a blustery January day in 1954:
The Edgemere clubhouse
Groundbreaking, January 5, 1954
Frank Buttram breaking ground. He was one of the wealthiest members of the church and a big supporter of the Church of Tomorrow project.
Dignitaries at the groundbreaking ceremonies
Soon, the old Edgemere clubhouse was demolished and, long before it was trendy, wood from the building was used to construct three new homes at SW 40th and Villa Place. Here’s the church site after it was cleared:
The architects put together a building budget for the entire project, including the youth center, and sent it out for bids:
Local construction company Frederickson-Parks came in with the lowest bid in December 1954:
Their bid was accepted and a construction schedule was set that included the youth center and a mystery building, a nurses’ quarters. This building may have been part of a proposed nursing home that was on and off the table many times for decades, but I’m not sure. Anyway, here’s the construction timetable that Conner submitted to Alexander and the church elders:
With the budget and timeline approved, construction began in the spring of 1955. Just a few months later, Conner and Pojezny announced that they were dissolving the firm and going their separate ways.
As principal architect, Conner would continue on with the First Christian project, while Pojezny moved forward with new business in his own firm. You can read more about Pojezny’s post C&P career on the Mod Blog.
On a more fun note, throughout most of the ’50s and until 1963, the amphitheater was home to the annual Miss Oklahoma pageant. These great vintage photos from the First Christian Church archive show the 1956 pageant:
All ready for the swimsuit competition
Finalists in the swimsuit competition with the judges keeping a close eye on things in the front row
Now, for the talent portion of the competition
The judges (only one of whom is a woman) taking it all very seriously. That’s First Christian Church architect Duane Conner on the far left.
And the winner is … Ann Campbell!
Lovely Ann went on to the Miss America pageant and was 4th runner up.
Construction on the church was going on even during the pageant, as you can see with this image of Ann in front of the recently completed bell tower…:
and this one atop the Jewel Box Theater:
One by one, the buildings began to take shape, including the heart of the complex, the domed sanctuary. Word quickly spread about the revolutionary dome design, with many naysayers, including engineers and architects, warning that the entire structure would collapse under its own weight without some kind of internal support.
The skeleton of the First Christian Church dome that many thought would fail, 1956
Despite the controversy, Conner remained confident in his design and assured everyone that the building would be sound if constructed as specified. Alexander and church members showed great faith in their young architect, took Conner at his word, and ordered construction to proceed according to the original plan. In the meantime, other buildings in the complex were coming along nicely, including the theater (with Ann Campbell posing in front):
… and the education wing:
After Sunday services, many members of the congregation would drive to the construction site to check the progress of what had become everyone’s collective dream:
Here are more photos of the dome under construction from the OPUBCO collection and the Oklahoma City Public Library:
And here are a few photos of the dome being surfaced — you can read more about the thin-shell surface on the Mod Blog:
Here is Conner inspecting beams in the sanctuary:
Once construction of the dome was completed, engineers quickly put the new dome to the test to see if this odd structure without interior supports could hold its own weight. Alexander, parishioners, and maybe even Conner himself bit a nail or two during the stress test … then breathed a deep sigh of relief when results proved that Conner’s thin-shell roof design could easily handle the dome’s weight distribution.
Now, it was time for the finishing touches, including completing the sanctuary’s interior space, seen here before the comfy theater-style seating was installed…:
… and ordering cookware, dishes (in the gloriously Googie Syracuse China Fanfare Copa pattern, no less), and International Silver Aristocrat flatware:
Another main feature of the sanctuary was the impressive Austin organ, which cost the church a whopping $63,960 (over $570,000 in 2016 dollars) and would be paid in three installments:
The grand instrument was installed just under the wire of the church opening in December 1956. Here it is being tested:
And the pipes on one side of the domed sanctuary. The other side had a similar configuration:
With the organ installed, all of the seats in place, and everything looking in tip top shape, Conner approved the construction work by Frederickson-Parks and signed off on the project himself:
Now, it was time to prepare the First Christian Church for its grand opening just in time for Christmas services. Next week, more First Christian Church history with the dedication of the church, the death of Bill Alexander, and the the role First Christian has played in OKC over the last 60 years.
Go here to read the conclusion of our series on the First Christian Church.