History, Architecture & Windows
Robert Harmon captured the cooperative spirit among artists in the design of St. Mark’s in a visual pun. Using the building’s architects as models for his laborers he showed Nagel, whose name translates to nail in German and Dunn with a hammer. Photo courtesy of Emil Frei Studies.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, dedicated in 1939, represented the first church in the St. Louis region designed in a modern style. The story started in 1935 when Bishop William Scarlett requested Charles Wilson to come to St. Louis to be Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese in South St. Louis. Wilson’s commitment to social justice issues appealed to Scarlett. Wilson brought together two aging churches, Holy Innocents in Oak Hill and Mt. Calvary at Grand and I-44 along with a new one he organized in the developing neighborhood of St. Louis Hills.
The fate of Wilson’s three congregations changed in May 1937 when John A. Watkins, a loan operator, left the Diocese $75,000 in honor of his mother, Anna Watkins. The only catch was that the money had to be used to build a church with his mother’s name on it as a memorial. With this unexpected gift, Scarlett appointed Charles Nagel and Frederick Dunn as project’s architect for a new building on a triangle of land he purchased on Clifton Avenue. Scarlett stacked the deck for planning the new church so when the building committee first viewed the revolutionary modern design, a member was said to exclaim, “Not that! Why that’s just a paving brick covered with modeling clay, turned on its side with a dab for a steeple.” The project moved ahead and Bishop Scarlett dedicated St. Mark’s in January 1939. Fifteen years later, the rector speculated that “it might be safe to say that had the people of St. Mark’s had much to say we would never have had this Holy Symphony in mortar, brick, wood, steel, and glass.”
The unique opportunities Bishop Scarlett and Charles Wilson enjoyed explain how the remarkable images of social justice are imbedded in the church windows. Scarlett and Wilson worked with the new hired designer Robert Harmon at the Emil Frei Studios. Harmon enjoyed a long career noted for his massive window projects, but his first assignment with St. Mark’s he only had eight very tall, very narrow window and was “forced by economic reasons to depart from the commonly used form of stained glass and the necessity of creating a richness of color and effect through the use of large rather than small pieces of glass.” The current head of the studios, Stephen Frei, argues that, “St. Mark’s was perhaps the cutting edge of the very first of the style of contemporary windows that due to economic constraints, was to be the new wave of the future.” The men drew on early Christian symbols to express the new Liberal Catholic ideals that Wilson and Scarlett championed. The resulting windows illuminated the challenges faced by the church in the 1930s when the country was left cynical after the Great War, reeling through a never-ending depression, and confused by disturbing totalitarian movements in Europe.
The windows on the north side of the narthex tell of St. Mark’s growing relationship with Jesus while matching windows on the south side inspire viewers to consider contemporary responses to Christ. For Scarlett and Wilson, the messages were visible symbols of what Christianity should look like in the face of a modern world wounded by the Great Depression and threatened with another World War by fascism. A St. Mark’s rector summed up the power of windows beautifully when he contrasted the more traditional imagery of the north windows with other pairs -- “the difference is that the windows on the South Side ask the question – “If you follow Jesus, so what?” Seventy-five years after St. Mark’s was dedicated, the challenges presented in the windows still resonate with parishioners today.
Sculptor Shelia Burlingame created the statue of St. Mark on the building front and the "Christus Rex" crucifix above and behind the altar. The rectory was built in 1950-1951 after a design by Frederick Dunn and Norton-Higginbotham designed the William Scarlett Parish House, dedicated in 1955. Powers Bowersox Associates designed an addition to provide an elevator for access for people with disabilities in 2010.