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Arts & Life

Kansas City Church Will Revive Its Iconic ‘Steeple Of Light’ This Weekend

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Julie Denesha
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Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed Community Christian Church in 1940. He called it the 'church of the future,' and the original plans called for dozens of searchlights to project from openings in a dome on the roof.

Community Christian Church, just off the Country Club Plaza, was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For years its defining feature was a “steeple of light” that sent beams of light into the night sky. But for the past two years the church has been dark.

The rooftop of Community Christian Church in Kansas City provides a dazzling view of the sun setting behind the Spanish-style towers of the Country Club Plaza. But, on this evening, the half dozen people out on the church roof are eager for darkness to fall.

That's when they'll test their light.

For many years, a "steeple of light" beamed skyward from the church, which architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1940. The steeple was a landmark and a beacon in Kansas City. Two years ago, it disappeared.

The company that built the lights went out of business and the church had trouble finding replacement parts. Retrofitting fixtures worked for awhile, but one-by-one the bulbs dimmed until only a single light glowed weakly above the church.

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Julie Denesha
Waiting for darkness to settle over the city, Senior Minister Shanna Steitz watches the beams begin to appear over the church.

“It was a really difficult decision to turn the lights off," says Shanna Steitz, the church's senior minister. "They were such a source of pride for this congregation and for this community. They had run their life span sitting on the roof of a building exposed to all the Missouri weather.”

When he designed Community Christian, a year after a fire destroyed the original structure, Wright called it the “church of the future.” But the rebuilding project was troubled from the start.

Some of the ideas Wright proposed, including the steeple of light, were beyond the technology of the era. And Wright's original renderings of the building had dozens of lights projecting from openings in a dome on the roof. If put to use, his concept would have overwhelmed nearby buildings with light.

Fifty years later, in 1993, Dale Eldred, the long-time chair of the sculpture department at Kansas City Art Institute, designed a solution. Four light cannons projected columns of light above the church. At its peak, the steeple projected light three miles into the sky.

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Julie Denesha
Once the lights are in position, the beams form the steeple over the church.

Eldred never got to see his vision fulfilled. In an accident that shocked artists and friends in Kansas City and around the world, he died in 1993 following a fall in his studio in Kansas City's West Bottoms.

But the new, rebuilt version of the lights remain true to Eldred's work. The number of lights and their configuration remains the same. Each of the four lights that form the new steeple will be 4,000 watts.

As the plan to restore the lights was moving forward, Steitz also began the process of historic designation to help protect the church from the threat of developers. The church is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the evening of the test, Steitz gets a brief lesson from building supervisor Kevin Freeman on how to turn on one of four searchlights. She flips a switch and feels the power of the moment.

"Ha ha!" Steitz says exuberantly. "Let there be light.”

Paul Rabinovitz is president and CEO of of Strong Lighting in Omaha, Nebraska. His company has worked on projects as high-profile as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

“It’s always exciting to be part of an icon,” Rabinovitz says.

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Julie Denesha
Volunteer parishioners check the position of the beams of light as they are tipped into place during a recent evening test.

The new steeple is being designed with Xenon lamp technology, which Rabinovitz describes as a "nearly ideal light source because the plasma that's generated inside the lamp is very, very small, but very, very bright.”

Rabinovitz says the lights set the right tone.

“I think that the steeple approach is creatively appropriate and the four lights make a clean and elegant statement that really wouldn't be enhanced by being bigger, brighter or having more lights,” he says.

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Julie Denesha
Building supervisor Kevin Freeman (center) works with a team of parishioners to tip the lights into position.

On the roof of the building, a small crew of parishioners is positioning the lights by tipping the large fixtures inward to create the steeple effect.

“Makes me feel really good," says Freeman, the building supervisor. "It’s gratifying to see it back on again. Hopefully, it will be a beacon of light for the community."

The building has been dark in other ways than its missing steeple. Services were canceled for more than a year because of the pandemic. This weekend, the planned illumination of the new light steeple on Saturday will be followed by the resumption of in-person services on Sunday.

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Julie Denesha
As darkness falls, the lights slowly become more visible.

Back on the rooftop, Shanna Steitz takes a last look at the glowing spires of the steeple before the test is concluded.

“I just, I don't have words, I don't have words," she says. "It's so incredible. I'm just really grateful for everybody who has helped to make this happen and get these shining once more.”

When the lights reach high in the sky Saturday evening, many Kansas Citians will also be grateful to have their landmark back.

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