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Stamford's 'Fish Church' Ranks As An Architectural Masterpiece

First Presbyterian Church in Stamford is one of the most architecturally renown churches in the United States. The church was built in 1958, and First Presbyterian Church has been a part of Stamford's religious community since 1854.
First Presbyterian Church in Stamford is one of the most architecturally renown churches in the United States. The church was built in 1958, and First Presbyterian Church has been a part of Stamford's religious community since 1854. Photo Credit: Facebook/First Presbyterian Church

STAMFORD, Conn. -- First Presbyterian Church has been a member of the Stamford religious community since 1854. The Fish Church, its home since 1958 and designed by noted architect Wallace K. Harrison, remains one of the most splendid buildings, architecturally speaking, of any church in America.

The church purchased land at its current location on Bedford Street in 1941, and approved a new building in 1952. Harrison was one of three architects interviewed for the project by the church subcommittee, which sought a Modernist building.

"Having seen your property with its tremendous possibilities, and knowing something of the spiritual and material resources your people will be able to bring to this building venture, let me say that I don’t care who you choose for your architect, but if you don’t do something out of the ordinary, you will be accountable,’’ Harrison told the building committee.

Willis Mills, one of the other architects interviewed, designed the church’s office wing, classrooms and Fellowship Hall. Harrison, who was designing his first church, presented his plans to the congregation in 1953.

Harrison’s unique construction consisted of two key components. First, he used precast concrete, which had been used to build homes and factories, but never before had been used in churches. He also recruited French stained glass artists to construct stained glass windows with amber, emerald, ruby, amethyst, and sapphire. During daylight hours, Harrison described the church as “like being inside a giant sapphire.”

Harrison also incorporated acoustic strategies in his design to provide the best musical quality. Even before the structure was completed, people called the building “The Fish Church” because of its unusual shape.

While known for its architecture, the church has been an active community participant since its founding more than 160 years ago.

“There’s a real commitment to being involved in the city,’’ Pastor David Van Dyke said. “One of our new initiatives is that we began an after school program trying to reach out to those kids for whom the achievement gap is a reality. We started with five kids and now we have more than 25.”

Another distinguishing characteristic of the church is its commitment to interfaith cooperation and dialogue. It has a “Rabbi in Residence” on staff. Rabbi Phil Schechter helps the congregation more deeply appreciate Christianity’s Jewish roots and is a great resource for the church’s interfaith couples. While the church is in Stamford, its congregation includes residents from several nearby communities and is one of the more diverse in the city.

“We look a lot more like the city of Stamford than we used to,’’ Pastor Van Dyke said. “You can be a person of color in our church and not feel like you’re alone. That’s one of the things we keep trying to work on. The more you can look like where you live, it shows how multi-dimensional God’s family really is.”

The church’s connection to Stamford history is also outlined in a stone wall along Bedford Street that contains a series of tablets which recognize significant events, institutions and individuals in the history of Stamford. First Presbyterian fully embraces its heritage and roots in Stamford.

“The congregation demonstrated in the 1950s their desire to try to be a church for a new age,’’ Pastor Van Dyke said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, too. Church as it was doesn’t work any more. We’re in a new age and century. The challenge is to remain faithful to your heritage and look to be contemporary in spreading the good news. It’s telling an old story in a new way.”

Sunday services start at 10 a.m. For more information, click here to visit the First Presbyterian Church website.

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