With the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Church, Wright created a landmark of modernist design, replacing a more traditional building of 1914 on Milwaukee’s east side. In late 1955, a building committee member interviewed Wright despite objections by other members to Wright’s expensive, unorthodox designs. Wright’s wife Olgivanna had grown up in the Eastern Orthodox faith, and Wright, expressing an appreciation for Byzantine architecture, insisted that he could capture the essence of the Greek congregants’ Old World ancestry, while making a conspicuous modern monument. The stunning church, executed in cream-colored poured concrete, consists of a shallow dome, resting on a gently curved bowl, cradled by a giant Greek cross. It fuses two basic elements of Byzantine church architecture—a cruciform plan and a dome. This cross-within-a-circle motif recurs throughout, as do broad arches. One arch frames the double entrance doors and stained glass sidelights, and others pierce the decorative canopy ringing the church. The dome rises above a continuous clerestory of stained glass-filled arches, features seen also at the great Byzantine Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Wright was famous for flouting his clients’ directives, but in this case he pleased the church building committee by showing respect for their traditions.
Nevertheless, Annunciation Church is aggressively modern and reflects Wright’s late-career fascination with the geometry of the circle. The structural engineering is even more forward-looking, with the 104-foot-diameter dome (designed by William Wesley Peters, Wright’s son-in-law and longtime Taliesin assistant) the most marvelous engineering feat of all. The dome is separate from the rest of the building. Its outer rim appears to float atop a necklace of glass beads; in fact, it rides atop hundreds of thousands of steel ball bearings, immersed in grease in a steel channel that rings the top of the clerestory. This design allows the dome to expand in warm weather and contract in cold. Wright originally covered the dome in blue mosaic tiles, but these flaked and were replaced with a blue vinyl-like membrane.
More Wrightian innovations are inside. The basement accommodates a round banquet hall opening to a low classroom wing, which terminates in a chapel with a stepped, football-shaped dome. The spectacular upper level consists of a two-story, eight-hundred-seat auditorium, cupped by the bowl beneath and the dome above. On the ground level, the Greek cross–shaped auditorium seats worshippers in three of the cross arms, while the chancel and altar occupy the fourth. Upstairs, the circular balcony and organ are lit by the stained glass clerestory lights, and light also filters through the ring of glass balls beneath the dome. Spiral staircases, wrapped around light trees, link the two auditorium levels and the basement.
This unusual auditorium nevertheless suits the congregants’ liturgy and traditions, such as the east-pointing sanctuary and the prominent iconostasis (sanctuary screen). The screen is a gold-anodized aluminum grille, repeatedly pierced with an abstract cross-in-circle motif. Originally, stylized icons painted by Eugene Masselink, an artist and secretary to Wright, hung from the screen, but those paintings are in storage. Annunciation’s priest commissioned a Greek artist to render more traditional icons in the 1990s. The change reflects the tension between tradition and innovation, although Wright tried to reconcile the two. Other modifications reflect the same tension. The original chancel railing, repeating the cross-in-circle form, has been removed. Masselink’s designs for the stained glass clerestory windows were passed over in favor of more traditional ones, executed in 1978 by Helen Hickman of Conrad Schmitt Studios. And a cross now rises from the top of the dome. Wright would have objected strenuously to the changes, as do some members of the congregation. Despite the disagreements, Annunciation Church continues to connect its Greek congregation’s traditions and their midwestern home.