Hidden Tosa: Inside Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

It's an imperfect masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright

March 15, 2016

It's not uncommon for curious folk to venture to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in the hope of getting a peek at its historical architecture and vast symbolism.

After all, the church was designed by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, an architectural visionary who created hundreds of structures. The church, 9400 W. Congress St., was one of Wright's last commissions before he died in 1959, and it cost about $1.5 million to construct.

While large groups of visitors are often granted tours of the dome-shaped church and the church's neighboring $5.5 million James W. Philos Cultural Center, built in 2004, it's not possible to take every visitor through, said Father John Ketchum, the church's sole pastor.

The church's doors are often kept locked, in part to keep potential vandals from taking the valuables inside — and there are many relics.

In fact, the entire church, completely formed of reinforced concrete, was completed in 1962 and is a testament to the past. From the spiraling staircases to the refined carvings in the church pews, every last detail was premeditated, which is what makes the building stand out from any other Greek Orthodox church, Ketchum said.


Above: Father John Ketchum conducts a tour of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. Staff photo by Peter Zuzga.

The church's circular shape was a radical departure from traditional Byzantine church architecture, but it still incorporates colors and symbols associated with the Greek Orthodox tradition.

If a helicopter were to pass over the grounds, the passengers would spot an eye-shaped fountain situated out front. The fountain is a circle — a pupil — and is surrounded by grass that makes up the oval shape of the eye.

The eye is symbolic to the church, said Ketchum. It's the "all-seeing eye of God."

The building's large, blue dome roof is encircled with flat, pointed structures that poke around its circumference. The structures symbolize a crown of thorns, said Ketchum — but they also help with rain runoff. Many of the structures deposit rainwater directly on the church's front steps, which Ketchum said was likely an oversight.

"It's a little impractical, but God bless him," Ketchum said of Wright.

The church currently serves about 500 families and seats up to 1,000 people, the priest said. The church pews are arranged in a circular shape, each facing the altar. A fish has been carved into the end of every pew, which are also lined with sky blue cushions.

Gold carpet runs beneath the pews and the large dome ceiling overhead has been painted gold, too. The original ceiling was tiled, but that was replaced with paint after changing temperatures inside the church caused the tiles to fall off the ceiling, Ketchum said.

The altar area, once carpeted, is now marbled. Egg tempera two-dimensional depictions of church icons surround it. The church choir normally sits high above the altar, on the second floor, and its members view the service using a video monitor as they are somewhat hidden from view, Ketchum said.

Stained glass windows are found throughout the church, which also were additions after the building was completed, Ketchum said. Glass bulbs line the church's perimeter, up high near the dome. There are more than 200 bulb-shaped windows, each letting in a significant amount of natural light.

To access the church's bottom floor, there are three spiral staircases that wind downstairs. Each has a whimsical design and is lined with gold carpet.

"Very '60s," Ketchum said.

The downstairs is mostly empty and goes unused most of the time ever since the cultural center was built just steps away. It houses a grand hall, St. Iakovos Chapel, administration offices, class rooms, a media room, a board room and a master kitchen. Sunday school classes and large events are typically held at the cultural center, said Ketchum, adding he wished that there was another organization — perhaps another church — that could take advantage of the church's bottom floor that goes largely unused.

There is a secondary chapel on the bottom floor of the church, which is now mostly used to house some of the remnants from the congregaton's first location, on Broadway in Milwaukee. The church's history dates back to 1904, Ketchum said.

Also on the grounds of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church — a campus that spans about 20 acres — is the Greek Orthodox Manor, an apartment complex completed in the summer of 1984. The church received a federal subsidy to build the complex, which houses many parishioners.

For many years, the church was the site of Greek Fest, a celebration of Greek food, music and family-fun. Although Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church still hosts the event, which turned 50 in 2015, the festival is now held at Wisconsin State Fair Park, 640 S. 84th St.

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