The iconic architecture and history of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church
By Chris Haise
In the far northwest corner of Wauwatosa stands one of the most recognizable and unique structures in our community, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. While the area might not be the most frequently visited part of Tosa, there is no denying that Annunciation is one of the most beautiful places of worship in the “City of Homes and Churches”.
Most are familiar with the round temple and its unmistakable blue roof at 9400 W. Congress Street, but the story behind this Wauwatosa institution, from its construction to its famous designer, is not as well known.
The church was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright, a Wisconsin native, is one of the most well known and respected architects in American history. Commissioned by the Milwaukee Hellenic Community, Annunciation was one of the icon’s last works, and was ultimately completed in 1961, after Wright’s death in 1959, at a cost of $1.5 million. Wright sought to utilize the symbolism of the Greek Orthodox faith in all aspects of the church’s design.
The church’s history dates back to 1904 in Milwaukee, when the congregation met on Broadway, making it one of the oldest Greek Orthodox congregations in the country. This history has lead to an invaluable collection of relics, now displayed in this Wright-designed masterpiece.
The building itself is based on a traditional cross, but encircled. The blue roof is ringed by jagged outcrops, meant to symbolize a crown of thorns, a common Christian symbol. The relics and the congregants are surrounded by numerous windows and stained-glass pieces that allow natural light to fill the circular building.
The use of religious imagery is not restricted to the beautiful facade, but extends well into the interior of the church. The arrangement of the pews mirrors the circular design of the building, surrounding the alter, which has been modified from its original form to be a marble platform from which the Greek Orthodox services are led.
The other levels of the church are accessible by a series of spiral staircases, another symbolic shape meant to represent the path leading from outer conciseness to the inner soul. The lower level of the structure boasts a chapel, bookstore, and fellowship hall. The church’s cultural center houses a secondary chapel, offices, board rooms, and a full scale kitchen. Despite all of this usage, there are still parts of the massive temple and complex that remain unoccupied.
Annunciation serves around 500 families in its congregation, and the church itself is part of a 20 acre campus run by the Greek Orthodox church, including a cultural center, and an apartment complex. Many parishioners are also residents of this apartment complex.
Wright’s sensational design is clearly the centerpiece of the campus. Wright was inspired by traditional Orthodox architecture, such as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where Eastern Orthodox Christianity traces its roots in the Byzantine Empire. However, Annunciation stands apart. Rather than being a historical tribute, Wright’s work is closer to a reinterpretation of traditional Orthodox design.
“The edifice is in itself a complete work of modern art and science belonging to today but dedicated to ancient tradition—contributing to tradition instead of living upon it,” Wright scholar Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer explains.
While this break from tradition is a pillar of Wright’s architectural philosophy, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church is one of the best examples of Wright’s ability to bring old and new together in stunning fashion. Such is the esteem of Wright’s design that the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While Wright was not entirely familiar with Greek Orthodox tradition, he was able to rely on his wife’s upbringing, as she was raised in the Greek Orthodox church. Her expertise helped him understand and incorporate the traditional Christian symbols of the Cross, the Dome, and the Crown of Thorns that are the cornerstone of his design.
The church grounds were once the home to Milwaukee’s popular Greek Fest, and while Annunciation Greek Orthodox church still owns and operates the festival, the scope and scale of the event required a relocation to Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. 2017 will be the 52nd year of Greek Fest.
Looking towards the future, there are plans to further expand the impressive cultural complex surrounding the church, and the organization hopes that they can now find new uses for some the space that goes unoccupied.
Tours of the historic church are available on a limited basis for groups of 15 people or more between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM on Tuesdays and Fridays. You can contact the Church Office at (414)461-9400 to schedule group tours.
Regardless of the evolution of the church’s campus, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church will serve as one of the iconic buildings in Wauwatosa.