Tyson Temple honored for design

Karen Reynolds

Contributing Writer

Tyson Temple United Methodist Church is in the news for its special architectural design.
Seven facilities across Indiana were recently awarded for their architectural style and design during the annual American Institute of Architects (AIA) Indiana Design Awards. The architectural firm of Odle, McQuire and Shook received a special 25-year award for its recent renovation work at Tyson Temple, an iconic Art Deco church located in Versailles.

The exquisite building was originally designed by Olde, McQuire and Shook of Indianapolis, but was filled with ideas that James Tyson brought back from his many travels around the world.

According to the information published on the original pamphlet from the church’s dedication service in May of 1937, Tyson Temple was designed and built during the Great Depression.

History files from the church reveal further details as to just what a phenomenon this church building really is. The building itself is a “continuous flow of rounded corners, arches, columns, windows and roof.”

The actual contractor was Bruns and Gutzwiller of Batesville with the cost being $150,000. What makes this building so unique is that there are no nails in the building; it was constructed of stone, concrete, steel, terra cotta, glazed and glass brick; with all wood eliminated except for the furnishings.

It is called Tyson Temple because hammers were not heard in its construction just as Israel built its first temple. The spire is a rounded inverted cone of open-work cast aluminum. It is 65 feet high and 8 feet in diameter at its base. The polished aluminum cross on its top is about 100 feet off the ground.

At the time of construction, there was only one other spire of its kind in the United States. Made of copper, the roof was the second one of its kind in the United States. The roof was replaced once time back in the 1970’s. The inside doors are made of bronze and are patterned from the doors of a ship. The front windows were originally glass blocks and the windows in the sanctuary were imported from England.
Terra cotta for the building was imported from Italy. The unusual handrail appears at a church in Rheims, France. In the vestibule is a stone that has “Eliza Adams Tyson” on it in memory of James Tyson’s mother, in whose memory the entire building was erected. The unusual ceiling in the sanctuary is the blue of a cloudless sky. The stars are placed to form the constellations as they appeared in the heavens the night his mother died. The ceiling above the choir loft has gold leaf in the dome and silver leaf on the pillars. They were handmade and imported from Germany.

The oak pews, however, came from timber in Ripley County. The basement floor is made of Terrazzo marble. There is a Byzantine Tunnel connecting the church and the parsonage. Framing the altar are pillars that duplicate those in the Taj Mahal.

Over time there have been several renovations. Extensive exterior renovations took place in 1994 and 1995. The interior was restored as near as possible to its original in 1997. The exterior was renovated again in 2004 and 2005 when the brick and terra cotta were replaced.

According to the American Institute of Architect and Laura Musall of Indianapolis, “This Tyson Temple project exhibits exceptional Art Deco details. It’s very iconic. The architect uses form and pared-down modern details to create a memorable monument for Versailles. It is a beautiful building lovingly cared for.”

James Tyson himself had a great fondness for Versailles, where he was born. In the community, he was known with affection as “Uncle Jim.” He was an interesting man who was well-read (Tyson Library still has his collection of books that he prized most) and a world traveler, hence the extra touches imported from other countries for the church building. He was an intelligent man who had big ideas that produced a large fortune for him.

According to Dorothy Thompson Craig, who along with her family knew him well, “he was the brains and the ‘idea’ man behind the well-known Walgreen Drugstores.” Charles Walgreen was the man with the money to make “Uncle Jim's” idea work. Walgreen Drugstores are alive and well yet today. The investment of shares of Walgreen stock by Tyson, to be administered by the Tyson United Methodist Church trustees, continues to be a blessing to the Versailles community.

According to Craig, Tyson never owned a car and never drove one. He preferred to walk wherever he went. He actually used to deliver products from the Walgreen Store in Chicago, where he lived, riding a bicycle.
When he traveled, he carried a suitcase tied with an old belt. He preferred gray shirts to white ones and all of them had to be silk.

When Tyson would come back to visit Versailles, he would often stay at the home of Charles and Ida Thompson, Craig's grandparents.

Craig said he was generous. She understood this generosity of his even as a child. Each time Tyson or “Uncle Jim” visited her family, he brought a wonderful box of chocolates for her and a separate one for her sister.

Tyson died November 1, 1946, in Chicago at the age of 85 and is buried in the Cliff Hill Cemetery, Versailles. He left behind an endearing legacy in the beauty of a building called Tyson Temple that has stood the test of time.

He also left behind the Tyson Fund that has changed the landscape of Versailles. While he cared more about simple things - things his money could not buy, he realized the importance of forward thinking in the form of a trust.

The Tyson Temple is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to be a drawing card for visitors to come to Versailles to see the unique one-of-a-kind structure.