Resilient Romanesque



First Presbyterian Church, Detroit c. 1891 (3)

Richardsonian Romanesque architecture is masonry construction.  In its most familiar form, rugged stone is used, often a granite or sandstone exterior with brick inner walls.  The resultant durability gives Richardsonian Romanesque buildings the ability to survive neglect.  The danger to their continued existence is usually financial.  Sometimes there is no function to fund the building’s use.  Sometimes there is a use for the property that funds the replacement of the Romanesque building.  Therefore, the declining neighborhood and the thriving neighborhood can both be a threat.


Entrance (3) and detail of patterned stonework (4)

A very resilient Detroit building has survived in the face of both kinds of threat.  First Presbyterian Church in Detroit built a very high quality Richardsonian lantern church in 1891.  They chose Mason & Rice as their architects, a prominent Detroit firm.  The church was built on Woodward Avenue, a busy and important street in that city.

Similar porches at First Presbyterian, Detroit (1) and Shadyside Presbyterian

The red sandstone structure was massive and well proportioned, displaying that prized Richardsonian trait: repose.   Like Trinity Church , Boston, the corners of its square central lantern featured slender turrets.  Like the best Richardsonian buildings, the rugged walls were relieved by texture and restrained detail rather than “applied ornament.”  The Woodward Avenue façade was particularly picturesque, with a triple, round arch entrance flanked by low stair towers. The subtle polychromy of patterned stonework punctuated the entrance.  In a perhaps uncharacteristic use of ornament, a whole pride of sculpted lions bears heraldic shields showing important dates in the church’s history.  The side porch entrance is quite reminiscent of the south porch at Shadyside.


Early interior views of First Presbyterian, Detroit (1) and Shadyside Presbyterian

The interior of First Presbyterian was strikingly similar to Shadyside’s 1890 sanctuary.  The four great arches in both worship spaces were sprung from a relatively low height, approximating the effect of a Syrian arch.  The pews on the main floor curved around a worship platform where the pulpit was placed.  In both sanctuaries, the communion table sat in front of the platform with presbyter’s chairs to either side.  Early photos of Shadyside do not reveal the location of the baptismal font, while it is clearly visible on the congregation’s right at First Presbyterian.

Vibrant color of Detroit lantern interior (1)

Early proposals from Shadyside’s architects held out the possibility of galleries in the transepts.  Pictures of First Presbyterian show how that could actually be accomplished.  At some point,  the galleries were interconnected and joined to the deck above the organ console.  Both worship spaces were decorated with stenciled walls.  In Detroit the stenciling was much more flamboyant and included explicit Christian symbols.  A modern photograph shows the vivid color of the First Presbyterian interior.

View of First Presbyterian showing galleries joined and preaching platform (1)

As the importance of Woodward Avenue increased, there was a growing call to widen it.  One section of the street had so many churches, it was dubbed “Piety Hill.”  A wider Woodward Avenue , finally implemented in the mid-30s. would encroach on several churches, including First Presbyterian.  An Episcopal church was moved whole.  A Methodist church was moved in pieces.  The Presbyterian church held its ground as much as possible.  While the stair towers and side porch were lost, the triple arched entrance was relocated around the corner.


 Entrance being moved to accommodate widening of Woodward Avenue (2)

A second threat came to First Presbyterian more gradually.  While Woodward Avenue churches often drew members from well outside their immediate vicinity, neighborhood change eventually took its toll.  First Presbyterian membership shrank.  This grand structure became too large and expensive for the church.  It is always a happy situation when an empty church finds an adaptive re-use.  Churches are converted to community centers, office space, restaurants, retail shops and homes.


The neighborhood (1) 

The new use found for First Presbyterian of Detroit was perhaps as compatible with its original purpose as any adaptation could be:  a seminary.  The building is now home to the Ecumenical Theological Seminary, founded in 1980 in response to the need for seminary education in metropolitan Detroit .  A dozen years later, the seminary leased First Presbyterian as its headquarters.  Eventually, the Presbytery of Detroit  gave the property to the seminary.

It is a happy circumstance when a historic building survives threats related to economic decline or economic growth.  It is a happier circumstance when it finds a productive new purpose.  Happiest of all, some buildings’ new purpose directly supports its original program. 


Ecumenical Theological Seminary today (4)


 (1) Photos courtesy of Johnathan Roach, Director of Library Service, Ecumenical Theological Seminary

(2) Wayne State University, Virtual Motor City Project    (This source and the one below were kindly brought to the author's attention by Mr. George Launchbaugh)

(3) Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection

(4) Photos courtesy of Anthony Lockhart    pinehurst19475