Old Stone Church

MClementReilly

Mount Vernon, United States

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Old Stone Church was born in the upper story of Cleveland’s first log courthouse, a Public Square structure so primitive that historian Arthur Ludlow referred to it as “a place of advent almost as humble as the manger of Bethlehem.” It was here in June of 1819 that a Union Sunday School, the forerunner of Old Stone Church, was established, and it was also here on September 19, 1820, that fifteen residents of the village of Cleveland (10% of the population) would sign the charter officially establishing the church. Residences and commercial properties have come and gone on Public Square in the ensuing years, but the one constant, the only continuing presence, has been The Old Stone Church.

The church was formally incorporated in 1827 as The First Presbyterian Society but the name by which it is better known, Old Stone Church, came later. In 1834 the first church was dedicated. The interior featured a gallery suspended by iron rods, the first reported use of iron in a Cleveland public building, and it contained Cleveland’s first pipe organ. The site had been purchased for $400 and the building cost $9500. Because it was constructed of gray, rough-hammered sandstone, the church became known simply as the “stone church,” as would its successor. Over the years other stone churches were erected, and thus First Presbyterian became the “old stone church.”

By 1853, thanks to the rapid growth of Cleveland, the congregation outgrew its first home and the building was razed for a larger edifice. The new church, dedicated on August 12, 1855, was also made of native sandstone and was designed by renowned architects Charles Heard and Simeon Porter. The Romanesque Revival structure and adjacent parish house cost $60,000. Just nineteen months later, on Saturday morning, March 7, 1857, the new church suffered a devastating fire. A 100-foot stream of water from hand-pumped fire engines was unable to reach the 250’ steeple which crashed onto Ontario Street. Because the walls were virtually intact and the building was insured, restoration immediately began. The restored church was dedicated on January 17, 1858.

The second disastrous fire to hit Old Stone occurred on January 5, 1884. The fire began in the adjoining Wick Building’s Park Theater, apparently due to a gas explosion. At first, the fire was confined to the theater and it was thought that Old Stone’s heavy brick-lined stone walls, slate roof and iron fittings might save the church this time. Intense heat eventually ignited the auditorium ceiling and soon the interior was a mass of flames. Since the fire again occurred on a Saturday, hurried preparations were made for Sunday’s service, held at Plymouth Congregational Church. Rev. Dr. Arthur Mitchell’s text was a masterful understatement, “Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.”

The second fire was perhaps harder for the congregation to bear. Their pastor was rumored to be leaving and four of the six church trustees died prior to or just after the fire. There arose a great debate within the congregation over retaining the historic site. Many members strongly urged a move to the E. 55th and Euclid Ave. area. In addition, outside pressure was being applied. The Cleveland Leader reported just four days after the fire that “Mssrs. Wick are still considering the hotel and theater scheme, and will probably carry it out if the site of the Stone Church can be purchased for a reasonable sum.” They estimated that sum to be $80,000. Leading the battle to save the site were such influential members as Judge Samuel E. Williamson, John Foote, Flora Stone Mather and Col. John Hay, former secretary to Abraham Lincoln and later United States Secretary of State and Ambassador to China. The congregation finally voted to retain the site and begin reconstruction. Architect Charles Schweinfurth was hired to head the project. The restored church was dedicated on October 19, 1884, and a local report stated: “The heavy iron-hinged doors were thrown open, and all who thronged the service were dazzled by a scene of magnificence far exceeding their highest expectations.”

The restored Old Stone Church is essentially what you see today. Schweinfurth changed the interior layout, eliminating the center aisle and creating an imposing barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by two false clerestories. Especially notable are stained glass windows installed over a period from 1885 to 1976 and the magnificent organ. There are four Louis C. Tiffany stained glass windows and a magnificent John La Farge triple window overlooking Public Square. The present organ was built by the famed Cleveland Holtkamp Organ Company and was installed in 1976 within the beautiful casework of an 1895 William Johnson organ.

The history of Old Stone is much more than that of a building. The impact that this church and its members have had on the Greater Cleveland community is immense and widespread. In the area of education, Old Stone members are credited with organizing the first free public school and beginning the first English classes for immigrants. Both Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University owe their origins to the generosity of Old Stone members. Likewise, the medical community has strong ties to Old Stone. Cleveland’s first doctor (David Long) and America’s first neurosurgeon (Harvey Cushing) were among its members. The first lectures of Western Reserve Medical School were held at Old Stone in 1843 and the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing is named for its patron, an Old Stone member. Both University Hospitals and the Visiting Nurse Association can trace their beginnings to programs at Old Stone.

Ten Old Stone members have headed Cleveland’s government, among them the first mayor and first city manager, and members have served in all levels of city, state and federal government, including at least one governor and a United States Secretary of State. Old Stone members founded many of Cleveland’s prominent businesses; e.g. Sherwin-Williams, Higbee’s, the Winton Automobile Co., Stouffer Foods, Society Bank, and Meldrum and Fewsmith. The Old Arcade was built by an Old Stone member and another member was the first president of the Union Club. Many church members have chosen to put their time and treasure into social service. Seeking as Flora Stone Mather put it, “to be the dispensing hand of a Father’s bounty,” they created settlement houses like Goodrich-Gannett and the Rainey Institute, and organized such pioneer social institutions as the YMCA, the first orphan’s home, and the first women’s shelter.

Many Greater Clevelanders have made their own history by getting married at Old Stone. More than 12,000 couples having been married by Old Stone pastors over the years, including celebrities like Bob Feller, Sheila and Gordon MacRae, and Michael Stanley.

Old Stone has long been regarded as the place where the community comes together in times of crisis and in times of joy. Memorial services for Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, speeches by Sun Yat Sen and Jesse Owens, the Cleveland Bicentennial Ecumenical Service, the National Council of Churches’ Service of Reconciliation which brought together Korean civilians and American servicemen, and an Ecumenical Service of Prayer and Remembrance following the tragic events of September 11, 2001 are examples of such events.

In 1998, all of downtown Cleveland paused to watch the steeple-raising at Old Stone Church. The new steeple replaced one removed in 1896 and capstoned a $2.4 million renovation project that included conservation of the La Farge window by Conrad Schmitt Studios. Reaching upward, it is a visible reminder to all of God’s continuing presence on Cleveland’s Public Square and represents the commitment of Old Stone Church to remain in the heart of the city.

Learn more about the history of Old Stone Church and the Presbytery of the Western Reserve at: http://www.preswesres.org/aboutus/history.html

Artwork Comments

  • kathy s gillentine
  • MClementReilly
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