Niagara Gazette

December 16, 2013

HIGGS: More on the earliest Falls churches

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Last time you read about the beginning of organized churches in Niagara Falls at the time of the merger between the villages of Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge. We found that the oldest organized church building still in use today was the First Presbyterian Church.

Let’s learn a little bit about the building itself, which gained local landmark status in June of 2004 from the Historic Preservation Commission of Niagara Falls. The city council gave its approval in July of that year. It is located at 311 Rainbow Blvd. The commission’s website states: “The First Presbyterian Church was constructed of native stone in a Gothic Revival style with certain architecture features that resembles the earlier Romanesque style. The foundation was built of uncut stone. The exterior wall is made of rough-faced stone 2-feet thick. The church is three stories high and consists of the sanctuary and chancel, fellowship hall (formerly known as chapel), and a number of additional administrative rooms and offices including a kitchen and dining room.

Renovations and additions began during the early to mid-1900s. From the Historic Preservation website, I found that in 1869 the church was out of debt and began extensive repairs in 1871. A large addition was built in 1879 at the rear for the Sunday school, moving the youth out of the church basement. This addition is now known as Fellowship Hall and the Sunday school raised $1,490 to help build the hall. It also began a fundraiser to help pay for future remodeling.

In 1902, the sanctuary was doubled in size with the addition of another building effort on the south side of the church. A ceiling dome was also added to the sanctuary. This remodeling was finished in 1903 and started up again when the steeple was removed in 1914 and parapets were installed. In 1921 major work was done in the solid rock basement to add more room and to expand the Fellowship Hall (then called the chapel) to the north. A new Skinner organ was purchased; it’s still in use today, and a stained glass window was added to the sanctuary. Dedication of the chapel, organ, and window was performed on consecutive Sundays in 1922.

Much later, between 1956-1957, the wood paneling and pews in the sanctuary were changed from walnut to oak. The stained glass window that faced the sanctuary was turned to face the Fellowship Hall. Updates to the fireside room and the library occurred during period as well as renovations to the basement to Sunday school rooms.

During 1958, the former YMCA building north of the church was purchased to expand the Sunday school and other children’s activity. Urban Renewal came along and acquired and demolished the YMCA building. The vacant lot was sold back to the church for $1 and converted into Fleming Park during the 1970s. In 1974 it was dedicated to the Fleming family, longtime church members and patrons.

Again from the Historic Preservation records; in 1973, the sanctuary entrances were remodeled by shortening the arched double doors and installing a new elevated entrance way ... along with additions of a public address system and air conditioning. Sometime between 1998 and 1999, the stone exterior was re-pointed and refurbished along with other repairs.

The commission noted that the “church was an integral part of the old community of Manchester. The first village street light is reputed to have been installed opposite the church and the original village clock was located in the church steeple ... Architecturally, the church’s gothic revival style retains a historic significance.”

Judge Augustus Porter, a seminal settler of Niagara Falls, was also intricately involved with the church; from providing construction financing to “being excommunicated or annulled” for working on the Sabbath. His son Albert spearheaded a move to have him reinstated and he may have been eventually allowed to return to the church, but unfortunately he died during the process. Current members told me this is a complex story and the records are not fully revealing so I will leave it at that. Also I need to correct a statement in last week’s column: The Presbyterians never met in the Union Chapel even though it was open to them; they had their own wooden building.

I bet you remember the old “ditty,” which by the way, according to Wikipedia is “a short simple song or the words of a poem intended to be sung.” Here’s the church, Here’s the steeple, Open the doors and see all the people.” As I mentioned earlier, it’s the people who make the church and I remembered that my friends around the corner on Main Street are members of “First Pres” which seems to be an affectionate name used quite commonly when referring to this landmark building. Stay tuned and we will meet them next week.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.