“When the Session [the church governing body] decided to tear it down and build a church way out there, there was a lot of criticism,” remembered First Presbyterian Church member Paul Lowry in a 2001 interview. In 1926, “way out there” was the site of the old Demmon house at 1432 Washtenaw–just east of the University of Michigan campus.
“People were set in their ways,” explains church archivist Pearl Summers. “They had been in the old church in the center of town. None of the churches had been that far over on the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor Road.”
The block of Washtenaw between South University and Hill was developed in the late nineteenth century with family homes on spacious lots–so spacious that, Summers says, the Demmon property was known as “the picnic grove.” Most of its first residents were U-M faculty members, but by the 1920s fraternities and sororities had taken over much of the block. Merle Anderson, First Presbyterian’s pastor when the congregation bought the land in 1926, recalled in a later reminiscence that the building committee had noted “the fine grove which was the old Demmon home” while looking at another property across the street. Told that Emma Demmon was refusing to sell, he paid her a formal call. She explained that she had turned down all offers for the property because she knew that her late husband, U-M English professor Isaac Newton Demmon, would not have wanted apartments on the site. When Anderson made his plea, she paused a minute and then said, “I think he would liked to have a church there.”
It’s hard to imagine that Demmon wouldn’t have loved the Gothic Revival church that was built on the property twelve years after Anderson’s visit, the long wait due to the Great Depression. The church, with its buttresses, lancet windows filled with stained glass, and steep slate roof, looks like it could have come out of an English novel.
The First Presbyterian Church was organized in 1826, just two years after Ann Arbor was founded, and is celebrating its 185th anniversary this year. The original seventeen members included Ann Arbor co-founder John Allen’s wife and parents. In the first three years the group met wherever they could find space–in a log schoolhouse, in two different taverns, in an unfinished room in Cook’s hotel, and in a frame schoolhouse.
In 1829 they built their own modest frame building at Huron and Division–Michigan’s first Protestant church west of Detroit. In 1837 they moved into a bigger church down the street. In 1859 they repurchased their original site and started work on a more permanent red brick church. Finished in 1862, it was used for almost seventy-five years.
Historic as it was, that building fell short of the twentieth century’s rising expectations–Anderson disparaged it as “a great barn of a place without facilities for any adequate program of church activities.” It was cold and hard to heat, pigeons roosted between the roof and false ceiling in the nave, and there was only a tiny patch of lawn, leaving no room for outdoor events. Members who drove to church had to park on the street.
After rejecting several other options, including fixing up the old church and re-merging with the Congregationalists (originally one church, they had divided in 1847), First Presbyterian appointed a building committee. Their first act was to recommend buying the Demmon property, “beautifully wooded and excellent in topography.” In 1927 First Presbyterian merged with the U-M Presbyterian student group, sold the student group’s property at State and Huron to the First Methodist Church, and converted the Demmon house to a student center.
They were off to a good start, but when the Depression hit a few years later, pledge payments dwindled or stopped. In 1934 the church became reenergized when a new pastor, William Lemon, replaced Anderson. “The place was packed, people came from all over,” recalled Lowry. Still they couldn’t proceed with the new building until they sold their old one, and there were few buyers during the Depression. Finally, in 1935, the Ann Arbor Daily News offered them $32,500–half what the congregation had paid for the Demmon house just nine years before. On May 29, 1935, the congregation held a special commemoration service before leaving their downtown church. They met for the next two and a half years at the Masonic Temple on South Fourth Avenue (torn down in the 1970s to make way for the Federal Building) until the new church was ready.
New York City architects Mayers, Murray & Phillip were hired to design the new church. The firm was the successor to one led by Bertram Goodhue, who was known for using modern methods to create buildings in medieval styles. When Goodhue died in 1924, three of his staff kept the firm going, renaming it for themselves. They designed Christ Church Cranbrook in 1928 and Christ Church Grosse Pointe in 1930. For Ann Arbor, the firm designed an L-shaped building, with a sanctuary facing Washtenaw and a wing on the east side for student use. Lowry recalled that Harlan Whittemore, a U-M professor of landscape architecture, was responsible for saving the mature trees on the property: “He kept the site as wild as possible.”
They brought two bells from the old church and some of the pews that are still in the balcony. “They creak very nicely,” says Pearl Summers, who shares archivist duties with her husband, Larry. They also saved two brightly colored lancet windows, which were installed in the back wall of the chancel.
They didn’t have enough money for new stained glass, so they filled the windows “with a creamy colored, opaque glass,” as described in a 1983 report by Marcy Westerman. In the 1960s the windows were replaced with stained glass from England. Mary Hathaway, who loved the “restrained quality” of the original glass, later had a panel that she found in the basement reinstalled as a memorial to her parents, A.K. and Angelyn Stevens.
The Presbyterians held their first service in the new building on January 23, 1938. Before the move, the congregation numbered 348. Within a year it had gone up to 685 and continued upward. Increased membership meant a growing Sunday school population, which soon outgrew the basement quarters. They also needed more parking. The most unobtrusive place for an addition was behind the sanctuary, but that land belonged to their backyard neighbor, Sigma Delta Tau sorority, which, the building committee reported, “was not disposed to sell on any basis.” Church member Robert McNamara (later to be Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War) finally convinced the sorority to sell. The addition, finished in 1956, was designed by Colvin and Robinson and named for Henry Kuizenga, minister from 1952 to 1961.
In 1998 the church added a second addition behind the student wing. Designed by Dan Jacobs, it’s named Montieth Hall, after Michigan’s first Protestant minister, and used to hold smaller services.
Today the church membership fluctuates in the 2,000 range, while the sanctuary has room for only about 500. “We can squeeze in 600 at high-attendance services like Christmas and Easter,” explains Summers, “but it is not very comfortable.” To accommodate everyone, the church now holds four Sunday services, two in the sanctuary and two in Montieth Hall.