Historic First Congregational Church of Detroit, More Than Meets the Eye
All Churches Save Souls. This One Saved Lives Too.
It’s a church with an extraordinary past. With its powerful Romanesque architecture and gilded interior is said to be architect John Faxson’s crowning achievement. Completed in 1891, this building replaced a simpler meetinghouse located near the river downtown. And though the striking architecture and sumptuous interior may be the draw, the church’s connection to runaway slaves really stirs the imagination.
The Historic First Congregational Church reflected Detroit’s new wealth in the late 19th century. The exterior is muscular and weighty with Roman arches, columns and rustic-carved stones. Atop its 120-foot tower is an 8-foot bronze statue of the archangel Uriel. The interior is just as striking. Above the nave are two intersecting barrel vaults. In the four quadrants Lyle Durgin created fantastic ceiling murals depicting the four gospels — a rare commission for a female artist at the time. Above the alter is a semi-circular vaulted arch covered in elaborate woodwork. The church was one of the first public buildings in Detroit to include electricity used to power a magnificent chandelier inspired by one hanging in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice Italy.
But the church’s place in Detroit’s storied history reaches far beyond its architecture. Because of its proximity to Canada, Detroit was a final stop on the Underground Railroad for many fugitive slaves. As abolitionist sympathizers, the church became a safe house for them. Today, First Congregational Church is home to a living museum of the Underground Railroad with a moving reenactment of the flight to freedom.
Hot Spots: Cultural, Food, and Entertainment Center
In the late 19th century the neighborhood where the First Congregational Church is located was primarily an upscale residential area. Continued growth led to the commercial development we see today. Steps from the church at 62 E. Forest is a building that dates to 1926. Originally it was a private parking structure for an exclusive apartment building. Today the restored building is home to the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. One block south on Woodward is a building designed in 1907 by Albert Kahn and Ernest Willoughby for the Standard Auto Co. It has been restored to showcase its raw character for MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, which presents leading edge visual and performing arts. Explore the Midtown neighborhood and you’ll discover many beloved cultural institutions, restaurants and entertainment venues.