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The first Institutional Church?

July 30, 2016

My nominee for the first Institutional Church is Park Church in Elmira, New York, built during 1874-1876 from plans by Horatio White, a Syracuse architect. I’ve written about it earlier as a structure that belongs in this project despite its lack of an Akron Sunday School.

Park Church old photo outside

Several aspects of the building and its history justify my choice. First, its pastor was Thomas Kennicutt Beecher, son of Lyman, younger brother of Henry Ward and Harriet. Under his spiritual leadership, the Park congregation (unaffiliated at the time of his pastorate) assumed a leading role in what would be (but had not yet been named) the Social Gospel.

Like a freight train beside the city’s Wisner Park, its metaphorical engine was the sanctuary, a compact rectangle with a horseshoe wrap-around balcony [which does not seems remote from seating on the main floor]. This constitutes about one-third of the church’s block-long length.


Next in line is the segment devoted to religious education. I’ve not seen a plan of the original configuration, though the 1874 construction date makes anything Akron-esque unlikely. And beyond that was the final third, devoted to social service and outreach: emergency housing for anyone (not necessarily members of the congregation) who had become homeless from fire, flood, or financial difficulty; bathing facilities (at a time when few houses had running water); a library for adult education and advancement; and day care for the children of working parents. There was even covered carriage parking to protect members during inclement weather.

Park Church predated the 1894 Institutional Church conference by twenty years! Yet it incorporated elements characteristic of those later facilities.

At the opposite side of Wisner Park is Park Church’s typological sibling: First Baptist Church of 1890 by local architects Pierce & Dockstader. Only two-thirds of Park’s breadth, it includes many of the same program elements in the current Richardsonian idiom. Beecher would have seen the bell tower as architectural vanity, without real utility, but he would have applauded its multi-functioning plan.


For a community of modest size, it’s remarkable to find yet a third quasi-Institutional church: Centennary Methodist Episcopal on Elmira’s south side — now replaced by a swath of asphalt surrounding a Walgreen’s.


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