Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church (second)

Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church was formally organized with 85 members on Feb. 8, 1854. The first Sunday School services were held in the old Detroit Institute, a school building on the north side of Jefferson Avenue, between Beaubien and St. Antoine streets.

That October, services were moved to the old Congregational Church on Jefferson Avenue. In spring 1855, the Rev. Hugh McElroy took charge, and set out to build a home of the church's own. On Dec. 9, 1855, a new brick, Gothic church was dedicated on the north side of Jefferson Avenue, between Russell and Rivard streets. This land would be home to the congregation for the next seven decades -- but the church itself would not.

In 1890, the Rev. W.W. Carson took over the quickly expanding congregation; he was chiefly recruited by W.K. Muir, for whom a fountain that once stood on Belle Isle was erected. In July 1891, the church razed its longtime home, so that this new, larger structure could be built upon the site. In the interim, services were held in the chapel or the Detroit Opera House.

"From the first opera house services (they) have been marked with unusual interest, and for the last four months to get a seat one had to go half an hour before the time announced for service. And even then, hundreds were turned away for want of room," the Detroit Free Press wrote Dec. 5, 1892.

Many plans were submitted, by the church's building committee selected plans by New York City-based architect Bradford L. Gilbert. This new church was rather simple and of Romanesque Revival design, with a covered porch and square bell tower with a pyramidal roof. At 87 feet by 127 feet, it was one of the largest churches in Detroit at the time and could seat 1,250 people. It was located on East Jefferson just east of Rivard Street. By building on an inside plot, the congregation "solved successfully the possibility of the erection of a satisfactory and effective church edifice without the necessity of occupying an expensive corner property," the Free Press noted.

Gilbert suggested "that the interior should be treated throughout in tones of yellow, producing on a dull or stormy day a pleasant, warm, cheery color, suggesting sunshine and brightness, and always producing a simple, chaste and quiet effect, with nothing to detract or even produce a contrast with the prevailing tone of the color scheme," the Free Press wrote the morning after the church's dedication, which was held Dec. 4, 1892.

In 1920, the church hosted the marriage of Delphine Dodge, daughter of automotive tycoon Horace Dodge, to James H.R. Cromwell of Philadelphia.

As the city's population grew, so did the congregation. By 1920, Detroit was home to nearly 1 million people -- 47 times the size of when the congregation was founded. Furthermore, many of the church's wealthiest members lived several miles east of the church in the Indian Village neighborhood. It was decided to build a new, larger and more ornate church further east.

The new church at East Jefferson and Burns, designed by architect Wirt C. Rowland of the Detroit firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, was constructed over four years at a total cost of more than $1,250,000. The first service was held on Palm Sunday, 1926 for the workmen who built the church and their families. The new church was dedicated on Easter, March 28, 1926.

Even though its congregation had left, the old church stuck around for decades, though it remained almost empty. Starting in 1934, the Newberry Chapel along Rivard Street had been used as a shelter for some 50,000 "homeless and hungry" men each winter, the Free Press reported in 1940. The congregation let the Detroit City Rescue Mission use it free of charge.

On Feb. 14, 1940, the church announced that it had struck a deal for its former home with the Gregory Boat Co. The chapel was sold to its longtime lessee, the Detroit City Rescue Mission. The congregation put proceeds from the sale toward debt reduction on its current church.

Gregory Boat razed the church's bell tower and porch, and built a showroom in their place. A Detroit Free Press article on the sale says that Gregory bought only "the front portion" of the church. It is possible that the old sanctuary was used by the company, or it could have been left empty. Photos exist of the showroom with the sanctuary still standing behind it.

Sometime in the 1950s or '60s, however, new development on the boat company's site saw what was left of the church demolished.