September 19, 2008

Past, Future Intersect Elgin’s First Congregational Looks to Origins to Restore ’60s Wing

By Jerry Turnquist

One of Elgin's most historic buildings is about to look even more historic.

In the next few weeks, the First Congregational Church of Elgin - a church that traces its roots to the city's founder, and whose building has served as a community center equivalent to the Hemmens Cultural Center - will launch a campaign to restore its 1960s wing. This will result in a building that is a better historical fit on the outside, and more functional on the inside.

Looking historic won't be hard to do for this congregation that dates from Elgin's beginning.

Church records show that First Congregational got its start in the log cabin of Elgin's founder, James T. Gifford - a landmark that existed only three blocks from the current church structure.

First Congregational Church's present building - its third, and the one officials are planning to renovate - was constructed at the corner of Chicago and Center streets in 1889 at a cost of $35,000. Designed with red pressed brick and brownstone trim, the interior was laid out as a "church in the round," or the "Akron" style popular at the time. The sanctuary also included an organ with over 250 pipes - an instrument that still ranks as one of the largest in the Fox Valley.

The large seating capacity of First Congregational soon made it a community auditorium on a par with the Hemmens Cultural Center today. Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington and John Dewey were among the notables who spoke in the building. The sanctuary also served as the site of high school graduations and other community functions.

Post-World War II growth led to the demolition of an eastern portion of the building and the construction of an education wing in its place.

"We held Sunday school classes at nearby Franklin School before that," said longtime member Mary Vickers.

The new facility also included a chapel, a new office and a fellowship hall.

But the years have been hard on this building, which has not undergone any major renovations since the 1960s. This new work will especially target classrooms and the library. New washrooms, an elevator and church offices will be included.

Perhaps the most visible renovation will be the building's exterior. Instead of the 1960s appearance, the outside will boast a design more compatible with the building's original 1880s exterior. All plans are being drawn by church member Chuck Cassell of Burnidge Cassell Associates.

But more than bricks and mortar mark the vibrancy of this congregation, which has been active in the city's food pantry, Soup Kettle and Public Action to Deliver Shelter, and was once instrumental in securing a new building for the Community Crisis Center.

In addition to an active music program that has included some of the most talented people in the area, First Congregational boasts weekly adult formation classes that touch on everything from Bible study to current politics.

There are also a variety of other groups: ones for mothers as well as people interested in drama or crafts. For members who can't make it to church, streaming video of the services is available on the Internet.

And, just how will these renovations be paid for?

A campaign called "Transforming the Church Brick by Brick" has been launched by congregation members. They are exploring various avenues for fundraising and donations, such as musical performances, plays and plant sales.

Church leaders admit in their literature that the task is a "daunting one" but feel they can accomplish it.

Any funds from outside sources are also being pursued, and would be a most welcome help to make the project a reality, they add.

While some of its neighboring congregations have relocated outside downtown Elgin, First Congregational sees its mission better fulfilled by remaining in the historic building. Church members say the entire building will be an expression of their "Christian Covenant Community."

For further information, visit or call (847) 741-4045.

Historic district regulations

Exterior work within the Elgin Historic District, including that being done at First Congregational Church, is governed by the Elgin Historic Preservation Ordinance - regulations in effect since 1984. Before beginning, applicants must secure a Certificate of Appropriateness, or COA. There is no cost for the application. All projects also must have any applicable building permits.

While approval for routine work is often given by city staff within a short period of time, some proposals advance to the Elgin Heritage Commission's Design Review Subcommittee to ensure that the proposed work meets the standards of "The Design Guideline Manual for Landmarks and Historic Districts." The design guidelines do not dictate exterior color or interior renovations.

Elgin also has three other historic districts and fourteen local landmarks governed by the ordinance. Over 6,000 COAs have been issued since the regulation's inception. Applicants who disagree with decisions by city staff or the Design Review Subcommittee may appeal their case to the full Heritage Commission and ultimately to the city council - something that has only happened a handful of times in nearly two decades. A full copy of the design guidelines is available at

Source: Jennifer Fritz-Williams, City of Elgin

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