Gothic Revival in the "picnic grove"
"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 Andersen, 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—Andersen 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 Dem- mon 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.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Demolition of the 1862 Presbyterian church at Huron and Division.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The present church, shown under construction in the 1930s, replaced the Washtenaw Ave. home of English prof Isaac Newton Demmon.
A cosmopolitan congregation cherishes its rural German roots
Once a small, all-German country church, Zion Lutheran at Rogers Corners in Freedom Township has become a large, modern, diverse congregation. The original 1867 historic church still sits on the northwest comer of Waters and Fletcher, across the street from the current church, built in 1974.
Zion was founded in 1865 by a group that broke off from St. Thomas, a German church that still stands at Ellsworth and Haab. Zion's bylaws mandated that services and religious teachings be conducted in German. The congregation, with thirty-four men as charter members, at first met in a nearby public school. In 1867 Zion finished building a neo-Gothic brick structure, similar to churches in Germany, and topped with a bell tower. The interior was used solely for worship space—religious instruction and meetings continued to be held at the schoolhouse until 1876, when members bought another unused school building and moved it to the church site.
Zion shared a minister with Bethel Church for two years and shared another with St. Thomas for six more. By 1873 it was large enough to support its own pastor and hired Johannes Baumann. The congregation occasionally had trouble paying the pastor's salary on time but always made sure he was at least well sheltered and fed. The church bought Frederick Emminger's house, north of the church on the east side of Fletcher, for a parsonage, and members maintained and improved it. They rented Emminger's fields to farmers, who gave the minister some of the crops. When parishioners slaughtered an animal or made sausage, they would give some of it to the pastor.
In 1889 the congregation built a new parsonage for pastor Heinrich Lemster in a vernacular Gothic Revival style that matched the church. It still stands at 2905 South Fletcher. One of the two front doors opened directly into the minister's study, allowing parishioners to visit him without bothering the family.
A group split from Zion in 1890 over the question of bread or wafers for communion. Zion had a new bread oven, but Lemster preferred wafers. The breakaway group founded St. John's Church nearby on Waters Road, now affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
In 1903 Zion built a new school. It was used mainly as a general meeting place for the congregation and for confirmation classes, held each fall and spring. "We'd raise Cain when the pastor went home for lunch," recalls Norman Wenk, a lifelong member of Zion, "tease the girls, chase them around the woodshed, that sort of thing."
In 1910 a new pastor from Germany, Ernst Thieme, and his wife, Sybial, moved into the parsonage. Wenk remembers Sybial as "a jokester" and "a happy-go-lucky lady"—with a stern husband. Wenk says he was "a strict disciplinarian, who didn't allow any whispering in church. I remember him pounding on the pulpit when kids were naughty."
In 1917 the church prepared to celebrate its golden anniversary, even buying a new organ for the occasion. But less than a month before the anniversary, on June 6, at 2 p.m., a tornado struck. "It was a sad sight to see our small church without a roof and tower, and the front wall only standing in part," Thieme wrote in the church history. "The back part of the church with the altar and the pulpit remained standing... The schoolhouse was torn off its foundation and scattered all over. On the parsonage, the roof was torn off and the building could not be occupied." Miraculously, the organ and the bell tower were spared.
Starting the very day of the tornado, parishioners began to rebuild the parsonage and school exactly as they had been but altered the church by moving the tower toward the front, giving it a more elegant look. They held their delayed anniversary celebration on September 16.
The response to the tornado was typical of the hands-on congregation. Members called special meetings to decide things like lighting for the church (in 1923 they bought a Delco generator) or putting a bathroom in the parsonage (in 1936). Wenk recalls they had work "bees" to collect firewood for the minister, and the minutes refer to cemetery bees to clean up the graveyard.
Although the congregation was fond of Thieme, his lack of English was a problem for younger members who wanted occasional English sermons. In 1926 he returned to Germany. His successor, Moritz Brueckner, was bilingual. Like many of his parishioners, Brueckner had been born in America to German parents. After his arrival the congregation changed the bylaws to allow children's religious classes to be taught in English. In 1930 Brueckner began preaching one English sermon a month. By the time he retired in 1954, the ratio had reversed, and he was down to just one German sermon a month.
Until 1931 men sat on the pulpit side of the church and women on the organ side. Martha and Harold Eiseman changed all that by sitting together the first Sunday after their honeymoon. "Three weeks later another couple sat together, then another. Soon they were all sitting together," Martha Eiseman recalls.
In 1940 Zion decided to build a parish hall, but World War II put the project on hold. As the congregation had done in World War I, members sent food and supplies to German civilians, including Jell-0 to the Thiemes. Ernst Thieme later wrote that he didn't know how he would have survived without this help.
After the war the church bought the Beuerle property on Waters Road directly across the street. The members finished the parish hall in 1949 and added a new parsonage in 1954. Brueckner stayed in the old parsonage until he retired in 1955; afterward the congregation gave him the old school, which he moved north of the parsonage and converted into a house, where he lived the rest of his life. The house still stands.
In 1974 the congregation built a new church next to the parish hall. Pastor Theodore Brueckner, son of Moritz Brueckner, was guest preacher at the last service in the old church. Zion still uses the old church for weddings and funerals and one service every summer. In 1979 it was entered on the State Register of Historic Places. A board that includes some people who are not Zion members, such as Angie and Jack Lewis, who live in the old parsonage, now oversees the old church.
Zion has grown to more than 400 members. Current pastor David Hendricks notes that the congregation now includes people of Scandinavian, Japanese, and Hispanic descent as well as a good number of Germans, and that members are coming from Chelsea, Manchester, Dexter, Ann Arbor, and Grass Lake. Instead of serving only local farming families, Zion now counts many professionals among its members. But the same closeness survives. Lifelong membership is common. It is not unusual at funerals for the pastor to cite the deceased's confirmation verse.
New members are attracted by this connectedness. Susan Wiley, the church secretary, recalls being impressed with the church's "feeling of history and ties to the community." Martha Eiseman, who joined in 1931 as a young bride, recently moved to the Chelsea Retirement Communities but still attends Zion. "My daughter comes and picks me up," she explains. "It's always nice. I see so many people I know."
Photo Caption: The original Zion was destroyed by a tornado in 1917, shortly after the photo at right was taken. The rebuilt church has its steeple at the front.