BGT deTour: Central Christian Church

The Blue Grass Trust’s deTours  is a group of young professionals (and the young at heart).  The program provides behind-the-scenes tours of  historic buildings, places, and sites in central Kentucky.   BGT deTours are free and open to the public. They occur on the first Wednesday of every month.

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A ca. 1934 photograph matched with the present day church. The sanctuary has since been rebuilt. And boy has the context changed! The church is now surrounded by tall office buildings and parking lots where it was once hugged by small commercial buildings and houses. Photograph via KDL – I encourage you to click through to the original. The automobile parked in front of the church is a 1930s crane! (There is also some debris in the churchyard, so it’s possible the photograph was taken after the fire that destroyed the original sanctuary).

April’s deTour gave us a behind-the-scenes look at Central Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky (ca. 1894).   And when I say behind the scenes, I really mean it. We covered the church from attic to basement (sometimes crawling on our hands and knees, sometimes crab walking), and everything in between!

1898

Central Christian Church as it appeared in 1898. Image via KDL.

This church is unique in a couple of ways. It is one of the few  remaining examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in Lexington, it is built on the site of the first Masonic Lodge west of the Allegheny Mountains, and it is home to the oldest congregation of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ).

First Central Christian2

Stained glass details. The image in the lower left corner shows some water damage. The image of Jesus in the lower right corner is only visible when the rose window on the side of the church is illuminated at night, or from the attic of the new sanctuary.

According to its National Register nomination, the church is the major surviving example of Richardsonian Romanesque in Lexington (it calls the Fayette County Courthouse impressive, but provincial).  The church was designed by Edwin W. and Frank L Smith (known as the Smith Brothers firm), who were responsible for many other institutional and residential structures in the area.  The Smith Brothers appear to be the “purest exponents” of the revival style popularized by American architect, H.H. Richardson in the Bluegrass region.  The NR nomination notes that with Central Christian, “Not only did they develop a convincing Richardsonian massing using the corner site near the main downtown commercial thoroughfare and incorporating the varied elements of the program in a functionally expressive yet unified composition, but they even went so far as to import some of the master’s favored type of stone, Longmeadow puddingstone (or brownstone) from Massachusetts, to contrast with the basic local rough-stone surfaces.”

Central Christian1

Architectural details – the doors shown in the center bottom photograph were installed in the 1970s

Other architectural hallmarks of the Richardsonian style found at Central Christian include the use of diaper-patterns, polished granite columns, the elaborately carved terracotta frieze on the central tower, and  stylized details derived from Romanesque and Byzantine sources.

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Old on the right, new on the left. Pretty good match, right!

In 1934, the sanctuary portion of the church burned. Though the congregation was tempted to relocate after the fire, they ultimately decided that their downtown location best served their mission.  Although the enlarged sanctuary was rebuilt on a somewhat different plan, “the reconstruction was remarkably well disguised.”   In the photo above, you can see where the new sanctuary was constructed – the stone used for the new portion is slightly more brown (left) while the old section’s stone is slightly more blue (right).  The new configuration of the sanctuary means that the rose window seen above is no longer visible inside the sanctuary. Luckily, it is accessible from the attic, and lights have been installed to illuminate the window at night.  We were able to view the window from the interior when we climbed into the attic.

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Peter, aka the Kaintuckeen, gives two thumbs up to deTours! He likes attics almost as much as he likes basements. The rose window no longer visible to the sanctuary can be seen on the right.

The land for the church was purchased from the first Free Masons west of the Alleghenies after the Masonic Temple was destroyed by fire.  The cornerstone of Central Christian was dedicated on August 7, 1893 and “contains contents of era” and “is the same piece of rock that came out of the old Masonic Temple.”  It is believed that portions of the Masonic Temple foundation were incorporated into the design of the church.  While exploring the basement, we weren’t able to come to any conclusions, but we were quite smitten with the church’s old boiler (see below).  Obviously, it is no longer in use, but the church has kept it around all these years as an interesting bit of history. It’s really quite pretty!

First Central Christian

Though it is no longer used to heat the church, the old boiler has been retained.

Historically, Central Christian Church is the oldest of those churches that later became known as Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ). It is considered a direct descendant of the Cane Ridge Christian Church founded by Barton Stone in 1790. Central Christian not only has deep roots in Kentucky, but it is important to the history of an entire denomination. Who knew!?

santuary present

The sanctuary as it appears today

1934 Sanctuary

The sanctuary as it appeared in 1934 shortly after its completion. Image via KDL

I love that the church chose the popular Romanesque style for their building.  By choosing a highly fashionable style, church leaders showed a reverence for tradition and history (it is a revival style after all) and an understanding of what their modern congregation wanted and needed from their house of worship. (And what might attract new members!)  Central Christian Church is an example of beautiful and smart turn-of-the-century ecclesiastical architecture.

Over one hundred years later, the building is still eye catching and because of its architectural roots in even older traditions (the architecture of the Romans and Byzantines) it has never really gone out of style.  Central Christian is steeped in tradition and history from its ties to the first Free Masons to its roots in an important historical religious movement, and it is wonderful to see a group safeguarding their history while being a good steward of a historic local gem!

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The deTours group admiring the architectural details of the beautiful old church.

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