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.
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!
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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!?
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!