Detroit lost another building last Saturday. This time the victim was the First Unitarian Church at the corner of Woodward and Edmund Place. The story of the church’s downfall is yet another rerun of the Detroit demolition by neglect narrative. The only thing that really changes each time is the name of the building. Thus I can’t say I was surprised when I heard the news of the building’s destruction. Disheartened but not surprised.
It wasn’t the most spectacular building. Compared to the First Presbyterian Church across the street, First Unitarian was smaller, more boxy, and somewhat ominous thanks to stones blackened by decades of pollution. But it fit well into its surroundings, was still in fair condition, and had historic significance. It is going to be a while before I get used to it not being there. I suppose this post counts as my tribute.
The building started life as the second home for Detroit’s First Unitarian Church. As such, it was a center of liberal religion during Detroit’s auto boom. The Unitarians selected local architects Donaldson and Meier to design an imposing stone structure on Detroit’s main thoroughfare. The building was a fine, but simple example of the Richardson Romanesque style. Romanesque was an early medieval type of architecture that evolved from Roman. It featured heavy walls and rounded arches. Richardson Romanesque was a late 19th century revival of the historic style and was originally developed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The style was widely popular and adapted by architects throughout the country, especially for train stations, churches, and public buildings.
Donaldson and Meier created a relatively simple example of the style. By in large, the church was devoid of elaborate sculpted details. The exterior was dominated by massive blank gabled facades of rusticated red sandstone. Distinctive features included an open entry porch and rounded stair tower on Woodward, and a tall bell tower on Edmund Place. The stone walls were punctuated by arched windows. These were filled with beautiful stained glass designed by John La Farge. La Farge had created the windows for Boston’s Trinity Church, perhaps the most famous Richardson Romanesque religious structure in the country.
Work on the church began in 1889 and was completed in 1890. It served its intended function for forty-four years. However, when 1934 rolled around, the earlier decision to build on Detroit’s main street proved devastating. A widening project of the street, made necessary by Detroit’s continued growth, resulted in an orgy of architectural destruction along the avenue as buildings had to get out of the way. In some cases the buildings were demolished, in others their facades were torn off and the building shrunk to accommodate the wider thoroughfare. Fortunately First Unitarian experienced the second scenario. The entire Woodward façade was removed, pushed back, and rebuilt. When the work was over in 1937 the church had a reduced footprint, the sanctuary was smaller, La Farge’s stained glass windows had been removed, the entry porch was replaced by a smaller enclosed hallway, the rounded tower replaced by a smaller square version, and the bell tower shortened. Despite the dramatic alterations, the rebuilding was seamless and if one had not known what the church looked like beforehand, it was possible to think the new design was original.
Physical changes led to occupant changes. As the reconstruction work was being carried out, the Unitarians moved out of their home and jointly worshiped with the Universalist Church of Our Father. The match was intended to be temporary but it proved so ideal that congregations decided to merge. Thus the Unitarian’s building became surplus and was sold to the Church of Christ in 1937. That congregation occupied the structure for decades before they also sold it. The final occupant was the Resurrection Promise Church. I feel bad for not knowing the date that the building closed for good. I believe it was in the early-mid 2000s as I recall watching the church’s exterior appearance steadily deteriorate over the past decade. The building’s final owner, Salim Kemenko, purchased the building from Resurrection Promise in 2006.
2006 was the year I made my first visit. It was somewhat surprising to find that the building’s heavy dark stone exterior did not reflect what was inside. In fact, the building was quite light on the inside, with white walls and bright woodwork. Since this was a church, obviously the highlight was the sanctuary. This was a square room with a high ceiling, arched windows, and a gallery on one side. One wall was largely devoid of plaster and was now bare brick. Along this wall there were the skeletal remains of an organ. Some surviving bits of plaster revealed an original salmon color scheme and stencil designs.
The ceiling was the hands down highlight of the space. It was supported by a phenomenal series of beams and arches. I found the room really difficult to photograph. I’m not sure I ever really found the right shot that does the space, and its ceiling justice. Take my word for it, it was quite impressive and fairly unique.
The back of the building had two large social rooms, one above the other. The room on the main floor repeated the fine woodwork found in the sanctuary and had an impressive fireplace, but that had already been scrapped. There was also a stage flanked by wood pilasters. The room upstairs had the same dimensions but lacked the woodwork. It had a small kitchen instead of a stage. Aside from these rooms, the other interesting feature of the interior was a spiral staircase up the bell tower. This seemed oddly elegant considering that it only led to a small dark storage room.
Overall the condition of the building was quite good. There were a few windows missing, and a moderate amount of water damage. None the less, the building was far from a ruin. A subsequent visit two years later revealed that not much had changed structurally. At that point the building was being squatted by a few homeless, and the sanctuary and other rooms had filled with trash. There was some additional peeling paint and falling plaster. But the changes were not too serious considering the circumstances.
But the seeds for destruction were sown. In either late 2008 or early 2009 a fire ravaged part of the building. The social hall with the stage was heavily damaged and its woodwork destroyed. Since the structure is wood, it is remarkable that the fire was contained to a relatively small part of the building. When I made my final visit to the church in January 2013 I found that the sanctuary had not suffered any damage whatsoever from that fire. The social rooms were a mess, but the sanctuary still looked much as it had in 2008. There was more peeling paint and some graffiti. Still, given the passage of over four years, I was impressed with how little had changed.
I didn’t know it then, but sadly the earlier fire was a precursor of things to come. The fire last Saturday morning was far more devastating. The entire building was reduced to a masonry shell. The front walls were promptly knocked down to avoid a safety hazard along Woodward. Thus First Unitarian became yet another victim of demolition by neglect and fire. It joins the ranks that include Scovel Memorial Presbyterian, Studebaker, and the University Club. That is, of course, a much abbreviated list.
As with the University Club before it, rumors that the fire was deliberately set as a means of getting around historic protections were being spread before the smoke had cleared. Granted, the building burned at a suspiciously swift rate, so arson is a strong possibility. On the other hand, the suggestion of conspiracy seems illogical since, to my knowledge, the legal avenues to have the building declared unsafe and demolished were not pursued. For the record, the building was on the National Register, which offers no protection, and within a local historic district, which does offer protection. I won’t bother repeating my earlier remarks on the downfall of the University Club, but they remain valid. I just wish that the immediate reaction to these events involved more discussion and action on improvements about how preservation and blight enforcement is carried out in the city rather than reactionary and confrontational speculation of foul play. I don’t have any grand answers. But I know if nothing changes, this will happen again.
Oh well. On the bright side La Farge’s beautiful stained glass windows, removed during the building’s 1930s shrinking, still survive and can be enjoyed at the DIA. That is more than could be said for most buildings that share First Unitarian’s fate.