When the North Presbyterian Church was dedicated on October 23, 1887, the congregation held its first two services with 800 people in the pews. According to a contemporary account, “The interior is very cheerful, being finished with light drab and terracotta tints. The circular dome is filled with handsome windows of stained glass which flood the whole amphitheatrical interior with mellow light… Before the altar numerous flowering plants lifted up their fragrant blossoms seemingly in joy and thanksgiving… The choir, which is led by a cornet, two violins and an organ then rendered an anthem…‘Christ is Our Corner Stone.’” The next day, the Cleveland Plain Dealer observed, “When you enter the sanctuary at North Church, you feel transported to an otherworldly, protected place…The building is an architectural expression of ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’”
The church started as a Sunday School Mission of the First Presbyterian (Old Stone) Church in 1859. From that Sunday school, North Church Congregation was established on St. Clair Avenue in 1870. The congregation moved from location to location before ultimately finding a home at East 40th Street and Superior Avenue in 1887, serving this primarily industrial neighborhood under the leadership of Dr. William H. Goodrich (then assistant minister at Old Stone) and then elders Ruben F. Smith and George H. Ely. Fifty former members of the Old Stone church became charter members of the new North Presbyterian Church, with Rev. Anson Smyth D.D. as their first pastor. The church was additionally responsible for starting other Presbyterian churches as Sunday schools, including the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1890 and the Glenville Presbyterian Church in 1893.
The North Presbyterian Church was designed in 1886-87 by the architectural firm of Forrest A. Coburn and Frank Seymour Barnum. Although not traditionally considered architects of sacred spaces, Coburn and Barnum were responsible for designing only a few of the churches in Cleveland in the late 19th century. The firm designed North Presbyterian in the Gothic style and styled the interior according to what was known as the Akron Plan.
The Akron Plan was a popular type of religious building construction so named for its origin in the First Methodist Episcopal Church built in Akron, Ohio, in the 1860s. The main feature of the Akron Plan is a large open “rotunda” surrounded by smaller classrooms on one, or even two levels. All of the rooms opened into the rotunda by means of folding, sliding or rolling doors/shutters. In the case of North Presbyterian, the Akron Plan served the purpose of the building well. The architectural plan of the church lends itself to an environment whose main concerns were church, education, and community. The Akron Plan reflects a Uniform Lesson System within the church. This system dictated that all children learn weekly lessons in addition to attending church service. This system caught on in the latter portion of the 19th century. An Akron Plan Sunday school is a direct result of the Uniform Lesson System, by combining the space needed for worship and prayer, but also providing the compartmentalized space for individualized teaching for children of all age groups.
After North Presbyterian opened, Sereno P. Fenn served as the superintendent of the Sunday school from 1879 to 1906. During this time the church reached a peak membership of more than 1,200, making it one of the largest churches in Cleveland at the time. When Rev. Robert J. McAlpine accepted a call from Boulevard Presbyterian Church in 1909, however, many North Presbyterian parishioners followed, only leaving around 300 members. Despite the setback, the church managed to thrive again and serve its local community.
Under Dr. Harvey E. Holt’s pastorate (1918-1930), the church initiated many community programs. The church also became a center for offering emergency food, clothing, childcare and other services, all administered by other community volunteer organizations. Throughout the twentieth century, the church also served many of the increasing numbers of minorities arriving in Cleveland. This included Slovaks, Croatians, Serbians, and Romanians. Many of these individuals were employed in the mills and factories of Cleveland, and the church served as a space to otherwise occupy individuals in the bustle of cosmopolitan life. The church continued these programs under Rev. Arthur R. Kinsler Jr.’s pastorate (1930-1968).
The congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1970, and in the coming years it continued to serve the primarily industrial neighborhood. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In recent years, the North Presbyterian congregation got too small to afford the continued upkeep of its building and moved down the street to a building on East 45th Street, where it shares a space with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. North Presbyterian is still a vibrant congregation with a diverse socioeconomic and spiritual background, and continues to serve the Midtown community. The new sanctuary, although much more modern in construction, still relies greatly on the same multi-functionality aspects of the Akron Plan to fit the varying needs and missions of the congregation.
Created in 1870, the North Presbyterian congregation founded a space that they would have never thought would hold such a rich history. The building itself stands as a living memory, not only of a widespread architectural movement, but also of a vibrant congregation. The Akron Plan of the building worked perfectly in conjunction with the mission of the congregation to provide educational and personal resources not only for their congregation, but also for their greater community. Although the congregation continues to strive towards serving the local Midtown community, the churches need for an Akron Plan Sunday school has become unnecessary. Churches, like North Presbyterian, have changed their Sunday school approach to be more one on one with students, and separate from entire sessions. This eliminates a need for school-wide spaces, and has churches abandoning their, what they now might deem, awkwardly shaped and imperfectly soundproofed rooms for more traditional style classrooms. Today the North Presbyterian Church building stands as one of the few remaining spaces with an Akron Plan interior, and provides an example of this religious practice in Cleveland history.