Old Stone Church

First Presbyterian Church, commonly referred to as the Old Stone Church, is located on the northwest quadrant of Cleveland's Public Square at the corner of Ontario and Rockwell Streets. Possibly Cleveland's best-known religious building, Old Stone Church is a symbol of the city's birth and development. The church is the oldest standing structure on Public Square and is home to the second oldest religious organization in Cleveland. Origins of the church's congregation date back to meetings of the Union Sunday School held on the second-floor of Cleveland's first log cabin courthouse in 1819. The church was officially established the following year by approximately fifteen residents of the village. Out of these early prayer services, which were often interrupted by the gunshots of hunters in nearby thickets, First Presbyterian Church would grow into one of Cleveland's most prominent and influential religious institutions.

The buildings that housed First Presbyterian Church would also change over the years, reflecting the transformation of Cleveland from a village to an industrialized urban center. The first stone church, built in 1834, was replaced in 1853 by the present structure as a response to urban growth and the increased prosperity of the congregation. Fire and the corrosive effects of time initiated further modifications to Old Stone Church. Even the building's sandstone exterior began to take on the character of the industrial setting that it had been apart of for so long as the walls slowly turned a solemn and dignified black hue from years of exposure to environmental pollution.

To a large degree, Old Stone Church's popularity as a local landmark was due to its location on the Public Square. The building provided the backdrop for citizen meetings, picnics, protests, military processions, public celebrations, and leisurely walks in Cleveland's most famous and important public space. Even as the landscape surrounding Cleveland's Public Square became unrecognizable to each passing generation, the church retained its present location. With its steeples extending upward from the heart of Cleveland, the history and memories surrounding Old Stone Church have become intertwined with the city's identity.

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Old Stone Church Exterior, 1973

Old Stone Church Exterior, 1973

Dedicated on August 12, 1855, the present Old Stone Church structure was built in response to the congregation's growth, as well as their desire for a more modern and elegant edifice. Headed by the architectural firm of Heard and Porter, designs for the church incorporated Romanesque Revival elements. Popular in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, the style is characterized in part by steeples of unequal height and semi-circular arches above windows and door opening. Constructed of Berea sandstone, materials for the church walls were primarily quarried in Carlisle Township. At a final cost of $60,000, Old Stone Church was the most expensive, imposing, and beautiful structure on the Public Square at the time of its completion. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland Public Library. View File Details Page

Demolition of Parish House, 1961

Demolition of Parish House, 1961

Old Stone Church's Parish House and chapel, which was constructed around 1890, were razed as part of the congregation's "Forward March" campaign in 1961. The $1,250,000 new Parish Hall included a chapel for children, a large chapel, a 700 person dining hall, and church offices. The new structure allocated spaces for outreach programs and public ministry in an effort to combat the many economic and social problems that the city experienced because of suburbanization. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Old Stone Church, Interior

Old Stone Church, Interior

The interior of Old Stone Church was destroyed by fire two times since its dedication in 1855. The first fire, occurring less than two years following the church's completion, was attributed to an ill-constructed flue. The hand-cranked water pump used by firefighters was unable to combat the flames. The 228 foot wooden spire - the tallest in the city - collapsed onto Public Square. Nothing was left but a chapel in the rear of the property and the stone work of the main building. Insurance allowed the church to quickly be rebuilt by the structure's original architects, Heard and Porter. The spire would not be replaced until 1868. The church was destroyed again in 1884 as heat from a fire in the adjoining Wick Building's Park Theater ignited the ceiling of the church and quickly spread throughout the interior. Architect Charles Schweinfurth, best known for his work on Cleveland's Millionaire's Row, was hired to restore the church and reinforce the damaged exterior walls. Schweinfurth's elaborate redesign of the church interior is essentially what can be viewed today. The spire, deemed unsafe and a threat to public safety, was removed in 1896. Fire would strike Old Stone Church a third time in 1931. Believed to have been caused by a cigarette, flames engulfed the church's basement, recreation rooms, stairwell, and chapel. Fireproof walls installed during the previous restoration prevented the flames from reaching the church or parish house. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

Louis C. Tiffany Stained Glass Window.

Louis C. Tiffany Stained Glass Window.

The most famous of Old Stone Church's interior features are four stained glass windows by Tiffany Studios. "I Am the Resurrection and the Life", pictured above, was installed in November, 1930. The work was commissioned as a tribute to church member James H. Cogswell by his wife, Elizabeth Cogswell. Louis C. Tiffany, founder of Tiffany Studios, was a famous American artist best know for his innovations in decorative glass designs. The window was removed and restored in 2008. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service, 1968

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service, 1968

Invested with the meanings inscribed into Cleveland's most symbolic public space, Old Stone Church has been a place for residents of the city to gather in times of celebration and mourning. The congregation of First Presbyterian Church embraced this shared history with the Public Square and have regularly opened their church doors to Clevelanders for private and public worship. Providing a space for ceremony and ecumenical services at the heart of the city, the church has been the site of countless weddings as well as public memorial services for Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and World Trade Center victims. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

Prayer Service At Old Stone Church, 1981

Prayer Service At Old Stone Church, 1981

Just as the history of Old Stone Church was shaped by Cleveland's evolution into an urban center, members of the church's congregation influenced the political, social, and economic development of the city. Many of Cleveland's most prominent politicians and business leaders were members of the congregation, including the city's first mayor, the founder of Higbee's, and the builder of the Old Arcade. The church leadership was instrumental in encouraging members of the congregation to exert their social influence and participate in philanthropic activities. Under their guidance, church members are credited with organizing Cleveland's first public school and offering the first English classes to immigrants. Through gifts of money and land, the congregation also helped develop settlement houses, shelters, temperance organizations, and colleges throughout the city. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

A New, Old Look

A New, Old Look

In recent years, Old Stone Church underwent a $2.4 million renovation. Using an acid-base wash, the exterior was cleaned for the first time in 1996. Removing the black coating that had formed over the sandstone, the walls of the church once again took on their original appearance. The renovation also included the addition of a steeple in 1998, replacing a fixture of the church's early history that had been absent for more than a century. Photograph by Laszlo Ilyes [http://www.flickr.com/photos/40467171@N00/432233072/ Old Stone Church vs. Key Tower - Color] View File Details Page

The First Old Stone Church

The First Old Stone Church

First Presbyterian Church derived its nickname from the original structure built on Public Square in 1834. Made of hammered gray sandstone, the building was commonly referred to as the stone church. Over the years, as additional stone churches were constructed throughout Cleveland, the First Presbyterian Church would take on the name "old stone church". Photograph courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections View File Details Page

Pedestrians and Old Stone Church

Pedestrians and Old Stone Church

While the location of Old Stone Church at the heart of the city was integral to the identity of the institution, it also forced the church to face issues associated with a migrating laity. Since Cleveland's origins as a city, residents with the ability to move outside of the congested downtown have settled increasingly farther from the urban core. Unlike many of Cleveland's ethnic and neighborhood parishes, Old Stone Church's congregation did not live near their house of worship. This often led to the development of sister churches in areas outside of downtown, and even culminated in discussions of moving the congregation to a new site on Euclid Avenue and East 55th Street after a fire destroyed much of the church's interior in 1885. In the end, the decision was made to rebuild on the historic site where the church has remained as a symbol of Cleveland's past. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Old Stone Church Bell

Old Stone Church Bell

In 1865 Cleveland celebrated the end of the Civil War but mourned the loss of their President and the friends who had died away from home. Ceremonies were given in that year that recognized these conflicting emotions: President Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession through public square and a Thanksgiving service celebrating the war's end. During both ceremonies, however, one thing remained the same - the ringing of the First Presbyterian Bell. The bell was cast and presented to the First Presbyterian belfry in 1865. It remained there for over a century until 1982 when it was removed. In 1989 the bell was returned to the church but did not make it to the belfry. It was instead placed in front of the church as a reminder of the "Year of Peace" in which it was cast. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Richard Raponi, “Old Stone Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 28, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/165.

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