Filed Under Religion

North Presbyterian Church

"A Mighty Fortress"

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.


North Presbyterian Church
North Presbyterian Church The church as it stands today at 4001 Superior Avenue. Nominated in 1974, North Presbyterian Church was designated on the basis of both its architecture and because of its place in local history. The use of the Akron Plan makes it architecutally signinfict due to the fact that churches do not continue to use that design today. The congregation still exists as part of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. Their new location is just down the street at 4515 Superior Avenue. Source: Google Street View Date: June 2019
North Presbyterian Church
North Presbyterian Church This ca. 1880/1890 image depicts the church as it looked soon after the new congregation's dedication of the new building. The church, which cost $20,000 to build, was funded by many of the congressional members. Philanthropist Flora Stone Mather, wife of industrialist Samuel Mather and sister-in-law of statesman John Hay, was the largest contributor to the building fund. Source: Western Reserve Historical Society
1886 Bell of Old Stone Church
1886 Bell of Old Stone Church The Bell of the Old Stone Church followed the congregation as they tried to settle to a permenate location. When North Presbyterian was finally established, the bell was places in the top tower of the church. When reflecting on the first church service the Plain Dealer reflected,"...the old bell of the North Presbyterian church rang out sweet and clear yesterday morning, not withstanding the heavy atmosphere and called the congregation to prayer." Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 24 1887.  Source: Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Forrest A. Coburn
Forrest A. Coburn Coburn and Barnum initially open offices in the Hardy Block on Eucild Avenue, and were quickly recognized as one of the city’s best architectural firms. Coburn and Barnum are well known as Cleveland architects for their work in domestic architecture, in designing more than twenty houses along Euclid Avenues historic Millionaires Row, as well as several building for the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University. Other Churches designed by the Coburn and Barnum Architecture firm during this time period include the Third Evangelical Reformed Church (1882) at 1567 East 36th Street and the Olivet Baptist Church (1894) at 5022 Bridge Avenue. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
The Akron Plan
The Akron Plan The Akron Plan takes its name from the city of the construction's first use, Akron, Ohio, which was the site where the First Methodist Episcopal Church, designed by Lewis Miller, Walter Blythe, and Jacob Snyder (1866-1870) was created. The Akron Plan Sunday school styles is easily adapted into a variety of other architectural and decorative styles -- Gothic, much like North Presbyterian, but also Romanesque, Colonial, and Neoclassical Revivals. The arrangement of the Sunday school rooms around the sanctuary, and the way that the rooms express on the exterior of the build, stand to signify the church’s primary concern with church education and community. Source: Hendrick, Ellwood, 1861-1930, Lewis Miller: a Biographical Essay, New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1925.
Interior View of North Presbyterian Church
Interior View of North Presbyterian Church Photo illustrates the possible use of the Akron Plan with its dividers for Sunday school spaces in the interior of North Presbyterian Church or the open concept for regular Sunday worship. Source: Courtesy of Tim Barrett Creator: Unknown Date: ca. 1980s
Life in the Church Administration
Life in the Church Administration Specs and Boler hat are modeled by Karl Burkert, Custodian of North Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Arthur Betty Smith (Youth worker, left) and Mrs. Catherine Sprouse (Ladies guild, right) adjust Eyeglasses. Historical Display in foreground by Mrs. Smith. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections, Cleveland Press Collection. Creator: Jerry Horton Date: 1965
Life in the Church Congregation
Life in the Church Congregation Mary Bassett, Program Director of North Presbyterian Church, works on Crafts with Neighborhood Children four times a week after school. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections, Cleveland Press Collection. Creator: Van Dillard Date: 1981


4001 Superior Ave, Cleveland, OH 44103


Rebekah Knaggs , “North Presbyterian Church,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 15, 2024,