"Rome Has Spoken"

In March, 2006 when I snuck into the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, a couple firefighters wandered in a few minutes later and were scoping it out, grumpily commenting, "this fucker is going to be a mess when it goes." They hadn't seen me yet, sitting there in a pew framing up a shot.


It was kind of odd to hear the firemen candidly griping about it, like they knew it was preordained it would burn, and to hear them talking strategy about how they would fight it when the time came. Elsewhere around the city I've often seen where they've spray-painted notes to themselves on the outsides of dilapidated buildings, such as "NO FLOORS" or "STAIRS BAD," kind of like a cheat-sheet for when they inevitably show up when it is on fire and have to go inside.

The nearest firehouse is barely half a block away, Engine 18 / Ladder 10, on the other side of Mt. Elliott, which I assume is where these two men came from.


After a few minutes of pointing at certain corners and hazard-areas of the structure like two grim surgeons they suddenly noticed my presence, pausing in mid-sentence. I could tell that they were mentally sizing me up for a few seconds, to determine whether they were going to have to engage in combat with me, call the police to report a dead body, or begin CPR on me. After they realized I was not a victim in need of lifesaving, a thug about to shoot them, a crackhead about to infect them with HIV, or an arsonist in need of a beatdown, the more veteran of the two flatly stated that I knew I shouldn't be in here and that it was dangerous.

They then turned their attention elsewhere once again and completed their informal analysis of the structure, disappearing back onto the street seconds later. The part of their day where I had been a blip on their radar was completely over. I continued about my business as well.


There isn't much online regarding the history of this small church. However, Detroiturbex states that First English Evangelical Lutheran Church got its start here in a small chapel in 1896, and was so-named because it was the first Lutheran church in Detroit to hold services in English (as opposed to German).

This present edifice was built in 1908-1909 in response to rapid neighborhood growth, and was designed by the Detroit architectural firm of Spier, Rohns, & Gehrke (who also designed Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, the grandest in Michigan). However, the book Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City by George Galster maintains that First English Evangelical was incorporated in 1890, not 1896. Perhaps the latter date refers to when that first chapel building was completed.


In the late 19th century there was a very significant population of prospering German immigrants in Detroit, mostly spreading up out of Bricktown along Gratiot Avenue on the east side. George Galster notes that some families were even in a second generation as Americans and had begun to approach affluence, no doubt thanks to the typical German skill sets that were in demand in those industrial days of rapid expansion.

Galster mentions that even though 85% of German Detroiters could speak English, it was not until 1890 that a German congregation finally formed its own church with services in the American common tongue, breaking off from the St. Luke's German Lutheran Church. That first congregation was this one, of course.


Galster further notes that such a move could not have come a moment too soon, as one may recall that in those years leading up to World War I, "Anti-German Sentiment" was building and many Germans felt a need to better assimilate into American culture, or "de-Germanize," to avoid suspicion of their allegiances.

One example of this self-imposed Americanization in Detroit was when the thoroughly Teutonic Dakota Inn Rathskeller stopped hoisting their beer steins to "Deutschland ├╝ber Alles" and instead sang "God Bless America." The city of Berlin, Michigan also renamed itself Marne, to honor those who had fought against the Kaiser in that famous battle.


As usual this church went the route of "white flight" and was sold in the 1950s to a black Baptist congregation after all of First English Evangelical's members had moved to nearby Grosse Pointe Woods.

The new congregation was St. James Baptist, whose church in Black Bottom had been eradicated when the new I-375 expressway was *completely coincidentally* dug directly through the neighborhood. This same basic scenario was repeated time after time all across the city of Detroit as racially-oriented urban planning initiatives reshaped the face of Motown; the poor were displaced and moved closer to affluent areas, and the affluent moved further away.


The new First English Evangelical was opened in 1957 and St. James Baptist kept up the old church until 1992 when they again moved out. The building was sold to another congregation in 2001 and closed in 2005...one year before I saw that the door had been ripped open and wandered in.


So far, it looked like the old sanctuary had fared pretty well, but I knew that without heat or some much needed roof and window repair, it would sink fast.


Here you can see an old blade sign attached to the roof (probably installed by St. James Baptist), and nextdoor, the side of the church's c.1929 parish house, which was actually designed by renowned Detroit architect George Mason:


I found these bannister posts to be rather novel, definitely fashioned by some nameless old neighborhood Teutonic woodworking master from back in the day:


A fan of mine named Carol Horn wrote to inform me that this symbol carved into the ends of the pews, with the crucifix set over a heart and a rose, is actually the "Seal of Martin Luther," the father of Lutheranism:


Ms. Horn also said that she thought George Galster or his family name may have been associated with this church as congregation members at some point.




You can see in this shot that most of the pew cushions are still in place:


It looks like the original hanging light fixtures are all still in place too:


The stained glass in its windows was actually very rich, and had a lot of depth for such a small church:


I knew that this place and every fine detail in it was was going to be laid to total ruin shortly, so I actually went home and got a tripod to document it in its current state of relative intactness.


Not only were the windows being harvested, but the rich wooden paneling was also walking off:




I could already see signs that the stained glass was preparing to migrate into the back room of some out-of-state antique dealer's store.


Many of the other fixtures had already gone, such as the sconces on this wall:


The thief's ladder remained leaned up against the wall. Though this was not a Catholic church it was almost as if the words "Roma locuta; causa finita est" applied to it in the sense that it had been ordained by Papal decree to be left to ruin and rapine, similar to the decision to conduct mass parish closings across the Detroit Archdiocese in 1989 in response to population decline. Just as the firemen had too decreed the inevitability of this structure's demise, "Rome has spoken; the matter is finished."

Such is the fate of almost every closed church--not only in a shrinking city like Detroit, but in this modern age the majority of Americans seem to prefer the disposable WalMart-shaped "mega-church" to the architectural glories of the past.


As I drove past this church over the weeks and months that followed, I noticed it to slide further downhill as more and more windows disappeared.


On their way out the door, the two conversing firemen who momentarily interrupted my visit had wryly accused "people like me" of posting photos online and causing structures like this to become more well-known and speeding the theft of things like the stained glass. But I noticed that this building needed no such help from me to fall into the same state of ruination as any of the other beautiful structures in the city that had fallen before it.


That happened eight years ago as I'm writing this, and only very recently have any of my photos of abandoned buildings been posted anywhere online. I purposely delay posting any of my explorations online for years, for several reasons.

Anyway, if you have been by this church lately you'd know that it has already been devastated about as much as it can be--by people who had experience in the field of stripping vulnerable abandoned structures and have systematically continued to repeat their crime since. Another irony is that I actually donate to the Firemen's Fund, and help them run their annual Field Day.


Even more ironic is the fact that the Engine 18 / Ladder 10 firehouse that the two firemen belonged to was itself closed and boarded up a few years later in 2012, and today sits awaiting the same fate as this church. I wonder if firefighters from the next-nearest fire company likewise went inside Engine 18 and took mental notes for when it would inevitably be set ablaze by arsonists?

Such is life in Detroit, America's most f'd-up city.


Again, knowing that these panes of glass might not even last the night, I took as many closeup photos as possible.


But perhaps it was better off stolen than just rotting into dust with the rest of the doomed structure. Because god knows that when this place goes up in flames the fire department is just going to have to send a stream of high-pressure water through it from a tower cannon to quell the flames, and then what?


It really was still in good shape...and I really seriously doubt that there was a real property owner, other than maybe a bank. Perhaps some other church out there in Ohio could really use some legit old world Detroit Stained Glass Co. windows?


Or maybe they're hanging in some Chinese billionaire's house on display?






There's lots more Lutheran symbolism in these windows of course, but being raised Catholic, recognizing it doesn't come naturally to me.


These columns are not actually veined marble, they're painted plaster made to look like marble, which is an old process called scagliola...it's seen in many churches where they wanted to save money:


Oops, they f'd this window up. Can't sell it:


By the way, if you're curious as to the mindset and attitude of Detroit Firefighters, I highly recommend buying and watching this excellent documentary: detroitfirefilm.org

A lot of documentaries have been made about the decline of Detroit in the past ten years, but it is one of the precious few that is worth a damn. If you look closely, you'll see my name in the end credits, heh.



References:
Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City by George Galster
http://detroiturbex.com/content/churches/1stevan/index.html

1 comment:

  1. As a fairly observant Lutheran, I fail to notice any Lutheran-specific symbolism other than what has already been pointed out by other readers (Luther's Rose/Luther's Seal, primarily). The rest just appears to be archetypal Christian iconography (Communion/Eucharist Chalice, Scenes from various sections of the Bible, Crosses, etc.).

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