"The Old Landmark"

Written in October, 2008.

The Penguin was right; I could use a little churchin' up, so I slid on down to the old First Unitarian Church, on Woodward at Edmund Place. [/Blues Brothers reference]

Looking like it was chiseled right out of a solid black stone mountain, it leers darkly over Woodward Ave. just north of downtown. It's listed in the AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture as being built in 1890, designed by Detroit firm Donaldson & Meier (also known for St. Aloysius Church, the David Stott Building, and Cooley High School). 

The short modern building next to it in that previous photo has been demolished.

As you can see from this photo from W. Hawkins Ferry's The Buildings of Detroit, (shot prior to the "Widening of Woodward"), the stone isn't exactly black, but rather it remains stained by the industrial residues of 100 years of Detroit coal and car exhaust.

In 1936 Woodward Avenue was widened significantly to accommodate more lanes of traffic for "The Sacred Rac," and most buildings on it were either moved or modified in order to facilitate the change. First Unitarian had its front steps chopped off and the porch cut back and enclosed. Incidentally, the tower of this church has also been shortened from its original configuration.

In the basement, there was some random clutter:

However, while army-crawling around in the cramped, dirty, unexcavated crawlspace directly beneath the wood-plank sanctuary floor I found what I believe to have been brick remnants of the old porch's structure, concealed in the stifling darkness. It seemed that the last bit of the porch that wasn't lopped off got covered over. Unfortunately these features weren't all that photogenic, and more importantly I didn't want to pull out my camera in such a dusty environment, so alas I have no photo evidence. If you really don't believe me, I invite you to go crawl on your face through the dirt yourself.

Along the rest of the outside rim of the crawlspace were little crypt-like chambers, likewise earthen-floored, containing nothing but an occasional pipe run, looking like they hadn't been set foot in for a century. And I don't blame anyone for it; it was extremely uncomfortable and inconvenient to crawl around in this claustrophobic nightmare, and it was very un-photogenic, but nonetheless I had to check it out, yunno, just in case they left behind some treasure they had been "hiding from the Nazis"....

Like the pipe organ and everything else, it would've been snatched up by scrappers in the past couple years since it has sat vacant. At the time when I visited First Unitarian it was fairly uncommon for vacant churches to actually be completely abandoned in Detroit, as they are considered second in importance only to the liquor store. It was rapidly becoming increasingly prevalent however.

The Unitarians showed up in Detroit around 1850 and incorporated the First Congregational Unitarian Society that year. Their first church was near Lafayette and Shelby Streets. This building is their second. Ironically enough when the Widening of Woodward was going on and their church was under reconstruction, the Unitarians worshipped with the local Universalist congregation, and according to the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, "This worship arrangement proved so mutually harmonious that the two liberal congregations subsequently merged and the Edmund Place property was sold to the Church of Christ denomination which has occupied the building since 1937."

Apparently the local hard rock icons MC5 played here on September 7, 1968

Along with the famous Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, it is considered one of the best examples of Richardsonian design as applied to churches. As a matter of fact, the red sandstone church across the street from here, First Presbyterian, was designed by Mason & Rice to echo H.H. Richardson's Trinity Episcopal in Boston:

First Unitarian went through more name changes including "Church in the City," and "Resurrection Promise Church," and–like most any other church building–looked to have been watched over fairly well while it was vacant. Because if there's any building that a community will watch over and hates to see harmed, it's the church. Even when we could see that some homeless were somehow getting inside to sleep, it stayed well-sealed for a long time, almost as if they were defending their former shepherd of the community. And I wasn't about to mess with that. But in just the past week I noticed three blown-open windows right in plain view and it was obvious there was traffic in and out. 

It's sad but what can you do? Getting inside I noticed that this once beautiful old church had been raped for all it was worth. All the original stained glass was gone, some of it replaced with cheap stuff, but some if it just plain gone, leaving the elements to do their work. The only piece left of the pipe organ was this pipe sitting in a corner almost as if it were some squatter's makeshift Louisville Slugger for self-defense.

You can see above the altar an outline on the brick where the pipes would have been arranged:

Now here I am snooping around behind the organ...note the original pattern on the plaster—this was the only remnant of it anywhere in the building I could find:

This small scrap of the original decor was exposed when the metal thieves heisted the organ pipes for scrap. You can walk right inside the guts of the organ:

Here are the bellows:

I'm not a tech, but this looks to me like completely manual-action controlling the valves to the pipes—no electronics:

Based on the types of trash, the bicycle parts and old clothes organized in piles, I could tell that there were at least three or four homeless currently living in here full-time, and, not wanting to have my teeth knocked out by a gnarly old organ pipe, I kept an ear open and was careful not to mess with anything or go in rooms where I might be cornering someone.

The decorative wooden hammerbeams supporting the cavernous ceiling were now supporting wobbly old crappy ceiling fans as well. Anyway, I had read that at least some of the original stained glass had been removed and was in the possession of the Detroit Institute of Arts a few blocks to the north, awaiting restoration in their legendary vault, two stories below Woodward Avenue. A friend of mine who had attended CCS told me about a time he was once allowed down there as part of a class.

It's too bad they can't just store the whole church down there.

(As yet) unmolested woodwork on the organ case:

By looking at the intimidating stone exterior of churches like this, I always entertained the notion that the interiors would be faced in the same rough-hewn blackened stone, creating a sweet looking medieval decor, even if a bit dark and foreboding. This was not to be, unfortunately. It was all plastered, and bore the tackiness of hastily-done remodeling jobs in the '70s & '80s with cheap materials, by congregations that probably couldn't really afford to heat the place. At least someone was able to put some cheap shingles on the roof at some point to keep it from leaking, thankfully, as I imagine the original slate roof had been allowed to fall apart.

Okay, sorry, here is the cliche shot:

I noticed there was no graffiti in here yet; maybe people were sorta respecting this place after all? The squatters too were making sure not to make a mess it seemed; I found a pitcher half-filled with one guy's urine. So I guess while most homeless seem to have little regard for history or architecture, at least they had respect for God's house. I mean, who the hell can just unabashedly take a piss on a church anyway? Even my agnostic ass would feel a smidge uncomfortable simply handling my willy in here, even if it was just to take a wizz. It just ain't right. As far as being cracked-out enough to steal organ pipes, or rip the tiny bit of wiring out of the wall behind a sconce light, well I guess that's a different can of worms. 

View from one of the slit windows in the spiral stair leading up to the tower:

First Presbyterian next-door had actually been looking on the verge of abandonment recently as well. The neighborhood these two churches reside in is the infamous "mansion graveyard" once called Brush Park, while the stretch of Woodward north of here was known as Piety Hill because of the number of churches that line it for miles. Some of them were torn down long ago, but still today you can drive down it and count steeple after steeple after steeple of old stone kirks. It's part of what earned Detroit the nickname of "City of Churches" in the 1800s.

The reason is because (back in the days when people actually cared about constructing beautiful buildings), each neighborhood ethnic group and denomination commissioned their own churches, almost breaking their coffers in trying to outdo the other neighborhoods, and would build them right on the main thoroughfare as a showpiece as if to say, "Look! This is how much pride we have in our neighborhood and our city; and we've built this great monument to express it."

I climbed the five-story square tower and found a pile of old dusty pew cushions, and was surprised the squatters hadn't used them as bedding.  

While I had no idea precisely what fate lay in store for First Unitarian Church (coughcough, snowball's chance in Hell, coughcough), I did know that there's nothing sadder to see than a great church fall into ruin and be stripped like this, unless it's to see a great church demolished when it has barely been around for a hundred years.

If Richard Nickel thought Chicago's wastefulness of its architecture was a sin, he would have slit his own throat if he were to see the state of affairs in Detroit. We've thrown away more great buildings than 90% of other cities will ever even see. In fact, if you were to take every architecturally valuable building that we have needlessly demolished, torched, or let rot into the ground during the 20th century, you could probably construct another whole city the size of Pittsburg.

At the time of my visit in 2008 there were about three or four other old churches abandoned in Detroit of comparable caliber to First Unitarian that I knew of, and in the previous two years we lost two others to demolition (including Scovel Presbyterian–which was an arson).

I never made a return trip into this church, but I knew from other peoples' photographs that its condition went downhill fast. Then, on May 10th of 2014, it was totally incinerated in a 2-alarm fire that was ruled to be an obvious case of arson. The deadbeat property owner had allegedly wanted to demolish it and market the parcel, but had recently been denied by the Historic District Commission. What a strange coincidence that it would "mysteriously" catch on fire like that then, wouldn't you say?

Oh hey, whaddya'know—the missing windows, on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts:

They were taken out by the Unitarian Church Trust in 1934 when the building was sold to the Church of Christ...and they'd been sitting in the fabled subterranean vault of the Detroit Institute of Arts ever since—what I had read was apparently true. If I'm not mistaken, they have only in the past couple years been placed on display at the DIA. I have to say I was amazed when I turned a corner one evening while wandering the museum, and instantly recognized them...it was quite a trip to see them like that, knowing that I had been to the decaying church where they once hung.

The windows were made by John LaFarge, and completed in 1899. You can see here that there are actually multiple layers of opalescent glass to give a marble-like effect:

According to detroit1701.org, John LaFarge "was a key figure in the development of stained glass artistry in the United States, although his peer and rival, Louis Tiffany, is much more frequently remembered and discussed." These three windows were designed to represent the allegorical values of Faith, Hope and Charity, while a fourth window honoring brotherly love was designed to commemorate the accomplishments of Governor John Bagley, and is held in a private collection today.

However, according to the book Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, by Nola Huse Tutag, the fourth LaFarge window in the church honored Judge Albert Grenville Boynton, a police justice in Detroit from 1873 to 1878 (who I suspect is also the namesake of Detroit's southernmost neighborhood, "Boynton"). Tutag wrote that the window, entitled, The Good Knight (which is pictured in the book), still remained in the church as of 1987.

This church has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.

American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture
The Buildings of Detroit, A History, by W. Hawkins Ferry
Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, by Nola Huse Tutag


  1. So sad, such a beauty of a building, nothing like this is built anymore, i wish more people would invest in the city, it has so much potential that is being lost, few cites have as many wonderful old buildings. I hope more people being priced out of new york city realize this in time. That is a fully mechanical organ, you are correct. Fully mechanical organs of that size in the US are getting rarer and rarer.

    Im so glad the Lefarge windows got saved, one of the legends of glassmaking, you kind of have to see them to believe how beautiful they are.

  2. Unless you're talking about Pittsburg Kansas or Pittsburg Texas, I think you want Pittsburgh :)

  3. Wow, thanks for your thoughts about the old Unitarian Church. I'm a member of its successor, the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit, and dabble in the history of the Unitarians and Universalists in Detroit. Thought you'd find this interesting: while researching for the centennial of First UU's sanctuary (which was originally Universalist, only, not UU) I found an Annual Meeting Report that described the fate of the LaFarge windows. On February 22, 1959, the Unitarian Church Trust voted to donate the LaFarge stained glass windows to the Detroit Institute of Arts. This was the part I wanted to bring to your attention especially: "The stained glass windows had been crated and stored in the bell tower of the church for over 25 years." Just a fun historical tidbit!


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