A Higher Calling

November, 2008.

The autumn of 2008 was a particularly depressing time for Detroit. It was a time when the few remaining stable things left in the city were teetering on the brink of a final plunge into the abyss, and the picture of the future looked bleaker than ever. To my knowledge, that was also when the vacant Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church was first opened to trespass and scrapping.

My visit to the church made everything seem even more depressing; it punctuated the overarching sense of loss to see such a perfect example of the old grand architecture that was increasingly being abandoned and left to the forces of entropy, put right in front of my face.

I actually had this church on my radar since before it was abandoned in 2005. My partner Chisel and I had explored the Quaker Apartments at 30 E. Philadelphia Street just on the other side of Woodward, and we noticed then that the church was starting to look like it was going down, and that it had one or two broken-out windows:

The Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church was established in 1908 to serve the rising neighborhoods of Detroit's "Ten Thousand-Acre Tract," such as Virginia Park, Arden Park, and Boston-Edison. It is also part of the "upper Piety Hill" area according to the book Detroit's Historic Places of Worship. The name Piety Hill refers to the proliferation of historic churches built along the Woodward corridor north of downtown, as the affluent neighborhoods there seemingly competed with one another to see who could build the handsomest church to be their showpiece on Detroit's mainstreet.

Clarence M. Burton's History of Wayne County states however that this church's genesis occurred as early as June 25th, 1907, at the home of Richard Owen, where its founders met for the first time and sought to form a new congregation in the city. The cornerstone was laid on January 1, 1910, with an oration by Owen himself. The building was finally dedicated a year and a half later, in 1911. 

Burton says that the church's original membership consisted of 163 people, and only 90 of them came from other existing Presbyterian churches in the city. I figure this either means that half of them were new arrivals to Detroit, or somebody was out there actively converting atheists found wandering the back alleys around the car assembly plants at night.

Woodward Presbyterian's first pastor was the aptly named Rev. Sherman L. Divine, DD, from Marinette, Wisconsin. He soon transferred to a church in Montana in 1913, but even that short tenure saw the membership of this church grow by over 1,300 souls, as well as the erection of this grandiose sanctuary in which to house them. Rev. W.H. Wray Boyle, DD, was the next minister, and in 1917 he too was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Wilson Cochran, DD.

The brownstone that this edifice is built of was quarried in Polk County, Pennsylvania, and Clarence Burton noted in 1930 that it was only the second building ever constructed of that particular stone (the first was in Pensacola, Florida). The trim accents are limestone. I have a feeling that if you were to power-wash this thing a couple times it would look like a totally different structure with all of that black soot removed. Personally, I like the sooty look.

The church was designed by an esteemed Canadian architect, Sidney Rose Badgley, who also designed the Highland Park Presbyterian Church (which also opened in 1911), just a few blocks north of here on Woodward at Cortland Street. The partnership of Badgley & Nicklas were nationally recognized as architects of Presbyterian churches at the time.

Ren Farley calls it an English Gothic-style design, saying that "the typical Gothic church of that era had a roof with gables at the ends and at least one tower in a corner." Badgley instead designed "...a lantern-dome-covered auditorium church. The dome was raised somewhat from the structure to admit light, hence the term lantern-dome."

The AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture calls the style Neo-Gothic, and an "unusual departure" from the standard church design of the day, yet still somewhat based on a Greek cross plan. Well, it certainly was different, and I'm pretty sure it might've knocked a few monocles off a few stodgy faces when these groovy curves were first beheld by a public accustomed to rigidly angular houses of worship.

In Detroit's Historic Places of Worship, the authors talk about how Badgley was well-known for this auditorium style of church, sometimes called the "Akron Plan." The idea of this design was to "cater to the comfort of all worshippers by permitting unobstructed views and enabling them to hear the church service clearly."

Personally, coming from a Roman Catholic background, I find this to be bunk; the whole idea of church is supposed to be about pain, supplication, and servitude, I thought. Seeing or hearing is not important, because you should really be thinking about how unworthy you are to be in the Crucified Lord's presence, with all of the sins you've committed against Him. Groveling isn't supposed to be "comfortable"...right? A comfortable church? Heresy!

According to a bronze plaque affixed to the pipe organ, the land for this church, and the organ itself were donated by Katherine Whitney—the widow of Tracy W. McGregor—both of whom were great philanthropists during the early 20th century, and helped to define the Progressive Era in Detroit.

Back then, Detroit was on the cusp of becoming America’s most prosperous city; a goal it arguably achieved by the 1920s. If you know your Detroit history, you’ll recall that Katherine’s last name marked her as the daughter of the great real estate tycoon and lumber baron David Whitney. Tracy was best known for running the benevolent McGregor Mission For Homeless Men, a much more humble endeavor started by his father.

Back when I read Dr. Philip P. Mason's biography of Tracy McGregor, I learned quite a bit of background about him and his wife Katherine Whitney. The two may have met due to her involvement in the First Presbyterian Church, and must have took a shine to him at some point after he had called on her father for a donation to fund the operation of his McGregor Mission. Later, she would come volunteer at the Mission with a group from her church. It was through this interaction with Tracy and his Mission that the heiress not only found her future husband, but also her passion for charity work. 

By the year 1900, Dr. Mason writes, Katherine Whitney had come to terms with her status as one of the city's wealthy women, and felt that as such she had a duty to assist the needy and to become active in the church, instead of living the life of a socialite like other heiresses of the city. Her father, David Whitney, had in fact held the same charitable values and encouraged her in this course of action.

Back then I guess some of the rich actually felt a patriotic sense of duty to help the less fortunate, or that there was an expectation that they do so, instead of merely scorning the poor while wallowing in their own privilege. Imagine that. Maybe back then more rich people could still remember what it was like to be poor?

Tracy himself was the son of a Scottish-born Presbyterian clergyman, but did not grow up rich. Tracy and Katherine used their wealth and privileged status to undertake many charitable causes, one of which is still around today—known as the McGregor Fund—which they created out-of-pocket in 1925 to help disadvantaged children and fund education research.

The McGregors had a house on Woodward in Highland Park that they used as a shelter for homeless children. When she died, Katherine stipulated in the will that the land be deeded over to the city for the construction of a new library. This library was dubbed the McGregor Library.

The book Detroit's Historic Places of Worship says that the walls of the sanctuary were given a Byzantine mosaic style treatment, which I thought looked really cool:

There was at least one historically important member of the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church. According to a book published commemorating its 50th anniversary, Wilber M. Brucker was an elder of the church (despite living on the other side of town, at 3453 Burns Street, in Indian Village). He was the governor of Michigan from 1931 to 1932, after which he moved to Detroit from his native Saginaw, and then later served as Secretary of the Army under President Eisenhower during the very height of the Cold War.

Brucker's military career began with the 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa, and lasted until the 1960s when he led the U.S. Army into a new technological era with guided ballistic missiles, strategic nuclear capability, and the first U.S. satellite launched into outer space.

It was in this capacity as Secretary of the Army that Wilbur Brucker was a speaker at the National Strategy Seminar in 1956, where I found it interesting that the guest list included Dr. Herbert B. Hudnut (then-pastor of Woodward Avenue Presbyterian) as well as Henry Kissinger, and Charles T. Fisher Jr. (president of the National Bank of Detroit).

A host of other various dignitaries, intellectuals, and captains of industry rounded out the guest list. I get the impression that the main topic of discussion was that of nuclear war, and, among other things, its moral questions and philosophical ramifications. It is interesting that two elders of Woodward Avenue Presbyterian were present for this.

A 1959 editorial column in the Detroit Free Press reveals that it was Brucker who was the champion of the Nike-Hercules nuclear defense missile system, which I discussed in my post about exploring the Newport Nike Base. Brucker favored the Army's Nike system over the Air Force's Bomarc system, even though tests at the time allegedly showed the Nike defense system to be pretty inadequate.

Other articles state that Brucker was a "well-known" friend of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and may have shared his suspicion of communism and the Soviet bloc. Brucker had been credited in helping to smooth the contentious Army-McCarthy Hearings, which were infamously televised in 1954.

Mr. Brucker was also a really big deal in the Detroit Freemasonry scene.

The church's leadership formulated plans around this time to permanently relocate to the suburbs, in the 12 Mile & Bermuda area. But in an unexpected development (that I personally would never have seen coming either) the congregation vetoed this idea, to remain in Detroit. This must have been a first.

A 1958 article in the Free Press tells of the church's 50th anniversary celebration, and despite the aforementioned plans to build a new church at Cranbrook Village, Rev. Hudnut was quoted as saying that "a stronger program would be developed at the present site." He also observed that with the coming of the expressways, "members can now reach the Woodward church in comparatively short time."

Pipe organs are my favorite musical instrument of all. I have always been awestruck by them—both in appearance and in the power of their sound. The example we see here is a three-manual Tellers Organ, made in Erie, PA.

It felt unusually surreal to be tip-toeing about in this grand space, staring up in awe at the grandeur of the broken organ, and then suddenly seeing the name “MCGREGOR” emblazoned on this faded bronze plaque in the midst of the crumbling church, my breath freezing in the cold air.

Without going into too much detail, I also have something of a personal connection to the McGregor legacy, so you can imagine both how incredible and how depressing it was for me to see this organ and this church in such a sad state. 

Usually I am pretty jaded, but that moment of seeing the ruined organ up close and of reading the name McGregor on its plaque rankled me with anger and grief for all the richness of history, heritage, and physical beauty that would be wantonly flushed down the f#$%ing toilet in the next decade as this country continued to circle the drain with imbecilic, greedy, untouchable rulers at its helm.

All of this would be lost and forgotten—or so I felt at the time. So much already had been lost to the torch and the wrecking ball. It seemed to me like Detroit was on its way to being as unknown and mysterious to onlookers as the mute ruins of ancient Greece. Not since the sinking of Atlantis has so much cultural greatness been lost to obscurity so quickly and so suddenly. With the current "rebirth" now underway I think this backslide has definitely slowed in some ways, but in other ways I'm seeing that it is still just more of the same.

These knobs are called stops, and they are for changing the tone of the organ's sound as it is played, sometimes to simulate other musical instruments:

It is probably an indication of how suddenly the Abyssinia church closed down that all of the furnishings are still left behind, and have not been auctioned of for taken to a new location for the church...

The last pastor of the church died unexpectedly (as I explain below) and there were no plans in place on what to do in his absence, so the doors were locked up when it was determined that there was no one to take over the ownership of the church.

The pulpit, and baptismal font:

This "secret passage" allowed the minister to go from his chambers directly to the altar...

...seen from the other side, the wall paneling appears to open directly into a closet:

My associate, Reverend Sloop, soon appeared from this portal attired in his holy preachin' robes for the occasion, and delivered the thunderous gospel according to Sloop.

Photo by a friend.
Here he is in rare form, delivering his signature historic preservation sermon on the evils of water and stupid men:

Photo by a friend.
HALLELUJAH! Someone get this man a witness.

Campaigning from the pulpit...

The button says "Sharon McPhail For Mayor." She was general counsel for the City of Detroit, and was on City Council from 2002 to 2006. She was running for mayor in 2005, right before this church closed.

It looks like a decorative tin ceiling was pulled down from this area here, although tin isn't really worth scrapping I don't think:

This window bears the date of the church's dedication ceremony:

The plaque on the left lists the names of the church members who died in World War I:

What absolutely blew me away about this church was that cupola atop the dome of the sanctuary. You can climb up to it, and go inside like an observation deck. First, you must locate the attic ladder, and go above this glass ceiling:

…then you must navigate these stairs to climb higher...higher toward the heavens:

Looking down on the glass ceiling:

Then you must cross this narrow bridge, to a small doorway...

…and crawl up through a tiny opening near the bird shit-covered floor to enter…

…one of the coolest and most unexpected surprises that I have ever come across while exploring. I figured it would be cool up here, but I did not expect it would be so ornate, or that the ceiling would be so detailed like this! It seems that this church is incredibly well-preserved to its original appearance, overall. Eight huge, stained glass windows surrounded me; the room was almost 20 feet across and 15 feet high.

This was truly a rare space; I can only imagine how few Detroiters have ever come up here in the past 100 years. Think about it—have you ever been up in the steeple or spire of your church?

This used to be open to the dome below; the opening has been capped off with translucent plastic panels (I assume) to cut their heating bill and keep the rain out:

This is the kind of place that only janitors really ever get to see or enjoy. One of the few perks of that crappy job.

On the opposite side of the glass-walled cupola was another tiny hatch, barely big enough for me to crawl into, and inside were several banks of random different organ pipes. Apparently I had found the orphan organ pipe storage room:

One of my readers however says that this was most likely the "echo division" of the organ, pipes that "could be played from the console and provided an antiphonal response to the main organ." I remember looking in here and initially thinking that these pipes were actually installed here, but it didn't seem to make sense at the time so I dismissed the thought.

Pulling myself back out of that cubby, I stood atop the capped atrium of the dome, and peeked out the broken windows at the skyline.

This was once a very prestigious part of the city. The church essentially sits between Arden Park and Boston-Edison, two of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Detroit. To the north was Highland Park. To the south was New Center:

At center in the photo above is the tall Hotel Seward, which I wrote about in an older post. The cartoonist who drew Betty Boop lived there during World War II. A slightly closer view shows that it had not yet lost all of its windows when this photo was taken:

To the east I could overlook the two corner turrets of the church and out across the narthex, toward the now more crumbling vestige of the Quaker Apartments across Woodward:

After spending at least half an hour up in the cupola just digging the hell out of it, I started to come down, and when I crossed the catwalk again into the main attic space, I noticed through a hole in the roof this view to the north:

What a sweet view of several different churches of "Piety Hill." The two more distant spires are Little Rock Baptist, and St. Matthew’s; St. John’s C.M.E. and Temple Beth-El are just behind the one at far left. The Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Detroit is just up the road.

I took that last shot through the same hole in the roof, so if I recall correctly I was unable to get to that ladder from where I was. I decided to go back downstairs.

This type of "lantern-dome" style of sanctuary was what Badgley was best known for, and this building is an outstanding example:

If you look closely you can see even more details of the original designs painted on the ceiling cove and arched beams:

The light fixtures themselves were in pretty excellent shape too.

Just about every surface still bore traces of its original decorative paint, if you looked close:

In fact here is another faded example of Byzantine style iconography:

Some of the windows, I noticed, bore the names of donors or benefactors to the church. This one is faded, but I think it says "Ronald Craven":

This one is in memory of Hester Lelah Darrah (1898-1914)...

There's not a lot of names that just scream "church lady" more than Hester, are there?

I found an interesting reference to this church in the book Asian Americans in Michigan, which says that the first Korean Christian church in Michigan was launched during a prayer meeting in the basement of Woodward Presbyterian, by Reverend Whang Kwan Il, Professor Rhee Choon Jai, Kim Kee Taik, and Kim Choon Kyu, on May 28, 1967. They founded what became known as the Korean Presbyterian Church of Metro-Detroit, and started at 27075 W. Nine Mile Road, in Southfield.

That meeting took place only a few weeks before the great 1967 Riot, which wreaked havoc on this section of Detroit. This church sits at the corner of W. Philadelphia Street, entire blocks of which were completely annihilated by the fires sweeping the city's west side, less than a half mile from this spot.

A blurb in Jet Magazine from the year after the riot notes that the current pastor of Woodward Presbyterian was Rev. Horace Thomas, and that he was a black minister of a still mostly white neighborhood church. The neighborhood's makeup would steadily change however from this point on, becoming almost all black by the 1980s.

In 1981 the shrinking Presbyterian Church of the Covenant (at East Grand Boulevard & Preston) merged with Woodward, according to Detroit's Historic Places of Worship. The two congregations soldiered on in this building together for several more years.

Under new leadership from Rev. Gary M. Douglas Jr., Woodward Avenue Presbyterian eventually broke off from the Presbyterian Church in 1993 and went independent, renaming itself the Abyssinia Interdenominational Church, a Baptist-leaning black congregation. A quick online search reveals that "Abyssinia" is the old name for the Ethiopian Empire, and that Ethiopia was perhaps the first Christian nation in history, although Armenia also claims the title (sorry, Texas).

With the death of Rev. Douglas in 2004, ownership of the church got tied up in the courts for several years and meanwhile the building fell victim to scrapping and lots of amateurish, over-baked HDR photos (the jury's still out on which of those two caused more damage). In 2009 the building was successfully sold to another church group but no perceptible progress on renovation materialized.

In 2011 the church building officially became 100 years old, and was used as a filming location for the movie Alex Cross (as well as several other better-known abandoned buildings across town). In late 2014 the roof was patched, I suspect using funds earned from the movie shoot, perhaps. A couple other times after that I saw more work being done, but at time of writing the building is still in sad shape.

The busted-out skylight and other problems have decayed this church terribly. But it is not yet beyond hope of salvage…or salvation, if you prefer.

The Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church is on the National Historic Register.

History of Wayne County, Vol. 1, Clarence M. Burton, et al, p. 716
AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill, John Gallagher, p. 184
Detroit's Historic Places of Worship, by Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger, Dorothy Kostuch, p. 150-151
Asian Americans in Michigan: Voices from the Midwest, by Sook Wilkinson, p. 136
Jet, October 3, 1968, p. 9
Tracy W. McGregor: Humanitarian, Philanthropist, and Detroit Civic Leader, by Dr. Philip P. Mason, p. 26
Fiftieth Anniversary, 1908-1958, Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, by L.A. Komjathy, p. 76
"Brucker Spurs Army-AF Feud," Detroit Free Press, May 30, 1959, p. 8
"Church Notes 50th Birthday," Detroit Free Press, October 18, 1958, p. 8


  1. Interestingly enough, Herbert Hudnut, the pastor od Woodwars Avenue Presbyterian, was the uncle of William Hudnut III, former mayor of Indianapolis, Ind., former mayor of Chevy Chase, and, and a Presbyterian minister himself. Hudnut's father (Herbert's younger brother) was also a minister, as was Herbert's and William II's father.

  2. The "orphan organ pipe storage room" was likely the echo division of the organ. The pipes could be played from the console and provided an antiphonal response to the main organ.

    1. Neat...i was wondering about that while i was there. It kind of looked like they were actually installed there, but then i thought "that's ridiculous, why would they be installed all the way up here?"

  3. Here is some additional information on the organ: http://database.organsociety.org/SingleOrganDetails.php?OrganID=9615

    David Enos

  4. Updated Pipe Organ info link: https://pipeorgandatabase.org/OrganDetails.php?OrganID=9615


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