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Museums in our midst II

June 27, 2011

Display in the First Presbyterian Church's Sacred Art Gallery of building ornaments and other artifacts found in the sanctuary basement.

Pieces of Victorian architectural ornament from Birmingham’s First Presbyterian Church, found buried in the sanctuary basement, were exhumed recently and installed as a mini-museum exhibit.

Ralph Hare, a draftsman and member of the church’s “property team”,  found pieces of terra cotta, decorative brickwork and stone, slate roof tiles, faux keystones, and stained glass on a trip to check a leaky steam line. The pieces, dating to the 1880s-1920, appear to be the remains of the 1926 renovation that shifted the main entrance from 21st Street North to Fourth Avenue.

Some terra cotta (molded, kiln-fired clay) objects are etched with catalog numbers brick masons used to place each piece, Hare said. Sunday school kids (and adults) can learn more about the church by hunting the matching pieces on the present building. Others are open to speculation: One of the largest ornaments fit into the apex of a gable, now gone, and for which no photographs exist.

Tossed out as construction rubble, the pieces today tell about a lost craft of builders and artisans, and the powerful position Birmingham’s first church once held, he said.

Three ridge cap sections used to ornament the church roof, now on display at First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham.

“Most church archives are collections of pictures and things that once meant something to somebody, but not any longer,” he said. The labor and expense lavished on church architecture, on the other hand, reflects the worldly positions of early members–the Rushtons, Henleys and Linns–whose names are familiar today.  Names of Linn family members are etched on a marble baptismal font commissioned by Vulcan sculptor Guiseppe Moretti.

“It shows why we shouldn’t knock down churches, or any building,” Hare said.

Among the artifacts on display are:

  • Roofing ridge caps, some cleaned and one encrusted with coal soot from the city’s industrial days.
  • Decorative “fascia” keystones, hollowed out, from the 21st Street exterior wall.  True structural keystones were solid and made of stone to withstand compression.
  • Two decorative bricks of similar pattern, one handmade of terra cotta and one mass-produced.
  • A collection of picture postcards printed in the 1950s.

    Terra cotta ridge cap fragment, cleaned, showing surface detail.

  • An ordinary leaded glass window, probably damaged when “someone tripped in the bell tower,” Hare said.
  • A cut-stone plinth, or foundation base, on which rested vertical support columns, reaching to the roof. Thirty are at work supporting the present sanctuary.

Hare brought the exhibition to our attention last week when he came to visit the Birmingham History Center and buy a membership. Don’t overlook churches in telling Birmingham’s story, he said.
“Churches were the seats of power,” Hare said. “They became systems, and how many people question the system they’re in?” As the civil rights movement later revealed, the whole history of segregation was preserved in such power structures, Hare said. (First Presbyterian’s pastor, Edward Ramage, was one of the clergy addressed in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed letter from the Birmingham Jail.)

“That’s the theological problem–when people give up knowing a central truth,” he said.

Mysterious exterior gable ornament likely decorated a main entrance, now gone.

"Fascia" keystones, clean and dirty

A little history 

The “Old First” Presbyterian church dated to an 1858 Elyton congregation that moved its frame building to Birmingham in 1872 as promoters pitched the new city.  The frame building was replaced with the current sanctuary in 1888. No photos or images are known to exist.

First Presbyterian was the very first of five original churches sited downtown, along with First Baptist (moved in 1987 to Homewood, original building demolished), Cathedral Church of the Advent, First (United) Methodist, and St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Temple Emanu-el’s first synagogue was on Fifth Avenue North and 17th Street, but moved in 1914 to Highland Avenue.

And some commentary

Among the city’s influential first churches, First Presbyterian was second to only one other congregation, Hare said.  The Advent alone was situated on the city’s 20th Street main thoroughfare, the work, Hare believes, of the even more powerful Episcopalian city leaders and developers.  “There was a pecking order,” Hare said. “When you look at the map, you can see it.”

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