You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or historic building in Wilmington. From its towering steeple, to its exquisite stained glass windows, First Presbyterian Church on Third Street has always had a ‘wow’ factor.
Lately, you may have noticed scaffolding on the front of the church. WWAY’s Ann McAdams tells us a little about the history of the church, and what’s going on with the renovation.
You may not have known this is actually the 4th building to go by the name First Presbyterian Church in the City of Wilmington. The first church was built in 1818. In the years since, the church has burned to the ground 3 times. But members always rallied to rebuild, and First Presbyterian has become a fixture of the Port City.
Over the years, the church has welcomed some of this country’s most famous citizens as members. In 1874, Woodrow Wilson’s father served as the pastor here, and the future president lived in Wilmington for a year before leaving for college at Princeton. Henry Bacon, the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, grew up in this church. Other families who were active at First Presbyterian, like the Sprunt’s and the Kenan’s, were some of the most prominent families in the state’s history. In the 1920’s some of those families helped build the church that now stands along 3rd Street.
“They went to New York and got Hobart Upjohn, who was a 3rd generation Upjohn architect, and got the best stained glass window people in the country so that’s one of the things I’m most proud about, about the fact that they did this building the absolute best,” said FAIA/architect and lifelong member Charles H. Boney.
After 80 years of hurricanes and general wear and tear, the concrete on the church tower and steeple is literally disintegrating, and pieces of concrete have fallen to the ground.
“Anytime it rains hard, and particularly if the wind is blowing, the water comes inside, and what they’ve said is the damage is mostly outside now, but it starts coming inside, and creates even bigger problems if we wait,” said Pastor Ernie Thompson. “The engineer has said it probably won’t collapse unless there’s a high wind situation, but unfortunately on the coast, that happens, so that’s the urgency is to start before the hurricane season reaches its peak.”
A firm out of Greensboro that specializes in historic renovations is restoring the color and the masonry of the church’s steeple and bell tower. It will be a structural improvement as well as a cosmetic one for the 750 families that are members of this church, as well as city residents who enjoy the view of the Wilmington skyline.
“A lot of folks are first attracted to the church simply by the beauty of the building, and many people have told me that when they come into it, they feel a sense of God’s presence simply by being here,” Thompson said.
George Edwards of the Historic Wilmington Foundation said, “I’m not a member here, I’ve been in the church a couple of times, and it’s always heart warming to see a congregation who decides that they will recommit to restoring the physical building. The church is not the building. The church is the people, but buildings are important for churches, particularly when they have history.”
The renovations will cost a little more than 3 million dollars. Despite the economic hard times, the church has already raised almost 2 million dollars towards that goal.