In my world, $10 million is a lot of money. For downtown development it’s not small, though we now have some projects which are larger. Assume it’s one of the big developers? An out-of-town investment group? How about one of the oldest groups in downtown – like a group that started right around ’92? As in 1792.
First Presbyterian Church has embarked on a $10 million construction project, designed by Johnson Architecture, which will certainly impact their congregation in positive ways, but they hope will also enhance downtown. I met with Reverend William Pender who told me the investment reflects the church’s commitment to the downtown they have been a part of since almost the beginning.
James White donated his turnip patch for a church and a cemetery and turnips continue to be a symbol for the church as a result. Samuel Carrick, first president of UT (Blount College) served as minister at the church. James Park served as minister, as well, living in the home named for his father – which still stands and is one of the oldest existing homes downtown. Each of them are buried in the cemetery beside the church. The church is almost as old as the city.
Reverend Pender moved to Knoxville from Rock Hill, South Carolina in 2008. After accepting the pastorate at the downtown church, he and his wife decided their choice of a home should reflect their commitment to the urban environment and they moved into Crown Court after a lifetime in suburbia. He said they have loved it and he can’t imagine having to mow a lawn again.
The oldest building owned by the church is the sanctuary which dates to 1903. The stained glass windows are beautiful, as you can see in the photos, and reflect a hundred years of shifting stained glass style, as the church purchased them as it could. Several have interesting stories, including one donated by the family which owned White Lily Flour – which obviously would include a depiction of the fishes and loaves. A beautiful mosaic in the front of the sanctuary may be the most striking feature. Donated by a church member, it was constructed by an Italian artisan.
The current project will address a number of issues with the current facility and, hopefully, help the church to remain relevant for another century in downtown. Reverend Pender said, “We don’t want to build a museum or a monument,” rather they want to have a facility that adds to the life of the city. Worship there is traditional and, while he is pleased others may find what they seek in a contemporary service, the goal at First Presbyterian is to make a traditional service feel vital and current.
The money for the project comes largely from a donation the church received in 2005 from the estate of Kaptola “K” McMurry. Land on either side of Cedar Bluff Road was left to the church and that land was sold five years later. A committee, set up by the donor, administers the money from the sale according to her priorities. The committee matched the congregation’s fund-raising 4-1, meaning the congregation brought $2 million to the table.
So what will they do with all that money? Some of it may seem a bit archaic – they plan to have their magnificent pipe organ restored. Yes, they could get a modern system, but they feel a commitment to the beautiful instrument. It’s sixty years old and pipe organs require attention over time. They’ll also address the fact that the building has evolved into a labyrinth of confusing interconnections. An opening through the center of the building will provide new entrances and easy connections to the various portions of the building.
The building was obviously built in a time before ADA regulations and a number of related issues will be addressed. An elevator is being constructed between the sanctuary and chapel, where a newer portion of the building once stood. Another is being added to the rear of the building, providing ground-level entrances with elevator access from either end of the building.
Choir members, who have had to climb two flights of stairs to attend practice, will now be able to access the entire building via elevators. Of course, the HVAC system is far past its overdue date and will be replaced. Simple deferred maintenance will also be included addressing issues like duct-taped carpet in the hallways.
The cemetery is also being reopened – in a manner of speaking. Burials were stopped in the 1850s, as the cemetery filled, but ashes have been allowed to be scattered in one area. A new option will now be available with the addition of a columbarium along the retaining wall of the cemetery. If being buried among three centuries of Presbyterians appeals to you, this may be your spot.
It’s quite a list. If, as they hope, money remains in the budget, they hope to cover the north parking lot with an elevated courtyard, which would serve as a gathering place for events, such as weddings – and maybe for things like First Friday launches. The courtyard – or patio – would overlook the cemetery on one side and the transportation center on the other.
One of the cool discoveries of the work was an open space in the center of the various portions of the building. This will be used as the north-south corridor. It also yielded a pleasant surprise in the discovery of large granite curb or wall pieces which were unused and sitting in the hidden inner portion between buildings. Turns out they needed more of these stones to make the new construction match the older construction.
It is important to Reverend Pender and the congregation that the church facilities not be seen as simply a place for gathering one hour a week. Numerous groups use the building and are charged only custodial fees. The Community School for the Arts uses the facility and has about 150 students come through weekly taking all manner of music lessons.
You’ll also find AMACHI, an organization devoted to mentoring children whose parents are in the state or federal prison system. The Tennessee Stage Company uses it as their primary rehearsal space for Shakespeare on the Square. AA and Al Anon also use the facility. In fact, and given that list, this may not surprise you, Reverend Pender says during the course of any given week there are likely more non-members than members walking through the church.
It’s another example the commitment and confidence so many feel right now for downtown Knoxville. We may not think of churches as economic drivers of the city’s resurgence, but here is one church making a major investment to demonstrate their commitment. They are also reaching out beyond the church’s traditional ministries to be a part of making our city better. And they’ve been doing it for 224 years. Stop by and see what they are up to.