For a brief moment Friday, I stood where Mark Twain once did — where Frederick Douglass spoke, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, President Woodrow Wilson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Booker T. Washington.
I stood behind the pulpit and looked out over the sun-filled sanctuary of the First Church in Oberlin, a space designed by evangelist Charles Finney so he could look squarely in the eyes of everyone seated within.
Now changes are coming to the church, which hopes to raise $1.4 million this spring.
Pending approval by the city’s historic preservation commission, church leaders have a list of renovations they plan to pursue.
It includes reconstruction of the chancel, where a large, fixed pulpit dating back to 1928 will be removed. The goal is to restore the platform, according to historian Laurel Price Jones.
“For a long time, the Meeting House was used for everything. It was used for debates. It was used to worship. It was used for demonstrations. The telephone was demonstrated here,” she said.
After the construction of Finney Chapel, with another venue available for events, the pulpit was installed. Church leaders — including Jones, Michael Schmid, and Dale Preston — told us the platform space should be more flexible.
Paint, new carpet, energy-efficient lighting, new electrical service, and installation of a small elevator are also planned. Pew cushions, which are 110 years old, will also be replaced.
Ten windows that extend the full height of the Meeting House will be repaired.
Some have cracked glass; sills need replaced and all need new caulk and paint. When restoration is complete, they’ll get storm windows and screens, too.
“If nothing is done for those windows, we will lose them and that’s not acceptable,” said Jones.
Sandstone steps at the front of First Church have settled and must be fixed. Schmid said the plan is to remove them, lay a new foundation, and restore as many of the original slabs as possible.
Jones said the church’s iconic cupola will also get attention. It’s steel crown has corroded, as have the anchors that hold it to the roof.
An outdoor terrace is also planned for the green space along North Main Street. It will provide ramped access and a powered door to the church.
First Church has launched a capital campaign for the projects.
It already has $300,000 in cash on hand and slightly more than that amount in grant pledges from the Ohio Historic Preservation Office and the National Fund of Sacred Places.
The congregation is doing its part and now First Church is looking to the community in hopes of finding another $500,000.
Jones said the church is important not just as a landmark but also because it has been central to Oberlin’s mission through the years.
When it was built in 1842, it boasted the largest auditorium west of the Allegheny Mountains. It drew notable speakers from near and far and established a legacy of abolitionism, women’s rights, temperance, and civil rights.
“The Meeting House — by any standard, not just in Oberlin — is a really important building because of the early history of Oberlin as a colony, using education to produce reform,” Jones said.
“Because there was this fervor and because abolition then became a cause, a tremendous amount of important things happened from the Meeting House.”
It remains important, said Preston: More than 100 organizations hold events each year at First Church, from The MAD Factory to the Oberlin Heritage Center to the Oberlin Choristers.
More than 1,000 people visit the church each year on historical tours, usually in groups of 20 or 30.
All told, an estimated 20,000 people pass through the church doors every year, Jones said.