Designated: Landmark Building Exterior
105 Courtland Street, N.E.
The First Congregational Church, located on the northeast corner of Courtland and Houston Streets, is a modestly-scaled example of early twentieth century eclectic religious architecture. It incorporates many aspects of Italian Renaissance vernacular and some elements of the Spanish Mission style in an original composition intended for a dense urban situation.
The First Congregational Church is significant to the history of the black community in Atlanta, not only through its spiritual leadership since its conception in 1867, but also through its activities of a social and humanitarian nature. The architecture is representative of the Beaux-Arts Classical Revival style and was designed by two of Atlanta's most notable architects.
The First Congregational Church, founded in 1867, was one of the most socially-conscious churches during the period from 1890 to 1930. The Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor, who came to First Church in 1894 as its first black minister, verbalized some of the contributions that First Church made to the black community:
At the time it [First Church] was opened, it met in each of its facilities a special need. There was no YMCA for colored young men in the city, and ours was the only gymnasium in the city for that group. There was no YWCA in the city, and our home for young colored women was the only one of its kind in Atlanta. There was an employment bureau, and in this we served the people of both races in the city. A water fountain outside the church [breaking the color line] was the first water fountain opened in the city. Our trouble bureau was a clinic for all sorts of ills. Our prison mission served the man at the very bottom. Our Music Festival brought the best musical talent of the race to the city, and attracted great audiences of both races. . . .
In the period after the church opened, it offered its members a day nursery, classes in domestic science, and industrial classes for the blind. Furthermore, the Atlanta Interracial Commission, formed in 1919; the National Medical Association, organized in 1894; and the city's first black Boy Scout troop were all organized in First Church. The church provided many facilities to accommodate these activities. Besides having an auditorium to seat 1000 people and a basement that contained Sunday School facilities, there were a library and a reading room, a gymnasium, a kitchen, a shower bath, an engine room, and lavatories.
Some of its past and present members are Norris B. Herndon, son of the founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company; Robert E. Pharrow, who built the present structure at First Church; NAACP executive Walter White's family; Henry A. Rucker's family; Mayor Andrew Young's family; the family of Georgia Assemblywoman Grace Townes Hamilton; and Jesse O. Thomas, former director of the Atlanta Urban League. The reason for such an august group of individuals is the influence of Atlanta University which was founded by Congregationalists. Booker T. Washington spoke at the dedication ceremonies of First Church in 1909.
THE FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
It should be noted that the first church building of the First Congregational Church, which the present building replaced, was built in the late 1860s. This original building was a smaller, red brick, medieval-style building with a single spire.
In plan, the First Congregational Church is essentially a rectangle with its long axis oriented north-south. In mass, it is cross gabled, with projecting square or rectangular towers at the northwest, southwest, and southeast corners. Above the auditorium, centered in the crossing, is a stained glass skylight in the form of a Renaissance dome. The principal facade faces south on Houston Street and features a gable, with a rose window above and an arcaded entry porch under a shed roof below, flanked on either side by projecting corner towers. A facade of secondary importance faces west on Courtland Street; it also features a gable, but with a Roman-arched window above and tripartite windows on the main floor level below, flanked by a corner tower to the south and a larger projecting rectangular mass to the north. The east elevation is similar to the west, but simpler in its detailing and painted uniformly white. The north end of the building, which originally faced adjacent buildings on the block, is a simple gable, painted white, with plain segmental-arched windows.
A major design feature of the First Congregational Church is a projecting tower at the southwest corner of the building. Square in plan, the tower is set on a raised foundation and rises through two stories to a cornice, above which is an arched belfry capped by a pyramidal tiled roof, above and below which are tall, narrow, round-headed stained glass windows paired at the lintels. Simple, widely-spaced modillions decorate the underside of the eaves. This tower not only provides a focus for the architectural design of the building but also, by standing at the corner of the street intersection, helps relate the church to its urban environment and identifies it as a landmark building.
Other notable design features characterize the exterior of First Church. Tall, narrow, round-headed stained glass windows are set singly or in pairs on the south, east, and west facades, and occasional round windows with quadrant keystones highlight these elevations. Of particular note is a stained glass window of Abraham Lincoln, whose role as The Great Emancipator is thus revered. The entrance porch, painted white to distinguish it from the mass of the building, has an arcade of paired Ionic columns rising/descending with the entry stairways and a curvilinear gable over the main entrance. A similar curvilinear gable rises above the west side of the northwest tower, facing Courtland Street. One of the outstanding features originally found on the outside of the church was the Connally water fountain, which provided a much-needed service to the black passerby of earlier generations.
The entire church building is constructed of masonry. Materials consist almost exclusively of smooth, hard, buff-colored brick laid in common bond on a raised foundation of rough-faced, random ashlar stone masonry. Details such as lintels, sills, and copings are executed in light- colored cut stone. Tiles are used on the tower roof.
The church was designed by Alexander Campbell Bruce and Arthur Greene Everett. Bruce moved to Atlanta in 1879 and formed a partnership with Thomas H. Morgan. He was the co-architect for the Georgia Institute of Technology, the county courthouse, Confederate Veterans Home, Kesee Lee Building, and North Avenue Presbyterian Church. Outside of Atlanta, his works included the Cotton Exchange in Mobile, Alabama, and the Newton County Courthouse in Covington, Georgia. Bruce was the first member of the Atlanta Institute of Architects to locate in Atlanta. His work on First Congregational Church was done after his retirement in 1905. Everett practiced most of his life in Boston, where he designed the Journal Building and dormitories at Harvard College, among others. He worked for several years with McKim, Mead, and White in New York, and during that time, he assisted with the plans for the Boston Public Library. Like Bruce, his work at First Church took place after his retirement. In 1891, he became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and served as city building commissioner of Boston. The builder, Robert E. Pharrow, was a black Atlantan and member of this church.
Porter, Michael Leroy. "Black Atlanta: An Interdisciplinary Study of Blacks on the East side of Atlanta, 1890-1930" (Atlanta: doctoral dissertation, Emory University, 1975).
Porter, Michael Leroy. National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination form, 1979.
Proctor, Henry H. Between Black and White, Autobiographical Sketches (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1925).
Voice of the People, March 1, 1902; "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Celebration of Homer C. McEwen, pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ" (1972).
Russell, David Alexander, Jr. "The Institutional Church in Transition: A Study of First Congregational Church of Atlanta, Georgia" (Atlanta: Atlanta University thesis, 1971).
Houston Street wall plaque on First Church building.
Withey, Henry F. and Elsie Rathburn. Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased). (Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc., 1970).
Group I (3)
The proposed nomination of First Congregational Church meets the above-referenced criteria for a Landmark Building or Site as set out in Section 16-20.004 of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Atlanta.