Martha Whaley and Rev. Donnley Dutcher relax in the solitude of the Fireplace Room at the First Congregational Church. Stained glass adds to the beauty of light to most rooms in the church.
First Congregational Church added to Historical Register
It was May 12, 1895 and the Rev.Theodore Crowl had a special message for his flock. It was time to build a new church. In 1897 the congregation erected a stately sandstone and brick building on the corner of Second Avenue and Fourth Street
Almost 100 years later the US department of the Interior had some good news for the 300 members of the First Congregational Church in Sterling. Their house of worship had been added to the National Register of Historical Places.
Martha Whaley was raised in the church. “I was baptized in this church about a 1,000 years ago” she jokes as she passes the baptismal font.
Whaley headed the drive to place the building on the prestigious list. Her quest began in February 1994 during a committee session for the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society.
Society member Estella Metcalfe had organized a kickoff meeting for people involved in the organization's ongoing survey of historic structures. Peoria architect Leslie Kenyon was there to talk about preservation and improvement of downtown areas. Metcalfe and Whaley did not know he had visited Sterling only two weeks before. Kenyon was showing slides of significant structures when something familiar flashed on the screen.
“All of a sudden a picture of this church appeared and Estella and I just gasped,” Whaley said. ‘He said if this isn't on the National Register of Historical Places it should be.’”
Whaley, a volunteer at the Society Museum, went to work.
She gathered and sent to Kenyon some newspaper articles about the church that had been printed in the Sterling Standard about 100 years ago. She later attended an Illinois State Historic Preservation Society workshop.
Whaley prepared a detailed application. In it she told officials that the building should be considered for the Register because it is “an excellent example of a Richardsonian Romanesque religious building.”
“Romanesque architecture as interpreted (by) Henry Hobson Richardson (1838 - 1886) created a sense of quiet mass, simplicity and a richness of texture,” she wrote. “The heavy stone foundations seem to rise from roots sunk deep in the subsoil and represent solidity, stability and security.”
One famous example of the style is Trinity church, built between 1872 and 1877 on Copley Square in Boston.
Designed for the congregation by architect Wesley Arnold the Sterling church incorporates the characteristics of Richardson’s style. From the arches to its lofty towers, high roofs, transom ribbon windows, it's trims and columns, the church carries the architect's signature as interpreted by Arnold, the son of a Methodist minister.
The church's stained glass windows are one of Richardson's features. While adding a rich beauty to the inside, they also have a sensible side.
“With practicality always in mind these smaller outside windows had pastel colors so that the outside light would help illuminate the inside and save on the new electricity bills.” Whaley reported to the Register.
“We can really get along on a sunny day without any lights,” she said during a recent tour of the church. “These delicate little ones (in the narthex) I love.”
According to Whaley's research, the octagonal sanctuary with its lofty arches is based on what was called the “Akron plan,” which had been adopted for Methodist houses of worship in the 18th century by the founder of the faith, John Wesley.
Rich oak beams soar above the pews placed on a gentle slope in a semicircle around the pulpit. Huge wooden doors that roll up and disappear separate the sanctuary from the lecture fellowship room, the fireplace room and the kitchen.
Whaley credits the doors with helping her along with her schooling. When she was a girl, what is now the fellowship room housed the Sunday school. The doors bore the name of the church.
“Boy I learned how to spell ‘Congregational Church’ that way,” Whaley said.
The doors would be rolled up and out of the way when the congregation needed more room for special events, or when the Sunday school was to be involved in the regular service.
The First Congregational Church is the only one of its kind in Whiteside County, according to Whaley's report.
“This church is an exquisite example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, a uniquely American style of architecture. Such examples in Whiteside County are rare indeed. Thus, the first Congregational Church of Sterling merits listing on the National Register of Historic Places,” she wrote in the application.
After gathering all of this information, plus countless other details about the history of the congregation and its church, paperwork was submitted to the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council.
On Sept. 15 the state council recommended that nine sites in Illinois be included in the Register, among them the Sterling church and the Buffalo Township Public Library in Polo. It sent the nomination to the state historic preservation officer, who then nominated the sites to the Department of the Interior for listing in the Register. Approval came Nov. 7.
No immediate celebrations are planned, although a committee is working on centennial observances in 1997 and 1998, according to Whaley.