Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
Architect: William Henry Miller
In 1826, under the guidance of the Reverend O.C. Comstock of Trumansburg, a small group of Tompkins County residents adopted the name of the First Baptist Church of Christ of Ithaca and began meeting regularly in the Tompkins County Courthouse, located at the northeast corner of Dewitt Park, currently the site of the Old County Courthouse. The growing congregation purchased land adjacent to DeWitt Park and built a 47 by 70-foot wooden building, topped by a 110-foot high spire featuring a clock. When the church was lost to a fire in January of 1854, the congregation wasted no time raising money to build a brick church in the Gothic Revival-style, completed in 1855.
The Reverend Robert T. Jones, an Englishman who came to Ithaca in 1880 with the help of Cornell's President Schurman, embarked on an ambitious plan to "pull down the old building and make room for a larger more modern one." Together they secured pledges from various community members and well-connected businessmen, including John D. Rockefeller, who provided $12,000 toward construction with the requirement that the amount be matched by other contributors within a specific period of time. Ithaca architect William Henry Miller donated his services to design the third church.
Construction of the rusticated grey limestone, Romanesque Revival- style building was completed in 1890. String courses of local Llenroc siltstone form the canted window sills and the decorative belt courses on the stepped gable end of the main facade. This gable-end is trimmed with copper and topped with a carved cross. A notable feature of the church is the tower that tapers upward and is terminated with a pyramid-shaped, copper trimmed, slate roof. Near the top, the taper brings into relief "pillars" at three corners and, at the fourth, an elongated corner "turret."
In 1974, facing expensive structural repairs and changing educational and programming needs, the congregation considered demolition of the building and sale of their property. The plan, however, became the subject of local controversy and instead of demolition the church initiated a substantial fundraising effort to repair and renovate in 1977. The work allowed the church to achieve the desired flexibility of space and uses on the interior. The church's original sloped floor was leveled as part of the 1977-78 remodeling. With the removal of some of the original seating, two corner offices were created adjacent to the entrance doors. Original interior features include the curved wooden pews and a raised pulpit with the baptistery and organ pit located behind the altar. The two Ohio sandstone columns, with their carved angel capitals, were free-standing with additional seating under these small "side chapels."
The main sanctuary's vaulted ceiling is on an east-west axis, supported by three wooden crossbeam truss assemblies. William Henry Miller's original interior has been described as having a “rose-brick color overlaid with the same gold stenciling used on the vaulted ceiling." The pale wainscot surrounding the sanctuary and the gas-operated candelabras mounted on the south and north walls are also original features. The large window on the west wall of the main sanctuary was dedicated to the Reverend Robert Jones, who served the church for 35 years. Remodeling in the 1920s created the current "choir loft" and exposed a large, round-arched window above the chancel. The chancel was renovated in 1932 to accommodate a new organ. The north-south corridors lead to the assembly room with offices located in the rear of the building.
The building's interior features are inspiring, its details subtle and its natural light pleasing. The exterior of the building is handsome and notable for its use of natural materials. The First Baptist Church is included in the locally designated DeWitt Park Historic District and is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Religious Buildings in Downtown Ithaca