A Distinguished Past
The Old Stone Church, long a downtown Cleveland landmark, has a congregation dating back to 1820. Officially known as The First Presbyterian Society, it was founded at a time when Cleveland was just a village of a few hundred people. As Cleveland has grown in size and importance, The Old Stone Church has kept pace, becoming a symbol of spiritual leadership, community involvement and stability in the heart of the city.
The sixteen Christian men and women who met on September 19, 1820, to sign the charter formally establishing the First Presbyterian Church were members of a Bible class which had met for a year under the direction of Elisha Taylor. Among them was Rebecca Carter who with her husband, Lorenzo, had been the first permanent white settlers in Cleveland. A variety of sites, including a one-room schoolhouse and the log courthouse, served as meeting places for the fledgling church. Finally, in 1827, The First Presbyterian Society was incorporated, with the primary purpose of building a permanent home for the congregation.
The first church building was dedicated on February 26, 1834, on the northwest corner of Public Square, the historical center of downtown Cleveland. The building, of Tuscan-style architecture, was built of gray sandstone. It was the first stone church in Cleveland and was known as “The Stone Church.” Later, as the sandstone darkened, the name became The Old Stone Church.
Dedicating the Church was the Rev. John Keep, the last of six home missionaries recruited by the Connecticut Missionary Service for “frontier service” to Congregational and Presbyterian groups. The year following the dedication, the first Pastor, Samuel Aiken, was called. He served more than 25 years, establishing a precedent for exceptionally long pastoral tenure throughout the history of The Old Stone Church.
In 1853, reflecting the rapid growth of Cleveland, the congregation was outgrowing the sanctuary which had been erected just 20 years earlier. A new church, built on the site of the original structure, was dedicated on August 12, 1855. The massive foundation and walls were constructed of sandstone, lined with brick, at a cost of $60,000.
Nineteen months later, on March 7, 1857, a disastrous fire hit The Old Stone Church and spread from the roof to the 250-ft. steeple, which swayed and crashed across Ontario Street. Amasa Stone led the successful struggle to rebuild on the original property, and the renovated church was dedicated on January 17, 1858. Later, galleries and another graceful spire were completed.
During the following twenty-five years many social service organizations were formed by Old Stone members, directed toward moral and social problems. These included the YMCA, the YWCA, Children’s Aid Society, Western Seamen’s Society, Lakeside Hospital, The Goodrich Society, and the first Cleveland medical school.
A Service of Thanksgiving was held at the end of the Civil War, and a new Peace Bell raised in the belfry. As Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege stopped at Public Square, people were called to his memorial service at the church by the tolling of the massive bell (now installed in front of the church, facing Public Square).
Old Stone is the only remaining building to have been in existence during the lighting of Public Square with Charles Brush’s arc light in 1879.
The building was struck by another severe fire on January 5, 1884. John Foote, Samuel E. Williamson and Col. John Hay convinced the congregation that the historic site was worth preserving. Work began immediately, with architect Charles Schweinfurth employed to guide the restoration. Mr. Schweinfurth was new to Cleveland and Old Stone’s renovation was the first of many important commercial architectural contributions he was to make to the city.
While Old Stone’s walls required few repairs, the interior needed to be completely reconstructed. The steeple was declared unsafe and removed. The restored church, dedicated on October 19, 1884, is essentially the church you see today. A recent capital campaign resulted in cleaning and repairing the church, re-landscaping, and restoring the steeple. The Sanctuary was also renovated.
Parish House/Old Stone Center
When plans were made for the Sanctuary in 1853, they included an adjacent building on Ontario Street to provide for a chapel, Sunday School rooms and “church parlors.” The building was completed months before the Sanctuary was dedicated in 1855. The fires of 1857 and 1884 caused only minor damage to this building and it continued to be used until 1893, when a new chapel was completed. In 1921, largely through the generosity of Sereno P. Fenn, the commercial building and land north of the church property were acquired. The building was renovated in 1926 to serve as Old Stone’s Parish House.
In 1961, members and friends of the church financed the construction of a new building to replace the chapel and Parish House. This four-story building (opened in 1962) provided space for a chapel, church school facilities, staff offices, meeting rooms, Memorial Hall and a large kitchen. The chapel, a gift of Mrs. Margaret Rusk Griffiths, was a memorial to her husband, Edwin S. Griffiths. From 1966 to 1983, the chapel served as the worship center for the Cleveland Chinese Christian Church.
The Parish House has been extensively renovated and renamed Old Stone Center. A lift was installed to provide handicapped access to the building and church and a Columbarium was installed and dedicated. Today, many organizations use the building for meetings and an alternative public school is housed on its third floor.
A Vibrant Present
The Old Stone Church is working hard to continue its historic tradition of community involvement and spiritual leadership in the heart of the Western Reserve. Old Stone has become known as a great Protestant worship and activity center, and a “church for all people.” Every Sunday morning during the year, worship services are open to all.
Its presence on Public Square makes the church a focal point for events of civic importance, such as funerals and memorial services for local dignitaries. Weddings at Old Stone have always been popular among couples from a wide geographical area and representing a variety of denominations. Some weddings mark the third or fourth generation within a family to be married at the church.
Members are drawn to Old Stone from throughout Cuyahoga and surrounding counties, with a growing number living downtown. Many visitors to Cleveland enjoy touring the church or attending services, including fans of professional sports who visit before attending afternoon games.
At the center of the downtown area, the church serves as a convenient meeting place for civic and service organizations. Most of these groups use the facilities of The Old Stone Center, which features a variety of meeting rooms and complete food service capabilities.
Ministry to the community is a commitment of the greatest importance to Old Stone Church. Social services include counseling, direct aid and referrals to appropriate agencies. The alternative public school provides an academic and childcare center for young adults to complete their high school education. Other public ministries include pastoral counseling, special prayer and music services, as well as sponsorship of events supporting charities.
In honor of Old Stone Church’s year-long 175th anniversary celebration in 1994/95, publication of a new book entitled Old Stone Church: In the Heart of the City Since 1820, by Dr. Jeanette E. Tuve, presents an illustrated history of the church and its strong ties with the history of Cleveland. It is available at the church.
Arts and Architecture
The design of The Old Stone Church is Victorian Romanesque. Golden oak and dark mahogany paneling, graceful carvings, a spacious balcony, and an impressive trussed wood, barrel-vaulted ceiling with a clerestory area on both sides (which at one time let light filter in through stained glass windows which still exist high above) highlight the 600 seat Sanctuary. The chancel walls feature symbols and inscriptions painted in a gold stenciled pattern.
Outstanding stained-glass windows were added during the years following the Sanctuary restoration of 1884. In 1885, the window overlooking Public Square was dedicated in memory of Amasa Stone. This magnificent window was designed and executed by John LaFarge.
In the same year, the first of four Louis Comfort Tiffany windows was also dedicated: “The Recording Angel” (east wall). In 1915, a second Tiffany window, “Beside the Still Waters” (west wall), was given. “Christ Blessing Little Children,” designed by J. and R. Lamb, was added to the east wall in 1920. Two additional Tiffany windows were dedicated in 1930: “The Sower” on the east wall; “I Am the Resurrection and the Life” on the west wall. Both of these windows are signed.
In 1967, “Paul’s Conversion on the Damascus Road” (east wall) was built by Nobis Studios in North Canton and dedicated. The remaining windows were dedicated between 1974 and 1976. They include the Stouffer Window (east wall) and, on the west wall, the Bicentennial Window and the Ecumenical Window. The latter commemorates the 1968 meeting at the Vatican between Dr. Lewis Raymond, then Pastor of The Old Stone Church, and Pope Paul VI.
The Amasa Stone window by John LaFarge was restored in 2000 by the Conrad Schmitt Studios. Between 2005 and 2008, three of the Louis Comfort Tiffany windows and the J. and R. Lamb window were removed and restored by the Whitney Stained Glass Studio of Cleveland, Ohio.
Music at Old Stone
An impressive feature of our Sanctuary is the organ. The present instrument is a mechanical-action organ of 42 stops, built by Cleveland’s internationally-famous Holtkamp Company and dedicated in 1976. This organ replaced a 1925 instrument built by Ernest Skinner; however, the ornate casework around the organ dates back to an organ presented in 1895 and built by William A. Johnson. The earliest organ described in church records was one built by Jardine & Sons, installed in 1856.
Old Stone is known for a long tradition of fine choral music. Church records refer to a choir in 1841 and a professional quartet of singers as early as 1876. Building upon a rich tradition of fine choral singing, the Old Stone Choir is a blend of professional singers and congregational volunteers. Our main function is to lead in worship on Sunday mornings. In addition, we perform concerts and Services of Music throughout the year, most noticeably our annual participation in the lighting of Public Square on Thanksgiving weekend.
Old Stone offers an exciting learning adventure for children with our Children’s Choir. These talented kids sing a wide range of songs with vigor, and are an anticipated participant in worship services every month.
Old Stone’s famous carillon and tower clock, gifts of Mrs. Margaret Rusk Griffiths, were dedicated in 1946. After more than three decades of use, the carillon fell into disrepair and was not played for several years. It was repaired and put back into service in the fall of 1987, and once again renovated during the steeple replacement. In 2006, a new keyboard for the carillon was installed in the organ loft.
Preserving the Foundation for Our Future Ministry
Sacred space in the midst of our city is the focus of The Old Stone Church. This historic sanctuary offers “gates” from the life on Public Square to sacred reality. Among the earliest pioneers who came to the Western Reserve were people of faith who sought to establish an appropriate spiritual dimension in civic life through Old Stone and other early Cleveland churches. Through two centuries, Old Stone leaders helped shape initiatives in education, health care, social service and commerce in Cleveland. Today’s members dedicate their congregation’s ministries to serve as a beacon for all and to provide the following expressions of the spiritual dimension in downtown life:
- sanctuary as a place of quiet that offers hope
- inspiration through worship, sacred music, and faithful presence
- nurture for members and neighbors
- service with our surrounding community.