The Rise and Fall of Central Church


by Gayle Keiser


It’s not unusual in Galesburg for significant historical buildings to fall into disrepair beyond the financial means of their owners to maintain them. The list includes the Knox County Courthouse, Knox College’s Alumni Hall and The Orpheum Theatre. Add to the list Central Congregational Church, the magnificent structure that anchors the Public Square.

Kathryn Rust, the transition minister at Central Congregational since January 2007, has found a myriad of issues facing the building: the need to replace an old boiler which costs $4,000 to $5,000 in winter months to operate; interior plaster that peels, cracks and falls from the ceiling, estimated at $250,000 to repair and continual leaks in the roof which contains asbestos that requires encasement for removal, at an estimated $1 million to $3 million depending on the materials used. Additionally, the church is not air-conditioned. “In this day and age, that’s a problem for the future of the building,” added Rust.

Air conditioning wasn’t a consideration for the imposing Romanesque church building when the cornerstone was laid in 1897 and the congregations of Old First and First Congregational Churches united to form Central Congregational Church on the old site of the Old First Meeting House. “Old First” was razed in 1895 after large portions of plaster from the ceiling fell and the building was deemed unsafe.

The church website <> presents information compiled by Homer Zumwalt, Mary Jean Clark, and Harvey Safford. Their historical synopsis, entitled “History of Central Congregational Church,” states that it was almost a year and a half after construction began before the first public service was held on December 4, 1898. Over 2,000 people crowded into the building that day. The collection from the crowd was applied to the building debt, and when counted was just over $6,000. The total cost of construction was $75,000.

For the first 15 years of the building’s history, church membership grew from 743 to 1,337, and contributions to the church made equally impressive gains allowing for the building debt to be paid off and the mortgage was burned on March 3, 1908.

Central Congregational Church was constructed of brown, raindrop sandstone quarried in Marquette, Mich. The huge stone blocks were cut from natural bed stone, and the building foundation is laid with vitrified brick. The impressive structure is 135 feet from east to west, and 133 feet and 5 inches from north to south. The sanctuary is 69 feet by 76 feet, and is 46 feet from the floor to the top of the shallow dome. The truss ceiling and roof are made of wood, and the trusses in the attic span 80 feet from pier to pier.

Eight tons of iron and steel were used in the construction of Central Congregational Church. The seating capacity was 950 in the main sanctuary with additional seating capacity of 650 in the room to the south which was separated by large sliding doors, divided horizontally in the center. Half of the wall could be raised into the ceiling and half lowered into the basement. This made an opening between the two rooms 32 feet wide and 24 feet high.

There were 6,000 feet of steam heating pipes supplied by two boilers. Additionally there were four coal-burning fireplaces. The auditorium was heated by air being passed through a heat exchanger in the basement capable of moving 30,000 cubic feet of air per minute. One mile of carpeting was installed if measured in one-yard widths, and 235 square yards of linoleum was inlaid.

The sanctuary, shaped in the semi-circular style that was popular during the last quarter of the 19th century, reflects the emphasis placed on pulpit oratory and musical performance. Behind the minister’s rostrum, a large choir loft faced the congregation. On the back wall of the choir loft and directly in the center was the organ console.

Many beautiful stained glass windows are scattered through the church, the most impressive of which is the Rose window above the east entrance. It measures 22 feet in diameter with a Greek cross in the center and 12 sections surrounding the center symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel.

High above the town is the 137-foot tall tower that symbolizes the unity between the two congregational churches that united to form Central Congregational Church. The bell in the tower was recast from the bells of “Old First,” the First Congregational Church, and a small portion of the bell which had hung at the top of the old frame Knox Academy building. The weight of the recast bell was 3,400 pounds, and it had a tone slightly lower than D.  Since the late 1980s, the bell has not been rung for fear the age of the structure and the weakened mortar will loosen the building’s stones. An electronic chime now rings from the tower and can be heard throughout the central business district.

A major remodeling project was undertaken in 1961, including painting and redecoration, refinishing trim and woodwork, upgraded heating and ventilation, plumbing, and electrical work. These renovations cost around $250,000. Other than some painting done in the 1980s, there has been no recent investment in the building except the roof replacement over the office area to the rear of the sanctuary.

 Major damage was done this year in mid-June when a driving rain from the north came through the stained glass windows despite external Plexiglas intended to shield the windows from weather damage. “The rain ran down the walls, puddled in the pews, and soaked the carpet in the pastoral office,” Rust said.

Rust recalled, “The next night when there was more rain the janitor called me at seven in the morning and said the ceiling is falling down. A hunk of about one foot by three foot plaster came right off the wood frame and shattered like sand.” Rust saw it as history repeating itself. “The Old First Church was condemned because the plaster fell in on them. And here we sit in 2009, 115 years later, with the same thing happening.” 

Each problem currently facing the church would generate a huge financial burden even if there were a large congregation. A church consultant came to the church last May to analyze what size congregation it would take to “transform” the church. “That consultant said that in his experience, we need 300 people sitting in those pews to pay for the expenses of the building,” Rust said. Membership of Central Congregational is currently 85 to 90 members, with 40 people attending a typical summer service and around 50 to 55 attending a winter one.

Rust did a study of the ages of church members when she arrived in the church two and a half years ago: 52 members were over the age of 70; 15 were between the ages of 20 and 50, and with few children in the church, the majority of the rest were between the ages of 50 and 70. Out of the over age 70 bracket, 15 were in assisted living or nursing homes, and few of them attend although they are still included in the membership. She concluded, “It’s a very old, old congregation.”

One former member said that she attributes the membership decline to a revolving door of pastors in the pulpit and the resulting instability. “The congregation, which holds all the power, seems to turn on every pastor they bring in and it makes it impossible for the church to fulfill the spiritual needs of its members over the long term.”

Rust does not blame the congregation for their current predicament. “The deterioration of this building is not a result of the 85 people who sit here today. The deterioration of this building has been progressing for decades. It’s like taking care of a house. If you don’t do anything to the house, ultimately it falls apart. When there were young people in the church, there was a plumber among them, an electrician among them, and they helped with repairs in the church. But we don’t have that any more. So we have to hire those things done.” The church has a custodian who works 10 to 15 hours a week and handles minor repairs.

There is an increasing recognition within the church that outside funding is necessary to upgrade and maintain the building. “The trustees just put out results of a study in the newsletter on remaining church resources. It concluded that if we continue to live the way we are, we have two and a half years. And that’s using up every last penny,” said Rust.

“The church group had a vote, and they said that we can talk about this with the press and get the word out in the community,” she added. “It was determined that we should go to the city and talk about where we are and what this might mean. Not that the city is going to give us anything, but perhaps they can guide us, support us, or whatever in pursuing options.”

“We just can’t take care of it,” said Steve Murmann, a dentist from Monmouth who is a member and has attended Central Congregational for over 20 years. He currently serves as the Church Moderator, elected by the congregation to lead meetings both of the board of Church Trustees and the congregation. He also chairs the Futures Committee charged with looking at issues facing the congregation and the building. “The Futures Committee, after looking at the situation, has realized the only chance of saving the building for future generations is a foundation. Without that, we just don’t have the ability to support this building. It’s ten times bigger than we need.”
Murmann has a keen appreciation of the connection between the church and the city of Galesburg. “If you look at the names on the stained glass windows, there are many of the same names as the streets in town.” This connection between the church and the city might provide the key to finding the necessary funding to restore the church. “We’ve got to get support from the community to go after foundations that can support the building,” Murmann stated.
“Being on the historic register is nice, and it insures that the renovations are done in the appropriate historical context, but it also offers some complexities that make it interesting sometimes. Case in point, the roof that’s there has about 70 years on it. You probably can’t use commercial roofing, so a $700,000 to $800,000 job instead is in the millions.” 

Murmann has in mind the big picture of what it will take to secure sufficient funds to save the building. “The city is strapped and local citizens are strapped. You could drop $3 million in the building and never see it. Some of the money has to come from outside Galesburg. There is significant delayed maintenance that must be performed to save the building in the coming years. So we are trying to get a system set up so the old girl is taken care of. ”  

Rust acknowledged that members of the church previously discussed some issues concerning the church with some officials of Knox College. “When I arrived [in January 2007] several people from Knox came through to see if they wanted to take over the church and they chose not to do so. Now, going back to Knox, there are some rumblings of interest now that they are starting a religious studies program but I have not had direct contact with them.” Knox College does not want the Courthouse and its liabilities so a willingness to take the church is a longshot at best.

In addition to exploring sources of funding for buildings on the Federal historic register and corporate grants which could potentially help support the building, Murmann is exploring the possibility of establishing a local foundation. “The Futures Committee, after looking at the situation, has realized the only chance of saving the building for future generations is a foundation,” he stated.

Murmann is involved in preliminary discussions with Partners for Sacred Places, a not-for-profit group with a branch in Chicago that helps historic churches preserve their buildings. “Many groups that might support the building are hesitant to give to churches, but we might transfer ownership to a foundation with a local board to oversee it and the church would rent from the foundation board.”
The church membership has made progress in entertaining the notion of transferring ownership of the building. Murmann stated, “The church has given their blessings and indicated that when the time comes their willingness in concept to transfer ownership of the building.  There can not be a direct connection between the church and the foundation other than our love of the building.”
Rust sees the past of Central Congregational as a community asset. “In the 1920s through the 1940s, this was the place to hold community events. Carl Sandburg appeared here, and there were many people of prominence who were all part of this building — doctors, judges, police chiefs who were not necessarily members but were in and out of the building on various occasions. Knox College held their graduations and baccalaureates here, and there was as close a connection as Knox felt comfortable with given its arms-length from the religious side of the building.” After reflecting a moment Rust added, “It is a cornerstone of the community.” 

Murmann looks to the future revival of community events in the Central Congregational building. “It’s got to become a community asset again. The building is underutilized. In a foundation, it can be used the way it was meant to be used. Knox has its own auditoria, and the Orpheum Theatre has been renovated, but if maintenance of the building wasn’t on our shoulders, it would be easier for the community to utilize it like a community center so virtually every night something was going on there.”

Murmann sees the key to success in people outside the church supporting its future. “If we are going to get support from people outside the church, we have to be willing to relinquish control over the building. That’s what we’re hoping to attract, the support of people interested in old historic buildings. With raw conviction, Murmann concluded, “We’ve got to succeed. Can you imagine a parking lot on that location? We’ve all got to come together and make it work.”