Too often I hear people talk about what Rochester, NY doesn’t have and how it could be better. I think that we tend to take things for granted that we see on a daily basis around anyplace we live. We think ‘eh I don’t have to do that today because it’s been here my whole life and I can go someday’. We get a lot of feedback on our blog and hear things like “I had no idea that __________ existed!!” This blog is of course about religious and spiritual places that have an interesting story and places that we didn’t want to wait until ‘someday’ came to see them, but Upstate NY has an incredible secular and religious history that begs to be told. For me, one of the things that makes putting in all the work of this blog worth it is hearing that other people have developed a new appreciation for their surroundings just like Luke and I have while exploring them in person. Get out in your city, go see stuff you haven’t seen before, explore. Too many pieces of incredible history are forever gone or will be soon (R.I.P. Hojack Swing Bridge) and only their story remains with the people who are willing to tell it. We are grateful for all the people that we’ve met who have told us the stories that we’ve shared here, including Bill, who told us the story of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and a world renowned architect named Louis Kahn.
Many of the places we visit and the folks we meet are the result of reaching out and simply asking to meet with someone and be let in. We often don’t get responses from many of the places we reach out to, or it involves lengthy discussions about what our interest in visiting is before they agree to meet with us. Luckily there are quite a few places that have regularly scheduled tours such as St. Michael’s and the Oneida Community Mansion House and, as we found out, the First Unitarian Church. St. Michael’s has a history steeped in the very construction of the city’s history and a Gothic architecture matched by few others in the area, the Oneida Community Mansion House was home to what is often thought to be one of the longest running and more ‘successful’ Utopian societies to have existed, but the First Unitarian Church is simply a brick building with square, straight lines with a few windows that aren’t even stained glass–how could they possibly justify having a regularly scheduled tour of a building that at first glance seems so….mundane? It turns out that almost weekly the church is visited by architecture students from around the world. Students revere the building and architecture from across seas and make a special trip to Rochester–not for a garbage plate, not to see the Eastman House or Erie Canal, but to visit the First Unitarian Church! The curiosity that has fueled this entire blog led us to meet Bill, our tour guide at the First Unitarian Church at 220 South Winton Road in Rochester. The Unitarian Church of Rochester has one of the best kept and most detailed easily to find histories of any of the places we’ve visited–and it’s lengthy and complex. Without making this post an hour long read, I’ve chosen a few fine points with the bulk of the post being about our visit to the present day church and it’s importance.
In 1825, a group of Christians who had found fault in their inherited belief system and who particularly struggled with the idea of the Trinity, founded what is known today as Unitarianism. Just four years later, Rochester, NY had it’s first fellowship of Unitarians that met under the leadership of Myron Holly, who at one time was the Commissioner of the Erie Canal. (On a side note: the Erie Canal that once crossed through the center of downtown Rochester, NY officially opened in the Fall of 1825, the same year that Unitarianism was founded.)
During this time, the fervor of the Revivalism movement and Second Great Awakening was stirring many people across Central and Western NY to find a faith system that worked for them and Unitarianism quickly became a favorite because of it’s non-creed system of worship. That fervor led so many to find faith that the figurehead of the Second Great Awakening, Charles Finney, came up with the term “the burned over district” to indicate that there was no one left in the Central and Western NY region left to be saved. A number of the founders and big players in the city of Rochester found themselves leaders in the local Unitarian fellowship and banded together to develop funds to build a church. In 1842 that church was constructed at Temple Street where it crossed with Court Street. Probably the most famous person to attend this church was Susan B. Anthony and according to the First Unitarian Church web site, Susan B. Anthony began “attending services at the First Unitarian Church with her family in the late 1840s and made it her church home until her death in 1906. Susan B. Anthony was listed as a member of First Unitarian in a church history written in 1881. She formally signed the membership book in 1893 after a church anniversary celebration and rededication…On July 19, 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, reconvening at Rochester’s First Unitarian Church on July 30, where Susan B. Anthony’s father, mother and sister Mary signed the Declaration for Sentiments for women’s Rights. Susan was teaching school in Canajoharie at the time.” Temple Street and the Unitarian Church were later demolished entirely in an effort to construct a better system to navigate the growing city and to build a state of the art, one of a kind mall named “Midtown”, which of course was also later demolished and today is considered a blemish on the face of Rochester–the Xerox building now sits where Temple Street once crossed Court. Without a place to worship, the congregation set out to choose a new home with more a permanent future. The congregation locked the doors one last time on Temple Street in 1959, and met in various places until the completion of their current home in 1962.
Louis Kahn was one of a number of architects considered to design the new building, but his dedication to modern architecture, a personal philosophy that naturally aligned with the beliefs of Unitarianism, and his commitment to building each new building as an entirely unique project won him the faith of the congregation. After first being approached in 1959, and scrapping the first design concept that the congregation didn’t approve of, the current design was agreed upon and work was set in motion to begin construction. The church’s committee for the new project was very involved and apparently they and Kahn developed a real nice collaborative relationship throughout the process.
We walked in to the greeting area just through the main doors and found our tour guide, and a young couple joined us while Bill began to tell the story of the building. An idea of Kahn’s that “civilization is measured by the shape of your ceiling” is clear in the sanctuary. When you first enter, you pass under the choir loft immediately casting a shadow overhead, but when you pass under it in to the sanctuary, the natural light from the ceiling immediately opens the room (the concept of passing through shadow in to light was done on purpose). The walls are exposed grey cinder block from floor to ceiling that normally I’d think was cavernous and cold, but the light passing through the towers in each corner warms the space. The only decoration in the entire space is a series of woven tapestries on the wall, and a rotating art exhibit facing the congregation, and a Unitarian chalice piece under that. While designing the church, Kahn asked himself what he thought to be important in a church, and decided it was “silence and light”, and later expanded on the design process in the publication Form and Design, “A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable … But what is unmeasurable is the psychic spirit.”
As we walked around the building with Bill explaining the subtle nuances of the architecture and design, people began to fill in the church and get ready for the service. What was particularly notable about the attendees is that they were generally pretty young. Most of the places we visit, particularly places with a ‘Western’ religious affiliation, there is a much older and sometimes even primarily elderly fellowship, so seeing many of the people walking in that appeared to be well under 30 was something to take notice of. In fact, I ran in to a high school friend Adam that I hadn’t seen in years!
Bill walked us around the outside of the building as well and wrapped up the tour so he could get to service himself. We said our thanks and goodbyes, and made recommendations to the visiting couple on where we felt they should visit while they were in town. The First Unitarian Churches is one of those places that even having lived in Rochester, NY for 33 years, I’ve never given it a second look while driving past. After doing the research and making a point to learn more, we left with an entirely new appreciation for the space, and the folks who inhabit it, and their lengthy history that has helped shaped the culture of Upstate NY.