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Faith set in stone
By Kathleen Ostrander

Unique building details, inside and out, combined with a rich heritage - including an emphasis on diversity - all make Kumler United Methodist Church one of the city's standout churches.

The church, at 600 N. Fifth St., was built in 1887 in what would be considered Gothic Revival style or Victorian Gothic. The outside is rough-hewn Grafton stone, and the exterior design has elements of Southern French, Spanish and Italian Romanesque architecture - sometimes referred to as Richardsonian Romanesque.

It has stone segmental arches over the church's arches. The elements around the windows contrast with the expanses of stone.

The stone is rusticated masonry - stones that are squared off but with the edges left rough.

The foundation of the church was built by stone contractor Col. James Culver, who laid stone foundations for the University of Illinois, the old Lincoln Library and buildings on the campuses of Eastern Illinois University and Illinois State University.

Although the architectural style is Gothic Revival, there is a unique aspect to the exterior: a round tower. Anthony Rubano of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency said a cylindrical tower on the what would be the side of the nave if the church were of conventional design is very unusual.

"Usually, towers on Gothic Revival churches were square and above the crossing (where the nave and the transept cross) or on the main façade," he said. And usually, steeples or bell towers were on one or both sides of the main entrance, not just one perched near a corner. Not only is the placement unusual, but the style of the tower is, too.

A round tower, Rubano acknowledged, looks more like a castle than a church fixture.

"I have to think that it was placed where it was because of the tight city lot," Rubano added. "If they had more room, the architect might have placed the tower in a more expected location."

The church's interior is amazing and hard to imagine from looking at the outside. Where the exterior roof is peaked, the interior ceiling is rounded and dropped. It is made of strips of wood to help with acoustics. Combined with the different styles of stained-glass windows, it elevates the whole atmosphere of the interior. It is like a beautiful burst of sun and light and an indication of a higher presence.

The interior orientation, according to Rubano, is auditorium-style, which was modeled after a design pioneered by the First Methodist Church of Akron, Ohio.

In architectural circles, it is even referred to as an "Akron Plan" design. It features concentric seating in curved or angled arches around the sanctuary.

This type of church setting was used to accommodate classes. The general Sunday school lesson was presented to the entire group, and then partitions were pulled to separate the groups and more detailed lessons were presented off of the main lecture. The Akron design was embraced by many Protestant churches of the time because the interior setup didn't mimic the traditional Catholic Church design of a nave and transept, which lent a more unique identity.

Some of the trappings of the Akron plan remain in Kumler and are still used.

The age-worn wooden partitions can be moved for larger services during the holidays.

There were no pews in the original church. Instead, individual wooden seats were used in what was described as opera seating. In 1898, the metal-framed wooden opera seats were replaced by oak pews on the main floor.

The original opera seats are still in the balcony. Kumler pastor Rev. Sylvester Weatherall said plans are being worked out for parishioners to take the seats one at a time to refurbish them.

This would be another example of parishioners going above and beyond because of their love for Kumler. Throughout the history of the church, parishioners came to the aid of their fellow congregants by working to pay off the mortgage, donate and refurbish furniture and man booths at the Illinois State Fair to raise funds. The congregants of Kumler have a fierce loyalty to their building as well as the outreach ministries run through the church, Weatherall said.

When the church was built, there were financial concerns, so various historical accounts relate that some of the windows were set in without glass. The stained-glass windows were added later as money was raised, again through the help of the congregation.

The beautiful windows on the side of the church let light pour in, and the inspirational biblical quotations on the wall are done in gold leaf. Weatherall said when the church was refurbished several years ago, artisans were careful not to disturb the lettering.

Changes to the structure throughout the years have changed some of the areas that are a tribute to the diversity and Christian attitude of the original congregations.

Classrooms, studies and various other rooms for official functions were built in an area that once housed a large gymnasium.

Weatherall laments the changes, because the history of the gym is so much more important than the classrooms.

The feet that pounded the floor of the gym were black and white - the gym was the first in the city where different cultures could come together and play basketball during years of segregation. Teens and adults, no matter their color, came together as one team with the help of a ball and a hoop.

"It seemed so insignificant then," Weatherall said. "But it was a big deal, and I hope someday we can get the gym back."

Another little-used part of the complex is on an upper level facing Fifth Street. It is at the top of the two lovely stained glass windows. The windows are even constructed so the tops can be opened.

"I would love to set up a coffee shop and study area up here someday," Weatherall said.

Even the church basement is rich in history. The basement has clay floors and still has its coal chute. Renovations are needed, but with Weatherall at the helm, the history and character of the church will be preserved.

The character of the church, he is quick to point out, can still be seen in the congregation that embraces the history and also works to keep it financially stable.

Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )

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