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A changing church for changing times
By Chris Young

Laurel United Methodist Church has continued to grow and change while maintaining its midtown roots.

And it has just finished a major update of its facilities that will improve access and flow through the building.

"We've gone through an extensive renovation process - a huge project," says the Rev. Jerry King. 

City inspectors had just been in to sign off on the work done by Jones-Blythe Construction Co.

Before the current church building at South Grand Avenue and Walnut Street was constructed in 1925, the congregation met in several other locations, all in the immediate neighborhood.

The church began as a Sunday school located in the Laurel Schoolhouse in 1896. The school was at the present location of Lawrence Education Center, 101 E. Laurel St. 

The church called several other addresses home in the years that followed. 

When the current building was dedicated on Dec. 20, 1925, the Illinois State Register provided this description:

"The new church, situated on the northeast corner of Walnut Street and South Grand Avenue, is built upon simple lines. The style is Gothic throughout, and corresponds in type to the construction of the newer churches being built in this section of the country."

As the new church grew, additions were built. But sometimes when the new and old buildings came together, bottlenecks occurred.

Parishioners leaving early Sunday worship were trying to leave through the same door as those arriving for the next service. Sunday school classes dismissing on the second and third floor backed up and stalled in the stairwells.

"It was a public-safety issue, and just not very welcoming," King says.

So it was decided to reconfigure the way people move through the building, creating new entrances that are much wider and reorganizing the space to make it more efficient.

Then it was up to Jones-Blythe to bring that vision to reality. Load-bearing walls had to be reinforced with I-beams so the wider openings could be created where none existed before.

Outside the sanctuary, a former solid wall now opens into a parlor. Custom-built glass doors separate the sanctuary and the parlor but can be opened to accommodate larger crowds for occasions such as Christmas and Easter services.

A kitchenette and serving area are off the east side of the parlor, and a renovated chapel is off the west side. 

How people move in and out is especially important because Laurel United Methodist offers three Sunday morning services at 8:30, 9:30 and 10:45 a.m. 

It is not uncommon for people coming to one of the later services to arrive while the earlier one is winding down.

"The new space works extremely well," King says of the changes.

And that is helpful because people tend to linger after the early service, which features jazz musicians.

"People actually stay for the postlude," he says. "They stay seated because they want to listen to the music.

"It's a real lively event."

King says the 800-member church still has a few small improvements to make.

Outside, a leaning retaining wall was removed and the area relandscaped. 

King gives the credit to his congregation, saying their generosity extends far beyond the upkeep of the church building.

"This is an amazing congregation," he says. "The outreach to the community and their giving is just phenomenal.

"I'm so proud of them."



Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )

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