History of UU Utica Buildings
The Rev. Thompson with forty-two others, five of them women, organized the First Universalist Society of Utica in 1825. Members included some prosperous individuals and factory owners including Andrew S. Pond who was involved in an iron foundry and Ezra Barnum who was appointed U.S. Marshall and owned a business supplying boats on the Erie Canal.
Through these benefactors, a meeting house was built at the corner of Genesee and Devereux Streets on a lot bought from Nicholas Devereux. It was heated by wood stoves and lit by whale oil lamps, situated along Genesee St which was lit by fifty-five lights south of the Erie Canal from Bagg’s Square to Court Street. Due to “tangled finances” the building was sold to the new Westminster Presbyterian Church in the 1840s. Eight years later the building was destroyed by fire. The site is now the State Office Building.
The members met in Mechanics Hall until finances made it possible to build a new structure in 1851 at the corner of Columbia and Seneca Streets for a cost of $12,500. For that hefty sum, the auditorium was large enough to seat 420 people. The church became known as Church of the Reconciliation, perhaps referring to “the final harmony of all souls with God.” The building was famous nationally because of the mountain ash tree growing in its tower. Rooted in only a handful of soil it grew to forty feet, an example of sylvan determination.
The following description of the church appeared in the Clinton Courier Wed. 16 Nov 1892;
The front wall of the First Universalist Church in this city is constructed of sandstone and Trenton limestone, and was built about forty years ago. At the two angles of the façade there are two Norman turrets 45 feet high, surmounted with the usual notched battlements. Just below these are plain, flat cornices projecting from the main walls about twenty inches, and not over eighteen inches in thickness. On the flat top of one of these ledges, and from a joint in the masonry not more than 3⁄4 inch wide, there has been growing, for nearly 30 years, a mountain ash or Scotch “rowan tree” which is now 19 feet high and about 7 or 8 feet across the expansion of its branches of which there are so many and so dense that they make the tree appear bush like. The ash is perfectly healthy, and for several years has borne crops of scarlet berries. As already stated, the joint on the ledge from which the tree grows is not more than 3⁄4 inch wide.
When that church building reached the end of its useful life, the Comstock House on the corner of Genesee and Tracy Streets at Oneida Square was purchased for the new home of the church. A large yellow-brick church was constructed adjoining the Comstock House. Groundbreaking began in 1907. The Comstock House became the Parsonage which had a minister’s apartment upstairs, and a large meeting room, parlor and kitchen on the first floor to provide for coffee hours, congregational dinners and meetings. The basement of the new building provided space for the large church school. The memorial windows and the large, stained-glass window with Jesus at the center were saved from the old church and incorporated in the new structure. Also, the organ and oak pews from the old building became part of the new. Though still a Universalist Church, many Unitarians were welcomed into the fold.
In 1977 it was decided that the cavernous sanctuary of the Oneida Square church with its high ceilings and adjoining parish house was too expensive and wasteful of resources to maintain. Sale of the building began with one buyer suggesting its use as an unique restaurant (suggested by the movie Alice’s Restaurant with Arlo Guthrie). That deal fell through, but the House of God congregation was excited to buy that building and have done an excellent job maintaining it.
The congregation rented space in the Chapel of Tabernacle Baptist Church. Rev. Ralph Schmidt, emeritus minister was driving along Higby Road and noticed a double lot for sale. After much discussion, the decision was made to build an environmentally-sound structure on that lot. Hinge Construction of Barneveld was chosen as the contractor. The design was a basic rectangular building with ceilings lower than the usual church surrounded by walls that have a one-foot distance between the inner and outer surface and are fully insulated. The clear windows are triple-pane glass to prevent heat loss. The main room was designed to be multi-functional with folding chairs. Richard Carman convinced the congregation to have an architect-designed front with a peak to give it a more distinctive appearance. Many members including the Becker family, Carncross family, Esther Doyle family, Hubbell family, Smith family, Peg Hassett family, Spencer Prindle and others contributed hours to overseeing the work, painting and completing work on the building.
A grand celebration was held on Sunday, September 24, 1978 at 7:00 p.m.. The Rev. Dr. Paul N. Carnes, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association came from Boston to speak, despite suffering from a terminal illness. Sally Carman wrote a long dedication poem A building for all seasons which was read by several members of the church. The church minister, Rev. Timothy Hume Behrendt and Rev. Dr. Ralph N. Schmidt, minister emeritus, also took part.
Several memorial items from the church on Oneida Square were brought to the new building including: the marble baptismal font, the mahogany high-backed altar chairs, the large painting of Trenton Falls and the plaque with symbols of all the world religions made by Morris Smith, Frank and Delores Gruenewald. Spencer Prindle fashioned two beautiful candlesticks from the cherrywood drainboard from the old parish house, still decorating the front of the sanctuary. The new logo picturing the front of the church was designed by Lura Bellamy.