Spotlight: A capital landmark’s bicentennial

First Presbyterian Church sanctuary in 2012. Courtesy First Presbyterian Church.

First Presbyterian Church sanctuary in 2012. Courtesy First Presbyterian Church.

by Ed Bristol

The winter of 1815-16 is remembered for its historic, extreme cold. Against that frigid backdrop on January 21, 1816, Reverend Dr. William McPheeters gathered a group of 40 Presbyterian souls together in Raleigh’s old State House, where the State Capitol now stands. Reverend McPheeters was the pastor of the city and principal of the Raleigh Academy. Among the assembled was William Peace, founder of the namesake university. When the meeting adjourned, the group had established Raleigh’s First Presbyterian church. McPheeters would become its first pastor.

The fledgling church – one of the city’s first – purchased a lot across the street from the State House, on the corner of Morgan and Salisbury streets, where it began construction. Of colonial design with a capacity for 700 worshipers, the new church opened its doors on February 7, 1818. A session house, or lecture room, was built on its south side in 1825.

The church became a resource for the entire city. Its sanctuary was Raleigh’s largest and best meeting place until after the Civil War and provided other religious groups, including Catholics and Episcopalians, a place to meet while they built their own houses of worship.

First Presbyterian also provided meeting space for matters of state. When the simple, two-story State House across the street (which had stood for only 20 years) burned to the ground in 1831, the fates of two neighboring institutions dedicated to serving the needs of society intersected again. The state Supreme Court, then quartered in the State House, moved over to the church’s session house. A few years later, the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835 met in the sanctuary. A new State Capitol was completed in 1840.

The sanctuary in 1900. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church.

The sanctuary in 1900. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church.

By the 1890s, a new church, one with room for Sunday school classes and other activities, was needed for First Presbyterian’s growing membership. The congregation decided to tear down its original sanctuary and rebuild on the same site. Construction began in 1897 and was completed in 1900. The original church bell and the original bricks were salvaged for use in the new building.

The new church was designed in the Romanesque Revival style by architect A.G. Bauer, designer of the Governor’s Mansion, the first Supreme Court Building, and the Baptist Female University, which later became Meredith College. A half-century later, in 1955, under the guidance of architect Harold Wagoner of Philadelphia, the church’s second sanctuary underwent extensive remodeling. In 2012, with the services of acclaimed Raleigh architect Frank Harmon, the sanctuary’s latest renovation was completed.

One of the design’s signature features is the restoration of the 1900 sanctuary’s three enormous arches that had been walled off in the 1955 renovation. Originally, the arches, which could be closed by vertically rolling doors, opened into a fellowship hall that was later chopped up into smaller rooms. Now the arches’ new hinged doors lead to a newly re-opened space – a large, much-used common area for members’ informal gatherings.  

To honor the original gathering on that cold winter’s day in 1816, a 200th anniversary commemoration service is planned for January 21 – complete with a litany of thanksgiving and praise, hymn singing, and a bagpiper-led recessional. But the commemoration service won’t be at the church – it will be across the street, at the Capitol, where it all began.