BR readers who frequent the BPO and other events at Kleinhans Music Hall are likely familiar with the prominent church across the street. First Presbyterian Church has been a Buffalo landmark and a community gathering place on Symphony Circle since 1891. This is still true today, as the church continues its ministry into its third century and is also now home to tenants including Houghton College, the Serendipity Shoppe, and the headquarters for Explore Buffalo. “Explore Buffalo’s mission is to promote Buffalo’s history and architecture, so it’s appropriate that we’re headquartered in this historic and architecturally significant building,” notes Explore Buffalo Executive Director Brad Hahn.
First Presbyterian has the distinction of being the oldest religious congregation in the City of Buffalo, founded on February 2, 1812. The congregation’s earliest records were saved by Deacon Amos Callender during the burning of Buffalo by the British in 1813. Callender took the records with him in a pillowcase as he traveled to safety in Batavia, and those records are still preserved by First Presbyterian as part of the congregation’s historical archives.
The congregation’s earliest records were saved by Deacon Amos Callender during the burning of Buffalo by the British in 1813.
First Presbyterian’s first two church buildings were in downtown Buffalo, at Main and Church Streets where Main Place Mall is today (there’s a plaque inside the mall). Illustrations and photos of the previous buildings are on BuffaloAH.com. The congregation decided to leave downtown and move to Symphony Circle in the 1880s. They sold their downtown location to Erie County Savings Bank, which then constructed its castle-like headquarters on the site.
When planning their move, First Presbyterian solicited designs from major architectural firms in the Northeast. The winning design was by the prominent local firm of Green & Wicks in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, with many similarities to Buffalo’s best-known building of that style: the Richardson-Olmsted Complex at the opposite end of Richmond Avenue. Features shared by both buildings include a Medina sandstone exterior and a dominant copper-roofed tower. The tower was the last part of the original building to be completed, in 1897. Thanks to a New York State grant and fundraising by One Symphony Circle, restoration work is now underway on the tower, one of the tallest points in the Allentown neighborhood.
When you enter the sanctuary doors, you have an immediate feeling of space and height as the arches and central dome soar overhead. First Presbyterian’s interior is an opulent Byzantine Revival style with mosaic-like designs by congregation member William Carson Francis. The style bears a striking similarity to the Tiffany-designed chapel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, now at the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida.
The interior features extraordinary stained-glass windows, many from the Tiffany Studios, as well as three stunning chandeliers also by Tiffany. The chandeliers are miniature copies of those in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. “One of my favorite moments when I’m showing visitors around is when I flip the switch and turn on the chandeliers,” says Brad from Explore Buffalo, “the beauty of this building simply takes your breath away.” The photos show three of the Tiffany windows, as well as the chandeliers:
- The extraordinary 1916 New Jerusalem window in the east transept, showing the city described in Revelations 21:10-11, “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.”
- The 1925 choir loft window, showing a gold cross, and a remarkable example of favrile glass.
- A small but stunning depiction of Christ the King from 1892.
Perhaps the most famous visitor to First Presbyterian was Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who attended a Sunday service here on September 8, 1901, after President McKinley had been shot at the Pan-American Exposition. Roosevelt was accompanied by Ansley Wilcox, in whose house he would be sworn in as President six days later after McKinley’s death.
First Presbyterian hosts Explore Buffalo’s Speaker Series, which was canceled mid-run in March, and is included on tours such as the Divine Light: Stained Glass by Bus tour. Explore Buffalo is looking forward to welcoming visitors to First Presbyterian Church again as soon as possible. While First Presbyterian, like all churches, cannot currently host services in person, their Easter service, and all Sunday services, will be available on their website at firstchurchbuffalo.org.
You can discover more local architecture and history by signing up for Explore Buffalo’s weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which are currently suspended. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by donating online, purchasing an Explorer Pass (which now comes with a 3-month extension), or buying a gift certificate (now on sale for 20% off).
Photos by Brad Hahn
First Presbyterian Church
1 Symphony Circle
Green & Wicks
Explore Buffalo is a nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting Buffalo and Western New York history, architecture, and neighborhoods through quality education to learners of all ages. Explore Buffalo’s volunteer docents lead a wide range of guided tours by foot, bike, bus, kayak, and boat to explore our city’s history and architecture; in 2019, more than 25,000 people participated in an Explore Buffalo tour or program. Learn more at explorebuffalo.org