First Presbyterian Church uncovers history and wins preservation award


First Presbyterian Church on State Street in downtown Knoxville, founded in 1792, has been a place of spiritual enrichment for the community.

In recent months, it has also visually enriched the community, following a major and historically sensitive renovation and remodeling project.

In 2019, this work resulted in an East Tennessee Preservation Award from Knox Heritage. And last month, the work was recognized with an Award of Distinction by the East Tennessee Historical Society.

ETHS officials said: “The First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville received an award of distinction for the renovation and historic preservation of its interior, including the re-exposure of a stained glass window in the sanctuary which was covered during the construction of the balcony in 1920.. “

James White's gravestone is in the historic First Presbyterian Church cemetery.  White donated his rack of turnips for the church and cemetery.

$ 10 million project

During a visit to the First Presbyterian Church in 2019, the Reverend Dr William Pender points to the stained glass that had been stored in a cupboard.  It is now housed in the atrium of the newly renovated area.

Using design work from Johnson Architecture and general contractor work from The Christman Company, the $ 10 million project involved additions, renovations and better connectivity inside the facility.

A large boulder was also discovered on the State Street side, and an elevated outdoor patio and reflection garden designed and built to blend in with the other spaces in the church were also constructed, according to a press release.

In addition, a columbarium has been built in the adjoining historic cemetery, where notables such as Knoxville pioneers James White and William Blount are buried.

“We were able to make the space more functional, showcase the original elements and beautify new areas while keeping the principles of responsible preservation in mind,” said Daryl Johnson, founder and president of Johnson Architecture, in the press release concerning the whole work.

This rock, pictured in 2019, is on the Church Street side of the First Presbyterian Church.  It has been part of the land for decades, but only a small portion was on display until it was discovered during renovations to the building.

Marty Gibbs, vice president and general manager of operations for The Christman Company in Knoxville, said revealing, preserving and showcasing the building’s original features was important.

“We have managed to unify a labyrinth of areas and make the necessary technological and structural updates, while maintaining the existing character and the structural and historical integrity to accommodate guests and parishioners in the future,” he said. -he declares.

“Looks like we haven’t renovated it”

Besides the rewards, the work has brought some rewards among church members simply by enjoying the restored and remade spaces. Ginny Morrow, who chaired a 10-member building committee that spent several years planning and overseeing construction, said they appreciated her new look, even though the pandemic has kept the church from be fully utilized until recently.

“We love how it doesn’t look like we’ve renovated it,” she said over the phone. “It was a thoughtful design and execution of the design.”

Ginny Morrow shows off the new Turnip Patch, an outdoor seating area, during a tour of the First Presbyterian Church on August 27, 2019. Morrow chaired a 10-member building committee that spent several years planning and overseeing the execution of the renovation of the historic church.

A focal point of the church installation is the nave / sanctuary with a colonnaded Greek Revival facade originally designed by the architectural firm Baumann Brothers. Inside, the saying “Jehovah-jireh” is painted above the altar / choir area. It translates to “the Lord shall provide” and dates from when someone chalked these words down after the church took over the dirty and damaged facilities after the Civil War, according to a church story.

After the sanctuary was built in 1903, later additions included wings in the 1920s and the construction of the chapel in 1962.

Morrow said that when she and her husband, Bill, started attending First Presbyterian over 40 years ago, she was drawn to her appearance and the traditional worship experience of a downtown church.

“When you look at the building from the outside it’s a pretty building, but when you walk inside the beauty is astounding, especially the shrine,” she said.

Magnificent stained glass windows line the walls of Knoxville's First Presbyterian Church.

She added that unlike when she started coming from the Concord Road area, the city center is now its own neighborhood with several thousand residents living there. The church has tried to refocus its efforts in this spirit both through the completed renovations and by encouraging and welcoming the surrounding community to use its facilities for various events and meetings, she said.

Along with the discovery of a stained glass window that is now in full view, the Church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) has also reconnected with its past in the form of its current transitional / interim pastor, Dr Jeff McCrory. Jr. Although much of his career has been in California, the Webb School graduate’s grandmother was a member of First Presbyterian and he was baptized there, Morrow said.


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