By Dena A. Edwards
It was called the ‘Promised Land,’… and even the ‘New Canaan.’ To some it was a last chance, to others it was a new beginning. To all, it was the Oklahoma Country, and it was to be opened by land run on April 22, 1889. … There was something spiritual about land of the frontier, especially when it came to the Unassigned Lands, the final frontier in the settlement of the West.
– Bob L. Blackburn and Alvin O. Turner, “First Family”
More than 50,000 men, women and children waited with bated breath for the bugle call signaling high noon and the beginning of the race for their portion of the more than two million acres of available land. Most had nothing but homesteading on their minds, but a few were equally concerned about the souls of the masses. By the end of that amazing day, the population of Oklahoma City had grown from nothing to 10,000, and the “89er” – the name given to anyone who participated in the 1889 Land Run – populace needed spiritual guidance. Within days, churches of all denominations began meeting wherever they could find shelter along the red dirt, tent-lined street; and in just a few months, wood-framed structures topped with crosses began filling the city. Within five years, many of the churches still visible in downtown Oklahoma City had been constructed.
St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral
St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral, 225 NW Fourth St., was one of the first to have a presence in the boomtown of Oklahoma City. Within days of the Land Run, a group of Catholic believers began meeting in McGinley’s General Store, still a tent at that time. They built a 24-foot by 40-foot wooden structure by August. Within two years, the congregation had outgrown that structure and began building the larger, red-brick church that stands today. Construction was completed by 1904, and St. Joseph’s became the first cathedral in Oklahoma.
Designed in a true Gothic Revival architectural style, the symmetrical exterior has a central structure topped by a tall spire roof, which houses a 650-pound bell – the same bell that once rang out the call for worship in 1889. The doorways and window openings sit below pointed arches, and parapets line the tops of the two towers that flank the central entrance. Brick pilasters bridge the gaps between the central and side towers, replicating flying buttresses – an architectural feature created at the beginning of the original Gothic time period of the 12th Century.
The nave of the sanctuary is set apart from the side aisles with rows of columns, the whole of which is topped with a ribbed vault ceiling. The cream and rose palette lends an airy feel to the space, and stained glass windows line the room, the majority of which are now replicas of the originals that were shattered during the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building next door on April 19, 1995. The explosion lifted the roof several inches off its steel piers, and caused massive damage to the structure. Federal funds helped restore the historic church, and it reopened its doors in 1997.
First Church (First United Methodist Church)
The 89er Methodists first met the Sunday after the Land Run, and soon thereafter built a wood structure. This church also expanded into a larger brick building in 1904, yet is the only church from this time period that still stands on its native site at the corner of NW Fourth St. and Robinson (which soon became known at Church Row).
First Church was designed in the more classic Romanesque style, with rounded arches and a less decorative façade. A rounded tower with dome top sits on one side of the building; on another is a square bell tower, the bells of which can no longer be rung, due to damage from the bombing. The main decorative elements are the yellow stone quoins on the outer corners of the walls, and the larger French Gothic-style rose stained glass window that sits above the front entrance.
Sitting on the opposite side of the bombing site from St. Joseph’s, First Church also suffered substantial damage, although astonishingly little on its exterior, but for many broken stained glass windows. The lobby of the interior housed an FBI command post makeshift morgue immediately following the bombing. Federal funds and private donations allowed for the $5.5 million restoration, and the original sanctuary was converted into a modernized fellowship hall.
The church members took pieces from the original stained glass, including the intact head of Jesus, and created a new round stained glass window for its chapel. This window has the words “The Lord Takes Broken Pieces and By His Love Makes Us Whole.” Additional pieces from the broken historic windows are made into stained glass art that is sold in the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum bookstore.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
A few blocks north on Church Row sits St. Paul’s Cathedral, an Episcopal church that also was built in 1904. Patterned after an English country church, St. Paul’s was designed in English Gothic Style, with Tudor arches and less decoration on the simple yet quaint structure. The buff brick is accented with natural stone quoins, and the front entrance is topped with crockets and two stone mini cupolas. The added-on buildings are primarily attached by arcades, with courtyards in-between.
St. Paul’s sanctuary, which became a triage after the bombing, also had access to federal funds to recover from the bomb damage, but instead of updating the damaged structure, church leaders chose to restore it to its original glory. The steep pitched ceiling is gridded with dark timbers; the circular ambulatory is set apart from the nave with a cream wall pierced with pointed arches. Trefoil and quatrefoil motifs adorn the pews, the antique pendant light fixtures, the old organ and the wooden doors throughout. The beautifully carved wooden wainscoting that flanks the altar is decorated with Gothic architectural elements such as blind arcades, foliated arches, crockets and spires. Stained glass windows – including the pair crafted by Tiffany Studios of New York, which somehow survived the bomb – allow colored natural light into the space.
The focal point of the entire space is the ornate Italian Carrara marble altar. Carved to replicate a cathedral front, the beautiful white altar is layered with tiers of more miniature architectural elements – foliated pointed arches, lancet windows, pilasters, Latin crosses, crocket finials and detailed tracery. The baptismal font and raised pulpit match the elaborate altar.
First Baptist Church
Church Row continues farther north to NW 11th St. and Robinson, where the First Baptist Church sits. The Tudor stone arches over the front door and less decoration, similar to St. Paul’s, announces the style of this church – built in 1912 after the 1906 structure was destroyed by fire – as English Gothic Revival, but with French Gothic influences. Spires with crocket finials top the square bell tower, foliated tracery adorns the stone entrance, side by side with the shield and cross emblem reminiscent of English crusade emblems. Even some more classic rinceau patterns decorate the stonework.
The Tudor arch is carried inside the sanctuary to the ceiling over the raised stage. More French Gothic décor in seen here, with trefoil rondels on the ends of the pews and pointed arches in the stained glass window patterns. The choir loft, fashioned after what used to be the minstrels gallery in the 12th Century, sits at the back of the auditorium. The space where the loft used to be over the stage is filled now with the gorgeous, elaborately decorated Centennial Organ – a piece the church created in 1989 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Land Run.
First Lutheran Church
One block north on Robinson, the First Lutheran Church was being built simultaneously with the First Baptist building, but in French Gothic style. The pointed arches, parapets and spires can be seen from a distance, as can the unique coloring of the structure. Tan bricks are contrasted with a stark white trim and red tile roof. Yet an English influence can be seen here as well, with the cross and shield emblem and linen fold motif in the stonework, showing again the overlap the two styles often have.
The interior has been updated but still retains the wood paneling with foliated arches and decorative elements on the walls surrounding the dais. The large stained glass window above is the focal point of the room, where the figure of Christ ascends into the clouds.
This church has one element completely unique from the other Church Row congregations – a 4-foot by 8-foot Century chest that was buried in their basement in 1913. The time capsule lies in a double concrete, copper-lined vault, and on April 22, 2013, the anniversary of the Land Run and exactly 100 years from the date it was buried, the congregation will remove it. The time capsule’s contents include Indian relics, pottery made from Oklahoma soil, old photographs, original musical compositions, oil paintings, newspapers, and even a forecast of 2013 Oklahoma City by then-leading businessmen.
In the more than 100 years since the 89ers staked their claims in Indian Territory, the historic churches on Church Row have proven themselves to be as resilient as the citizens of the city, and of our state.
“… You have to take what happens to you and you don’t ignore it or try to separate from it,” said the Very Rev. George H. Back of St. Paul’s, in reference to dealing with the bombing. “You integrate it into who you are now.”