Friday, April 12, 2013

old stone church

© photo credit:,_Ohio).

He identifies himself as a gravedigger first.  

His name is Jim and he was the kind maintenance-man-turned-tour-guide who walked us through the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland on Monday.  

It's a Victorian Romanesque building by design that sits sandwiched between modern high rises.  Established in the 1820s, it planted roots as a Presbyterian church, and housed the city's first pipe organ.  After a colorful history of fires, restoration, building additions, identity changes and celebrity, the Old Stone Church remains the oldest building on Public Square, added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1973.  

For us, it was a place of mystery.  We've walked by this church many times and always wondered what it was like on the inside.  Being that we were never there in time for a worship service or support group, we simply admired the exterior.

On Monday, something wonderful happened.  We had some time to burn before the film festival, so we walked over to the side door of the building and tried to enter.  The door was locked.  We started to walk away when Jim opened the door and asked if we needed help. When we requested a tour, he gladly obliged.  I was surprised by the building addition attached to the original structure - so modern compared to what we saw from the street.  It instantly reminded me of our day in Rome (almost a decade ago), and how I marveled then at the marriage of contemporary and ancient architecture.

The original church is beautiful.  

For all of the dark wood that shrouded the light in the room, there was also floor-to-ceiling Tiffany windows and color that made itself known.  A main floor lined with old numbered pews and an equally as old (creeeaky!) balcony made up most of the interior, with a staging area and gorgeous pipe organ in the front.  

When I sat on one of the red cushioned seats, my first thought was to smell the back of the one in front of me.  I was tempted to taste it, too.  See, the old brick church I grew up in (also Presbyterian) is a much smaller version of this one, but it too has a magnificent pipe organ, stained glass windows, and wooden pews.  I have a distinct memory of the pews smelling like Old English furniture polish and tasting like hardwood and lemon.  If you grew up in a traditional church, I feel like you're with me on this.  Well, maybe minus the wood sampling part.  What?  I was a curious kid.     

Behind the back entrance of the parish is an attached little chapel where they have contemporary services.  The design and decor were straight out of the 70s, with an Allen organ in the balcony that gets played using a mirror, so the organist can see cues from the pastor and music leaders on the floor.  Off to the side of the chapel is a door marked "Columbarium."  Inside is a small room lined with silver boxes containing ashes of the deceased.  There were some pre-marked stalls with the names of those still living, and one that belonged to a former Cleveland mayor.  It was an unexpected find, which leads me to believe this church must have secret passageways.

Jim was very knowledgable about the church's history.  He told us interesting stories and mentioned that his family has ties to the First Presbyterian Society.  When I asked him if he ever gets spooked at night, being in the building alone, he said no.. because he used to be a gravedigger (!).  As he showed us the art gallery in one of the adjacent buildings, featuring a Tom Denny retrospective, he also casually mentioned that he has two of his own songs copyrighted and filed in the ASCAP library.  Seriously?  Maintenance man, tour guide, songwriter, gravedigger.  I listed these labels off out loud (in genuine wonder), and Jim finished my sentence by claiming "gravedigger" as the profession he identifies with most.  

Hubby and I walked away from the visit elated, and hungry.  We capped off our experience with a shared polish dog from the food vendor on the corner, convincing me that some of the best moments in life are the ones that catch us by surprise.

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