PORTLAND, Maine — The city’s oldest church just finished an important infrastructure facelift, though it’s not obvious from the outside. The building’s historic — and almost two century old — stone visage remains unchanged.
The $1.5 million First Parish Church redesign features are all in the back or inside. They include improvements to an enclosed garden, upgrades to the interior sound and light systems and a community room renovation.
Most importantly, the Unitarian Universalist church now has an elevator, making it accessible to everyone for the first time since it was built in 1826.
“This accessibility project brings a 200-year-old icon in Portland into the 21st century in a way that will make it now available and welcoming to all,” said Austin Farrar, president of the First Parish board of trustees. “It’s long overdue. We’ve been talking about it since the 1970s.”
The capital campaign and construction work were three years in the making. Funds raised include a $50,000 block grant from the city, awarded in July 2020. The public money was earmarked especially for enhancements to the public performance and event spaces.
“These are federal funds that the city manages,” said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. “We’re also collaborating with them to make improvements to the plaza and proposed upgrades to Freshman Alley.”
The alley, behind the First Parish Church, is so named because it’s shared with Portland High School. Both buildings abut each other in the rear. Students use the convenient walkway to eat lunch or head into downtown.
Freshman Alley and a small public plaza beside the church links Elm, Chestnut and Congress streets.
Besides the block grant and a couple of small foundation contributions, the bulk of the money was raised within the congregation itself.
“I was truly amazed and gratified at that,” Farrar said. “Everybody stepped up. It was a group effort.”
He added that the church used to be home to powerful and wealthy Portland families but its congregation is now mostly younger, less established parishioners who have small children.
The new elevator was installed in an existing, brick addition on the back of the church. The elevator allows churchgoers to enter the structure without traversing the elegant-but-steep front steps.
Farrar said, with improvements to the alley and adjoining plaza, he hopes the public and parishioners alike will think of the new elevator-equipped entrance as just another way to get inside — and not a less important, secondary back door.
The First Parish cuts an impressive figure on Congress Street. It stands across from the end of Temple Street, giving drivers and pedestrians a long, clear view of its front facade and steeple as they approach from the waterfront.
The church’s original congregation dates back to 1674. The meeting house on the spot was built in 1740. Known as Old Jerusalem, Maine’s constitution was debated and partially framed there in 1819. Famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s family were members.
The present granite structure opened in 1826 and has often played host to civic, religious and community events. During demolition of the original Old Jerusalem, cannonballs from the 1775 British bombardment of the city were found in the walls. One of the cannonballs is now part of an exquisite 600-pound glass chandelier in the church. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
The congregation dedicated the additions and improvements in a public ceremony on Sept. 28 at 1:30 pm. Portland Mayor Kate Snider and Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society, were on hand.