Peoples Church, 200 W. Grand River Ave. (1924)
Peoples Church, November 2003. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
The East Lansing community was composed almost entirely of faculty with strong religious backgrounds, and along with the formation of the school district and the City itself, the organization of a church was of high importance. The earliest recorded meeting on this subject took place in the original Central School on October 23, 1907, and “The People’s Church” was organized six weeks later, on December 7. There was “little conflict of denominations,” as the vast majority were of some form of Protestant faith, and the church was initially organized as Congregationalist. Moreover, though, the founders “wanted a church of the people, for the people, in which all could worship with reverence and freedom.” (The church was rechartered as Interdenominational in 1923.)[Towar, pp. 62, 64]
The first services were held in the College chapel,* the “pulpit… supplied by ministers from the city of Lansing and Olivet College” until Rev. F. W. Corbett, a Methodist minister, became the first regular Pastor in July 1908.[Towar, p. 64]
Peoples Church, as one writer stated without hyperbole, became “the most important integrating force in the community.”[Towar, p. 67] In fact, it was the City’s only church until 1940, when St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic parish was founded.
On Sunday, October 23, 1909, the cornerstone for a church building was laid in College Grove, on a lot three doors east of the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. The brick-and-cement structure, built at a cost of $17,000 and dedicated during the week of October 22, 1910, was in a classical style with four massive pillars supporting the front portico and a small dome in lieu of a steeple. Its auditorium held a mere three hundred worshippers, who held to the “modern ideas that rooms may be occupied daily for purposes social, charitable, religious, or civic.”[Beal, p. 214. Towar, p. 64]
As the congregation grew, the old hall was quickly outmoded. In 1919, the Board of Agriculture considered donating a portion of the College grounds to Peoples Church for a new building site, but dropped this idea after consultation with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, who wrote, “We would advise in the strongest terms against alienating any of the college land south of [Grand River and Michigan] avenues.”[Lautner, p. 126] While the search for a new site continued, a concrete block building with seating for five hundred was erected in 1922, just east of the main building, at a cost of $11,000. It was a temporary expedient while funds were raised for a new church, and its harsh, utilitarian style led it to be nicknamed “McCune’s Garage,” after Pastor N. A. McCune, who had joined the church in August 1917.[Towar, p. 65]
The second and current Peoples Church was designed by Canadian-born architect W. E. N. Hunter of Detroit. Hunter, who also created churches in Highland Park, Grosse Pointe, and other Michigan cities, utilized the Collegiate Gothic style to harmonize with the College buildings of that era. The builder was the H. G. Christman Company of Chicago and Lansing. The cornerstone was laid on November 24, 1923, near the intersection of Grand River and Michigan Avenues in Oakwood, and the completed building was dedicated during the week of May 11–18, 1926. It holds an eleven-hundred-seat sanctuary as well as a hundred-seat chapel, the latter now named for Rev. McCune.[Towar, pp. 66–67]
The addition to the east, built in 1965, occupies the site of the A. C. Bird home, one of several enormous late-Victorian houses that once stood along Grand River Avenue and which have been lost to later development. (See Oakwood for more information.)
Around 1988, the southwest corner of the bell tower was struck by lightning and severely damaged. An excellent restoration was soon completed, making the tower good as new, though a close inspection will reveal that the replacement bricks are of a slightly lighter color, perhaps due to their lack of age.
Peoples Church Bell Tower, November 2003. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.
Boy Scout Troop 2, of which this author was a member 1980–1987 and earned his Eagle award in 1986, meets weekly in the basement of Peoples Church. Troop 2 was chartered on October 31, 1921, and is one of the oldest Boy Scout troops in the country.
Visit The Peoples Church of East Lansing web site.