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The restoration of downtown Presbyterian church

The restoration of downtown Presbyterian church

The imposing twin-towered brick building on the corner of Church Street and Fifth Avenue North has been home to the Downtown Presbyterian Church since 1851. The church’s sober exterior belies the ornate Egyptian Revival style that runs riot inside, where the sanctuary resembles some ancient columned temple on the Nile. Designed by William Strickland, the renowned architect who also designed the Tennessee state capitol building, the church is one of Music City’s greatest architectural treasures. “I think it’s the finest example of 19th-century Egyptian Revival architecture in the world,” says Jim Hoobler, senior curator of art and architecture at the Tennessee State Museum. Hoobler, a longtime Downtown Presbyterian member and elder, is overseeing the $1.2 million restoration of National Historical Landmark building, which will be complete in time for the building’s 150th birthday celebration April 29.

Egyptian Revival refers to a style in American and European architecture and decorative arts that enjoyed periods of popularity from the mid-1800s to early 1900s. It is characterized by the use of Egyptian forms and motifs including obelisks, pyramids, hieroglyphs, winged solar discs, sphinxes, papyruses, and lotus buds. “During the first wave of popularity in the 1840s, Egyptian Revival was used in a lot of prisons, cemeteries, and monuments,” Hoobler says, citing New York City’s notorious city jail “The Tombs” and the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital as examples. “The second wave came in the 1880s, when heads and feet of Egyptian gods became popular elements in furniture design and obelisk or pyramid-shaped clocks were fashionable. The last wave was in the 1920s, which was when theater builders especially embraced the style.”

Downtown Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1849-1851, during the first flush of Egyptian Revival popularity, but the sanctuary painting wasn’t completed until the 1880s, during the style’s second period of popularity. “The exterior columns and entablature [the area between the columns and the eaves] were also left off the facade in the beginning,” adds Hoobler. “The sanctuary’s half columns, Egyptian moldings, and pediments were originally painted gray. The windows had clear rather than stained glass and the ceiling was flat, which produced a bad echo.”

The building took its lumps during the Civil War, when Union troops occupying Nashville removed the pews and used the church as a hospital for almost two years. After the war, the federal government paid the church $7,500 for damages and the money went to repairs, repainting, new carpets, and pew cushions. It wasn’t until 1880, however, that the brightly colored designs and elaborate papyrus and lotus flower motifs were added to the church’s interior. Theo Knoch and John Schleischer, artisans who had worked on the original structure, were also brought back to do the colorful perspective paintings that flank the altar. Painted ceiling panels depicting a blue sky with white clouds were added during this phase. In 1880, the missing two columns were also added to the front of the building, and the jewel-colored stained-glass windows with their palm trees and other Egyptian images were installed in 1887.

There were remodeling efforts in 1897, 1937, and 1954, but none of these were as meticulously researched and executed as the current restoration project. Most, in fact, amounted to what Hoobler calls “re-muddling” rather than remodeling, with well-meaning workmen applying historically incorrect colors and sloppy stenciling techniques to the sanctuary walls, ceilings, and columns.

The current effort began in 1994 with the installation of a $480,000 heating and cooling system in the 40,000-square-foot building. The next step, undertaken in 1997, was “sealing the envelope”—preservation jargon for securing the building’s exterior to prevent damage from moisture and other elements. Workers first “sealed” the church’s education building, a 1917 structure designed by Henry Hibbs, a noted Nashville architect who also designed Scarritt-Bennett Center and the Fisk University library. Next, the Strickland-designed main building was sealed and a $110,000 standing seam copper roof and copper window hoods were installed in 1998.

Restoring the sanctuary, the final phase of the restoration, is currently under way at a cost of $448,000. Determining the paint colors that were used in the sanctuary over 100 years ago required some expert detective work, according to Hoobler, especially since even the areas that had never been repainted had changed color over time. “The sanctuary ceiling panels were originally painted blue with white clouds. But blues tend to age to the green end of the color spectrum, and the panels had turned a very gloomy-looking green,” says Hoobler. “We hired Evergreen Studios of New York City to do the historical paint analysis, and they found that 16 colors had been used to paint the original ceiling panels.” The company used those colors to create new painted canvas panels that have been inserted over the old ceiling panels. “Each of the 40 panels is really a separate oil painting on stretched canvas,” Hoobler says of the sanctuary ceiling.

Another discovery made during the ceiling restoration posed a minor mystery. “Under the old painted canvas panels we found fine wire screens that had also been painted to simulate a sky with clouds,” says Hoobler. Church records confirmed that during the 1890s, an artisan identified only as “a Frenchman” had been hired to repaint the ceiling panels. Records also report that he complained—actually, the records say he “wept”—because the wire surface kept absorbing the paint. He was finally allowed to add a layer of paper behind the wire so that his paint would adhere better. Bits of that paper layer were also found during the current restoration. But why wire screens in the first place? “There are still hinged doors on the church roof above each ceiling panel, and we think these may have been opened during the summers to allow air to circulate through the wire screens as an early ventilation system,” Hoobler says.

In addition to restoring the ceiling panels, artisans have also repainted the elaborate designs that cover the walls of the sanctuary. “The colors are all much brighter now,” says Hoobler. “The pyramid shapes on the entablature, for example, had been painted a kind of bluish turquoise during one of the previous remodeling efforts, but now they are the bright green that they were first painted in 1880.” Hoobler knows historic preservation is a never-ending process, but he is pleased at the results achieved at Downtown Presbyterian—for now.

“It should be good for another 50 years now,” Hoobler says.

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