Church marks 50 years in its unique home

Fifty years ago, a small group of Unitarian Universalists ran out of room in their church. The simpl

Fifty years ago, a small group of Unitarian Universalists ran out of room in their church. The simple decision was to build a bigger one.

But they decided to do much more.

“It doesn’t even look like a church, does it?” said Holly Hawkes, current president of the board of trustees. “They really wanted something completely different and exciting.”

This weekend, the congregation will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the building, which was designed by an architect who had never done a house of worship before.

The front sidewalk is lined with fountains. Inside is a circular sanctuary, where every congregant can see everyone else.

Anniversary chairwoman Lois Porter said the design was inspired by “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham.

“The circular form enhances a real feeling of community, which is what we’re all about,” Porter said. The poem describes circles as a way to keep people out — or draw them in:

“He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win.

We drew a circle that took him in.”

In the back of the church, floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of a garden, fulfilling the members’ goal of bringing nature into the church. There are multipurpose rooms as well, in keeping with the members’ desire to offer space to the community, and the acoustics in the sanctuary are so perfect that musicians often perform there.

Church members didn’t start out with the intention of creating an unusual edifice. They began hesitantly, hiring a consultant to estimate the cost of a new building.

Reassured by low estimates, the members then went on a national search for an unusual architect.

Edward Durel Stone’s design cost nearly $600,000 — more than twice what the members had originally thought they’d spend. They were undeterred.

In one dinner fundraiser, they pledged $325,000. Over the course of several years, they more than doubled their membership and kept raising money. By the time the church was done, they only had to get a mortgage for $35,000.

“These people had an incredible commitment to this building,” Hawkes said. “It’s important to remember those who’ve gone before you and the incredible effort they made to build this beautiful building.”

When they began the search for an architect to design a bigger church, they had about 300 adult members in the congregation. That grew to 700 in a few years. For the past decade, it’s held steady at 400 members, Hawkes said.

Those members will soon be asked to make their own commitment to the building. After 50 years, some of the infrastructure is crumbling, Hawkes said. The fountains need to be fixed.

“We’ve got some renovations on the horizon,” she said.

The church is also facing foreclosure, the result of a paperwork mishap several years ago that left the church off the tax-exempt list.

Although the state gave the city permission to retroactively reinstate the church’s tax-exempt status, the city had already sold the church’s liens to American Tax Funding, a private debt collector that has threatened to foreclose. City officials are negotiating on the church’s behalf, and church members have offered to pay some of their tax bill to recompense the city for the mistake.

The city will “likely” have to pay ATF to get the liens back and stop the foreclosure, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

In the meantime, congregants will celebrate their anniversary.

At 5 p.m. today, they will walk from their former church, at Wendell Avenue and Union Street, to their current church at 1221 Wendell Ave.

After the walk, there will be a scavenger hunt for children, while the adults enjoy music and a slideshow of pictures from the past 50 years.

At 7:30 p.m., there will be a presentation and entertainment on the theme, “Where we have been, where we are now and how we envision the future.”

On Sunday at 9:15 a.m., an architect and an engineer will discuss how the building was designed. At 10:30 a.m., the Rev. Priscilla Richter will hold a service focusing on members’ memories of the building.

Categories: Schenectady County

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