Landmarks: Christian Science church draws admirers of architecture

Bernhardt E. Muller was quite proud of his building, and so are the people using it today.

Bernhardt E. Muller was quite proud of his building, and so are the people using it today.

“It’s a very unique building, and it’s built solid, I can tell you that,” Brad Smith said of the 1924 structure that is home to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, of Schenectady. “Muller designed Christian Science churches all over, and I think he made this one real special.”

The building is at the corner of Brierwood Boulevard and Union Street, and is rather an imposing structure, its facade consisting of an extensive curved portico and six columns, each 28 feet high. There are 10 steps leading up to the grand entrance of the building, which was made of cast granite, terra cotta and buff tapestry brick. In his own description of the building provided by Muller to the church for its opening 88 years ago, he said it was a combination of the “Adamesque style,” from the reign of King George III of England, and American Colonial.

Strength and simplicity

“This Adam style of architecture is eminently suitable to a Christian Science Church by reason of its grace, dignity and refinement,” wrote Muller, himself a Christian Scientist. “It is characterized by purity, strength and simplicity of ornamentation.”

Muller, who often worshipped at the Maplewood, N.J. branch, designed Christian Science churches throughout New York, including Brooklyn (1918), Hempstead (1924), Forest Hills (1925), Bronxville (1929) and Flushing (1930).

“I get people stopping by because they read about the church in some architectural digest and they want to see it,” said Smith, who is referred to by his friends and fellow church members as the “fixcilities manager.” “I approach them because I see them looking at our building, we start talking and they ask me if they can see the inside. That’s probably happened a dozen times in the past few years.”

T.H. McHale and Sons of Syracuse constructed the building, and on March 1, 1925, the first service was held in the large basement downstairs. The building is 92 feet square, and the main sanctuary was built to seat 418 people, although some of the pews have been removed. The project wasn’t completed until 1949 under the direction of architect J.M. Ryder of Jay Street, and in 1959 a balcony was added by another architect, William Cooper of Amsterdam.

As impressive as Muller’s facade is, the interior of the building is not elaborate or ornate, but instead simple and dignified. Along with the sanctuary, there is a large lobby area and several smaller rooms used for committee meetings and various other purposes. The building wasn’t dedicated until Nov. 19, 1964, which coincidentally was the same year that Muller died at the age of 85.

“Christian Science churches aren’t dedicated until they are debt-free,” said Charlton resident David Stafford, who heads up the church’s board of directors.

No major renovations

“But the building is in pretty good shape. There is plenty of normal upkeep, and we did have to put a new roof on about five years ago, and we’ve painted some over the years. There were also some rafters in the roof we had to fix, but there’s been nothing major.”

The first Christian Scientists in Schenectady were Mr. and Mrs. Robert Richardson, who held the initial gathering in their home at 927 Albany St. on Nov. 28, 1897. A legal charter was issued on March 6, 1899, and the group became a recognized branch of the mother church in Boston. As more people joined, the church’s meeting place was moved to Schubert Hall at 228 State St., the Knights of Pythias Hall at 436 State St., and the public library at Seward Place and Union Street.

In September of 1908 the church bought some property at the corner of Parkwood Boulevard and Rugby Road, and moved into their new structure in 1910. The group remained in that building, now occupied by the Little Ones Nursery and Daycare Center, until the current building was ready for use.

At the time there was a large bluestone quarry in that area of Union Street between Wendell Avenue and Glenwood Boulevard. The city had been expanding eastward for some time, with Parkwood Boulevard and Glenwood Boulevard being built in 1903.

But, because of the quarry, the section where Brierwood and Maryland Avenue are located had been initially bypassed. Those two streets don’t show up in the city directory until 1924.

“The population of the city increased by 40,000 from 1900 to 1910, and there was an awful lot of development in that area,” said former Schenectady County Historical Society president Frank Taormina, who has closely studied the city’s history and its population growth.

“It all started with the GE Realty Plot around 1900, and then you had lovely little neighborhoods like the one around that church; Brierwood, Maryland and Oxford Place, start to develop. People living there probably didn’t have as much money as the wealthy people living in the GE Realty Plot, but they were prosperous. It’s a great little neighborhood.”

Founded in 1879

The Christian Science denomination was founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, a native of Dow, N.H., who lived most of her life in the Boston area. Sickly as a child and ill throughout much of her early adult life, Eddy became convinced that illness could be healed through prayer and an awakened thought process brought about by a clearer perception of God. A major aspect of that process was a rejection of drugs, hygiene and medicine based upon the observation that Jesus did not use these methods for healing.

While Eddy reportedly had healing powers as a child and young woman, it wasn’t until 1866, at the age of 45, that she developed an understanding and appreciation for God’s role in healing. Her “revelation” came following a fall that left her bedridden for three days. After she called for her Bible, Eddy read Matthew, Chapter 9, Verse 2, and according to her own account, “As I read, the healing Truth dawned upon my sense; and the result was that I arose, dressed myself, and ever after was in better health than I had before enjoyed.”

A Congregationalist growing up, Eddy devoted the next three years of her life to biblical study and began writing the papers that would be the basis for her new faith she called Church of Christ, Scientist. Eddy also produced a book, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” that became the companion to the Bible among her followers. Both continue to be read at the group’s Wednesday and Sunday meetings.

While Eddy often referred to herself and others in the faith as pastors, these days each congregation goes about its business without an ordained leader to provide sermons. Instead, readers are elected for three-year terms, and during each Sunday and Wednesday meeting one reader reads from the Bible and the other reads from Eddy’s “Science and Health.”

“The readers are elected among the membership, and when they’re done with their readings we then have testimonials of healing that people have experienced,” said Stafford, who has been attending the Schenectady branch for more than 50 years. “Our meetings usually run about an hour.”

All of the major decisions regarding the Schenectady church are determined by a five-person board of directors. The directors, like the readers, serve three-year terms. Like many churches in recent times, the Christian Scientists in Schenectady have seen a decrease in their numbers.

“We could use some new members, and we try to encourage people to come to one of our meetings,” said Stafford. “We believe in the healing power of the Christ, and we like to stress that many of our problems today can be helped by the spiritual message we get from the Bible.”

Eddy’s original church building in Boston was completed in 1894, and in 1908, just two years before her death at the age of 89, she oversaw the creation of a daily newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, which is still run and operated by the church today.

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