SCHENECTADY — Much like the venerable neighborhood it calls home, the building that houses the First Reformed Church of Schenectady is filled with nooks and crannies, each oozing with history.
Disturbing that hallowed ground — the congregation dates back beyond the 1690 Schenectady Massacre — isn’t done without attention to detail and paying homage to the long, rich history, and First Reformed Senior Pastor Bill Levering wasn’t about to overlook that.
“There were 10 percent of the people who weren’t crazy about this,” said Levering, referring to the church’s $3.65 million plan to renovate the building and grounds at the corner of North Church and Union streets in the Stockade Neighborhood. “It’s a big deal, and it requires some sacrifice and chaos. But our church has outgrown the current assembly space.
“Plus, our buildings have been added to and patched up over the years, making for a maze of confusing spaces. These renovations create a unified campus, which makes sense and also meets our commitment to people of all abilities by improving accessibility.”
Construction has already begun, and at an official ground-breaking ceremony Wednesday morning, Levering was joined by church staff, members of the congregation and Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy to mark the occasion. Also present were representatives from the architectural firm behind the transformation — Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker Architects — and the construction company, Rosch Brothers, that is doing the work.
“We are here today not only to break ground, but we are here to dig in,” said Levering. “We are here to dig into the needs of our community. We are here to dig into the needs of folks looking for stability in their lives, and we are here to dig into Schenectady because we believe in the future of Schenectady. We are not just moving pieces of dirt around.”
Among the major changes to the church will be a new space called Covenant Hall, a light-filled and large open space for assembly directly adjacent to the main sanctuary. Another addition will be the Mohawk Mission Center, another large meeting space that will be available to outside groups.
Fred Daniels, a deacon at the church who oversaw all of the planning for the renovation, said everyone associated with the congregation had input on the project.
“We’ve been around for 338 years, and over that time, we’ve added buildings and connected buildings in a hodgepodge kind of way,” said Daniels. “When the prospect of a major capital renovation was first suggested, I felt strongly that a broad consensus would have to be built within the congregation. The working committee held dozens of meetings with constituent groups within the congregation: musicians, foodies, youth leaders, adult ed leaders, ministers and more.”
No one, according to Laurence Wilson of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker Architects, was more concerned about maintaining the integrity and historic nature of the building than the people designing the new work.
“This is what we do: historic preservation work and adapted use,” said Wilson. “Most of the buildings we deal with, and that is certainly the case with this building, are of very high quality. This building involved a lot of energy and commitment from the previous generations, so this is the kind of project that we relish and cherish.”
The Dutch Reformed Church in Schenectady dates back to 1680, two decades after the settlement was founded by Arendt Van Curler. The current church building is the fifth one built by the congregation, and the look of its facade, despite a large fire in 1948, closely resembles the 1863 design by Edward Tuckerman Potter.
The First Reformed opened its new church in 1950 and underwent some major renovations in 2004, including the installation of a new heating and sound system. Some of the more recent changes, according to Wilson, will disappear.
“What we are taking down will be things that were added to the building or built later,” said Wilson. “We’ll be taking away accretions brought into the building, and so what we’re doing is re-creating a version of the place that also reflects back on what it was like originally.”
The new church grounds will be completely compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and will also reflect a recent decision to adopt a Care of Creation Covenant, designed to decrease the church’s carbon footprint, enhance energy efficiency and encourage sustainable practices by the congregation.
“Every working committee of the church is finding ways to conserve energy and embrace the covenant of environmental stewardship,” said First Reformed Associate Pastor Daniel Carlson. “Not only will the building renovations improve our energy efficiency, but we have also included a modest green roof as a symbol and reminder to the congregation and community of the many ways that each of us can and should safeguard God’s creation: the Earth.”
First Reformed of Schenectady began a capital campaign in January of 2016 to pay for the renovations and had raised more than $1 million toward its goal of $3.65 million by October. The rest of the money, more than $2 million, was taken from the church’s endowment.