First Congregational Church was committed to building its new home in the Woodlawn neighborhood and enlisted the services of the notable Albany architecture firm, Fuller & Robinson with William Sayles & Son serving as the contractor. The selection of Fuller’s high-profile firm was a great boost to the visibility of this project, however the church’s connection to Fuller goes back to the 19th century. In the late 1800s when Fuller was just beginning to make a name for himself, church records show that Albert Fuller and his wife, Sarah Shaw, had become members of First Congregational Church. When the church later sought out a firm they could trust with their new worship space, Fuller seemed a natural choice. According to a letter found in church archives, Albert Fuller later donated a portion of his commission for this project back to the church as a "personal gift" to the congregation.
Fuller’s original design for the new First Congregational Church called for two buildings – the church itself and an attached “parish house.” However, as the United States entered World War I on April 16th 1917, the cost for building materials dramatically increased. Church leaders were faced with a choice between building a smaller modest church with a parish house, or building the fully realized church proposed by Fuller but without the parish house. The congregation agreed a smaller church would be a safe choice but totally inadequate. So, in order to meet the “growing needs of the future in an adequate, modern way,” leaders chose to build the fully realized church, with the understanding that the Parish House (and possible parsonage) would be put on hold to “await the time of future financial ability.”
On November 25th 1917, the church cornerstone was laid with great ceremony which included the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” Four of the church members who attended the same ceremony in the old church in October 1869 were present: Mr and Mrs David A. Thompson; Daniel Underhill; and Dr. Charles Moore. Architectural renderings were unveiled to the public and an article in the Albany Argus noted:
“the architectural design is Colonial, a type associated with Congregational history from the beginning and familiar to all New Englanders. The main characteristics of the type are the simple rectangular outline, the pillared portico in front, with the bell-tower rising from it in the center.”
While the colonial design was familiar to Congregational history, the Argus noted it to be a departure from local church architecture, saying "there will be no other church building in Albany of this particular type." The article goes on to describe the building as having a large sanctuary and a spacious basement that would serve as the Sunday School, kitchen, and house a bowling alley for recreational use.
In November 24th 1918, the “lower auditorium” social hall in the basement was completed. It was on this date that First Congregational held its first worship in its new location.
By April 1919, the church was completed. In a weeklong ceremony from April 20ththrough the 27th, the church building was dedicated as the “Ray Palmer Memorial” in honor of its first pastor. Reporters heralded the church as one of the finest examples of New England architecture in the region. Inside, the spacious sanctuary was observed to be the largest indoor expanse of space created without the assistance of supporting columns in the middle or sides. The sanctuary also featured a number of items that were gifts and donations from the prominent church members:
- The organ, installed by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut, was given as a memorial to Dr. James McNaughton and his wife, Caroline, by their daughter, Mrs. David A. Thompson. Tower chimes would later be donated by Miss Grace A. Moore in memory of her mother and father, Dr. and Mrs. Charles H. Moore on October 10th 1948.
- The Pulpit and Platform Accessories were given in memory of the Hon. Isaac Edwards and his wife. Isaac Edwards was a charter member of the church.
- The Communion Table and Chairs were given by Mrs. Edith Palmer Foote of Andover Mass, in memory of her grandfather, Dr. Ray Palmer.
- The Hymn Boards were presented by the choir in memory of Jane R. Gorham and Alice Roberts, former members.
- A special gift of $1,000 was presented by Charles E. Brate in memory of his mother, Mrs. Sarah Brate.
- Two pews were dedicted to the memory of Jacob Congdon and Dr. George Gorham.
- The 1919 Pulpit Bible was given by Dr. Charles H. Moore “for the worship of God and in loving memory of his parents, Dr. Levi Moore and Georgenia Todd Moore.”
Although most of the interior fixtures were new additions, two important items were reinstalled from the church’s previous worship spaces:
- The baptismal font was given by Mrs. Ellen Tenny in memory of her husband Professor Jonathan Tenny, educator and author of “Bi-Centennial History of Albany.” The font was originally dedicated on November 18th 1906. At that time, the Tenny’s granddaughter and Doris Hagar, daughter of the minister, were baptized. The font was removed from the Eagle and Beaver street church and relocated to its new home at the front of the sanctuary.
- The church bell, dating to the late 1800s, had been salvaged from the first downtown church. The bell was from the Meneely Bell Foundry of Troy and was so important to the congregation that the bell tower was redesigned to accommodate this larger bell. The bell continues to ring every Sunday morning.
- The Inter Church Emergency Fund
- The Home Missionary Society and American Missionary Association.
- The Anti-Saloon League (a temperance organization)
- The Tuberculosis Fund.
First Congregational Church also supported missionary activities and provided funds for John X. Miller who was serving as a missionary in India in 1919.
First Congregational also believed that social organizations within the community were just as important for the health and spiritual wellbeing of its members. The church hosted a number of youth groups including the Pilgrim Fellowship (for Junior and High School aged children) and the Scrooby Club, “an organization for older young people.” The church also hosted Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. This was in addition to an expanded Sunday School program that met Sunday mornings and was divided into different classes based on ages (beginner, primary, junior and senior level). Children and young adults were also invited to sing in the senior and junior choirs of the church.
At a time when women had just been given the right to vote, the church was already hosting programs for women and families. The “Ray Palmer Guild” was organized in 1928 by Mrs. Richard O. Ficken as a fellowship for “business and professional women.” The name of the Guild was suggested by Miss Ruhamah Nichols, a charter member. The church also hosted the Women’s Association and the Mother’s Club for women with children in the church school. A Couples’ Club for young married couples of the church was also hosted monthly.
For recreation, the church participated in a bowling league with other churches. Known as the “Sunday School Athletic League of Albany, NY,” First Congregational Church competed with other church-sponsored teams from First Methodist, Park United Presbyterian, Protestant Evangelical, Calvary Methodist Episcopal, Hope Baptist and several other churches in the Albany area, all reflecting a wide range of Protestant denominations.
First Congregational Church continued to thrive and on November 14th 1928, the Rev. Richard O. Ficken was called to be pastor of the church. Under Mr. Ficken’s leadership, the congregation observed the 85th anniversary of the church in 1935. Services on October 6th 1935 featured:
- A sermon delivered by the Rev. Charles H. Hagar, former pastor of First Congregational;
- The historical drama “The Separatists” was presented by the Church School;
- Communion services were conducted by the Rev. F.L. Fagley, assistant secretary of the General Council and brother of Mrs. Ficken.
- The dedication of a second stained-glass window, given by Frank McClure and his family in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Harry McClure. The first window had been given by Frank McClure and his family during the 75th anniversary celebrations
First Congregational Church continued to be at the forefront of religious live in Albany during the 1930s and 1940s. In January 1939, the church hosted a panel discussion with representatives from local church organizations on the topic of “being an effective church member.” World Friendship dinners were also introduced to encourage cooperation between the denominations.
In 1941, the Rev. Lee Fletcher from Fairpoint New York became pastor of First Congregational and delivered his first sermon on September 7th 1941. Under Rev. Fletcher’s guidance, First Congregational remained committed to active involvement in local and regional religious discussion. Rev. Fletcher served as President of the Albany Torch Club (1946-1947); President of the Albany Ministers Association (1948-1949); and Moderator of the New York Congregational Christian Conference (1949). Rev. Fletcher was also a longtime member of the Board of Directors of New York Congregational Christian Conference and member of the Board of Directors of The Federation of Churches of Albany and Vicinity. He was also co-author of a book of daily devotions written for men in the services during the war. His sermon “The Roots of the Tree” was included in the book “Sermons of Goodwill” published by The Churchmen in its “Sermon of the Week” project. Each sermon was broadcast over a nationwide hookup and each writer given a citation.
The Rev. Lloyd R. Stamp was later installed as pastor of First Congregational Church in 1955. Owing to the success of First Congregational Church, the congregation was approached by the First Christian Church (also known as the “Second Congregational Church”) to discuss a merger. Under the proposed merger, the congregational of the First Christian Church would be inducted as members of the First Congregational Church, and the Christian Church building sold. The merger of these two churches took place in December 1956.
In 1959, the Rev. William R. Hampton was called as pastor. Rev. Hampton preached his first sermon on December 6, 1959. With the combined membership of First Congregational and First Christian Church members, increased pressures for additional space were being put on the church building. However, the increases in membership and financial standing allowed First Congregational Church to revisit Fuller’s original plans for an Education Wing (referred to in 1917 plans as the “Parish House”).
In celebration of its 110th anniversary, First Congregational Church broke ground for a new Christian Education Building on Palm Sunday, April 10th 1960. While the original Fuller and Robinson plans for the building called for a Colonial Revival style similar to the church (with a broad hipped roof and columns on its main façade to mimic the church’s entry portico), the proposal offered by architect Charles A. Schade was a contemporary Modern design. Schade was a well-known Albany architect during the mid-20th century and had already designed several local churches. Schade’s design featured a red brick addition with simple minimalistic lines to harmonize with the existing building. Also noteworthy: the addition was designed to have minimal impact on the original church building.
Inside the addition, Schade called for the creation of 11 new Sunday School classrooms, a nursery, a women’s lounge, and a choir room. As the addition would be located on top of the exterior access to the basement, access to the hall was moved to the opposite side. Additionally, Schade designed a new heating and lighting system and remodeled the basement recreation rooms, creating an updated kitchen.
On Palm Sunday, March 26th 1961, church school pupils and teachers marched into their new classrooms. A Jubilee Dinner on April 20th 1961 featured the Rev. Lee Feltcher, former pastor, and other dignitaries in attendance. A formal service of dedication for the Christian Education Building and re-dedication of the church was held on Sunday, April 23rd 1961.
By 1975, the church mortgage had been completely paid off. On Palm Sunday, March 23rd 1975, a “Mortgage Burning Ceremony” was held under the direction of the Rev. William R. Hampton and Mr. Leo Maynard. Th ashes from that ceremony are still held in the church archives.
On Saturday, May 1st 1976, the church celebrated its 125th anniversary with a banquet. A pageant written by Mr. Fletcher was re-written and updated by Mrs. W. Wilson Sumner, who also directed the performance. A large 125th Anniversary booklet was also published and contained pictures of earlier buildings, a brief history written by Jay Jakovic, photographs of church activities and pictures of the church families. On Sunday May 2, the special speakers at the morning church service were Robert Smith, representing the former First Christian Church, Leo H. Maynard, representing the Congregational Church, and the Rev. William R Hampton.
In 1982, Rev. Hampton announced his retirement. A dinner held on Saturday April 24th 1982 honored Rev. Hampton and his wife, Elizabeth, for their many years of faithful service. Rev. Hampton preached his farewell sermon on Sunday April 25th. The Rev. Dorman Avery stepped in as guest minister while the church searched for a new minister.
At a special meeting on June 27th 1982, a called was issued to the Rev. Paul Spear Fraser. Rev. Fraser’s first church service was held on Sunday September 12th 1982.
The Church continued to celebrate its history over the years. In 1986, First Congregational Church celebrated its 136th anniversary and in 2000 celebrated its sesquicentennial with a large dinner in the social hall. Past and present friends and members of the church were invited as was Rev. Hampton with his wife, Elizabeth. It was during the 2000 celebrations that the former Women’s Lounge was updated, refurbished, and rededicated as Hampton Lounge in honor of Rev. Hampton and his long dedication to the life of the congregation.