Cornerstone Centennial (2017)
Remarks by John Dennehey, Church Historian (November 19th, 2017)

Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. It's also our "Cornerstone Commemoration" Sunday. So what? Who cares about the cornerstone?  It's a block.... with a date. We can't even get to what's inside it without ripping out that whole part of the building. So why celebrate a stone?

It turns out that it's actually a pretty big deal. The cornerstone is literally a stone placed at the corner of a building. But it's important because it's usually one of the largest, most solid, and carefully constructed stones in the whole building because it secures the foundation and keeps the walls from falling down.  If you look around Albany, the word “cornerstone” is thrown all over the place - "Cornerstone Apartments”, “Cornerstone Loans", “Cornerstone Restaurant at the Empire State Plaza”….

But the cornerstone is actually a little more symbolic for us. If you’ve spent any time in a Sunday School class, you probably remember that the bible keeps using the symbolism of Jesus as “the cornerstone" (over and over). Psalm 118 (the most well-known) says: “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone.”

But before Jesus even arrives on the scene, we have Isaiah 28 predicting his arrival with: "thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.”

Zechariah 10 says: “From the people will come the cornerstone, From them the tent peg, From them the bow of battle, From them every ruler, all of them together.”

In the New Testament, Acts 4 repeats the old testament metaphor: “Jesus is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else”

1 Peter 2 repeats the old testament passage: “Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed."

And finally, one of the most important passages for today’s commemoration is found in Ephesians 2: “you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”

The metaphor is to say that Jesus is the most important part of the foundation upon which our faith is anchored. So the cornerstone of our building is important, not just physically, but also theologically. 

On Monday, November 26th,  1917, the front page of the Albany Times Union carried the headline: “Chairman Stone Urges War on Germany’s Allies.” However a few pages after that headline, appeared a story about the laying of our church cornerstone at 405 Quail. 

The ceremony was held outside (because obviously there wasn't an inside built yet) and the Albany Times Union describes weather conditions as "...penetrating wind and cold weather."  Yet despite that, we had "...several hundred people in attendance" including four church members who had been at the laying of the cornerstone at our previous church building in 1896: Daniel Underhill; Dr. Charles Moore; and Mr. and Mrs. David A. Thompson. If you look around our church you’ll probably see their names. Meanwhile, The Albany Argus ran a full page spread on the event, describing the audience as containing, “the most prominent dignitaries of the day.”

The congregation of our church wasn't new (we'd been downtown since 1850 and had an impressive congregation of 300 attendees) but our church building was new. More important, we weren't just constructing a new building, we were embarking on a new beginning as a vital community resource in an area of the city that had been considered “too remote to reach” by other congregations at the time.

Furthermore, when the cornerstone was placed, the church had already secured the firm of Fuller and Robinson as architects. Those familiar with Albany will probably know that Albert Fuller was one of the leading architects of Albany. He had also, at one time, been a member of First Congregational Church when it was downtown.

As if a prominent church engaging a notable architect wasn't enough to draw the attention of the city, Fuller's design of the church was radical for 1917 Albany. The Albany Argus said "There will be no other building in Albany of this particular (architectural) type." At that time, churches throughout the city were limited to particular styles. Most religious buildings favored some variation of the Gothic style of architecture (The Cathedral of the Immacutalte Conception in the Neo-Gothic style, The Cathedral of All Saints in the Gothic style, and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in the French Gothic revival). Additionally, St. Mary's Church was using a Romanesque Revival style (with a French Gothic Revival interior) and First Reformed Church downtown combined elements of the Gothic Revival style with a European influence.  First Congregational Church's Colonial Revival style, featuring a pillared portico and bell tower in the center, was unlike anything the city had seen. 

In November 1917, everyone was talking about this prominent church building a radical building with a notable architect in the middle of the countryside - past the Poor House, the Orphan Asylum, and the Tuberculous Hospital. 

But remember when I said this was considered “too remote for other congregations”? Well before you think of a pastoral landscape with rolling hills and frolicking wildlife, let me paint you a picture of 405 Quail Street in 1917. There were some homes, a Sunday school that we set up about a year or so prior, an Ice House right about where the Fountain Restaurant is today, and that's it. Oh... and the coyotes.

The city line had just been extended a little bit past here, a toll booth was right down the street near School 19, New Scotland was a dirt road, and trolley service didn't even reach this neighborhood. In fact, Henry McClure (another name you might see around this church) had to work out a deal with the New Scotland Auto Bus Line to run a special bus to the church from downtown. Even with that arrangement, the bus would drop off parishioners at the corner of Quail and Madison Avenue.

Ever try to walk to the church from Madison Avenue? It feels like it's uphill both ways. Not only that, but the part where the road dips down was where the Beaver Creek ran. Imagine doing that walk along a dirt road, over a creek, in a sparcely populated area, dressed in full "Sunday regalia" with silks and scarves and fancy hats and shoes.

Yet despite all this, our congregation chose here to build a church... for a community that needed a church.... where others had said "no."  And in the "penetrating wind and cold weather," several hundred people showed up to celebrate that. 

But the “remote location” wasn’t the only big risk. Even as the cornerstone was being placed, the church didn’t have enough money to finish the building. 

As I said, 1917 was the year the United States entered World War 1 and by November, costs were skyrocketing. A letter from Rev. Hager to the congregation describes "unprecedented high cost of building operations due to the war situation ….  (so) the church has been obliged to make a choice between erecting a small and inadequate structure as could be wholly completed without incurring an over-burdening debt, or adopting another plan of building as much as could be wisely financed to meet the growing needs of the future in an adequate, modern way. The latter policy was followed.”

So the church knew it could pay for the exterior and Palmer Hall below the sanctuary (and maybe part of the narthex) but there wasn’t nearly enough money for the actual sanctuatry itself.  And still, the congregation was dedicating a cornerstone with several hundred people in attendance in the cold.

Why? Faith

Let me reiterate what I said earlier. I can’t get to the cornerstone without ripping apart the staircase in the narthex (so we're not doing that any time soon) but I DO know whats in the cornerstone: 

  • A church year book from 1916 updated to November 1917
  • Our form for new members with our confession of faith and covenant
  • A history of our church (fortuntely a copy was made for the archives)
  • A copy of the Cornerstone Ceremony program
  • A copy of the constitution and members of the Hudson River Association of Congregational Churches
  • A copy of the New York Times from Sunday, November 25th 1917
  • Copies of each of the daily newspapers for the day before and the day of the ceremony including: The Knickerbocker Press, The Albany Argus, The Albany Evening Journal, and The Albany Times Union (and, it's worth noting, that none of these copies exist in Albany's Libraries or its Archives so these may be the only copies still in existence).
  • Annual reports of: The Albany Hospital, The Albany Orphan Asylum, and The Home for Aged Men,
  • The 1917 University Club Yearbook
  • The 1917 Yearbook from The Albany Girls Academy (women gained the right to vote in New York State in 1917 so it's believed this is why the yearbook was included) 
  • Webster’s Almanac for 1917
  • Coins minted in 1917

This isn’t the kind of stuff you throw in a shoebox half-heartedly. These are all things meant to document a significant passage of time. This is tangable faith that those things will be seen by future generations... or as Rev. Hagar called it “The Albany that is yet to be.” It’s the faith that the church will be built even when logic says that it’s a TERRIBLE idea to build something so expensive out in the wilderness without having enough money to finish it.

But they were right.

Eventually the war ended, New Scotland Avenue was paved, bus service now stops right in front of our cornerstone, the building was completed in its entirety in 1919, and the "secondary building" noted in the original plans as a "parish house for activities" was eventually built in 1960 as our Education Wing.

A hundred years after the dedication of the corner stone, First Congregational continues to be a vibrant and vital part of the surrounding community and the City of Albany. In 2014 we presented our case that First Congregational has contributed significantly to local and national history. That same year, we were placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Today, as part of our commemoration of the Cornerstone Dedication, I’d like to unveil a symbol of where we were and where we’re going. This marker identifying us as a site on the National Register of Historic Places was awarded to us by the Pomroy Foundation in celebration of all that we’ve accomplished as a congregation.  This spring we’ll be dedicating it, on the building, with our usual fanfare. 

Today’s cornerstone commemoration marks the beginning of some great initiatives we have planned over the next two years, culminating in a Grand Celebration for our building’s centennial in 2019.

But TODAY… it’s all about the cornerstone…. 

The cornerstone is the first step. It's the most important step. Even when the church had no idea where they were going on how they were going to get there, they took that first step ... on faith. So I want each of you today to remember that even with no idea where you're going or how you’ll get there, every great enterprise begins with that first step…and a corner stone… and faith.

Thank you  

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