Plymouth Church to become even more welcoming

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

For more than two decades, Milwaukee’s Plymouth Church has been a welcoming and affirming place for LGBT people to worship. The church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, perhaps the nation’s most progressive Protestant denomination. 

Located on the city’s East Side, the church provides space for a number of community organizations, including several LGBT groups. Equality Wisconsin, SAGE Milwaukee and City of Festivals Men’s Choruss have offices and meeting space on the premises. 

But while the congregation is as welcoming as any to be found in Wisconsin, the building itself is not, according to pastor Andrew Warner. Designed by architect Alexander Eschweiler and completed in 1913, the church is a magnificent example of early 20th century Gothic architecture, but it offers minimal handicap access. And, except for the sanctuary, the building is divided into small spaces that discourage spontaneous conversations and a sense of openness and vitality.

The building’s steep, narrow stairways are difficult for older people to navigate.

“We say, ‘All are welcome,’ but it isn’t true,” Warner said.

But the situation is about to change. 

Following a successful capital campaign last year called REACH – for “renovate, enhance and make accessible our church home” – Plymouth has begun a $1.67 million renovation that will dramatically remodel 8,616 of the building’s 35,628 square feet. Vince Micha, an architect with The Kubala Washatko Architects, has redesigned the space to make the church’s interior more navigable, open and reflective of the congregation’s core values. 

“We want to physically embody the open and affirming ethos of the congregation,” Warner said.

The church’s most frequently used entrance is not through the sanctuary on Summit Avenue but rather a door on the north of the building at 2717 E. Hampshire St. The door leads into a tiny hallway where narrow stairs lead to other narrow hallways. The result is that the surrounding spaces ­– including the large dining room downstairs and upstairs offices – are cut-off from one another, concealing the building’s many activities from each other rather than bringing them visually together to create a sense of shared community.

“The current entrance is kind of a choke point,” Micha said. “It’s never extended the arms of welcome. The building kind of frowns.”

Eschweiler intended his Gothic design, built in what was then Milwaukee’s outskirts, to evoke the sentimentality of a country English church, Warner explained. One of the famed architect’s primary goals was to create a respite from the grit of the city, which was then at the height of industrialization.

The building’s exterior and its sanctuary are stunning testaments to the craftsmanship of a century ago, built of materials that are now in such rare supply that they’re prohibitively expensive. The sanctuary features opulent stained glass windows, a cypress ceiling and elaborate brass sconces.

But small, divided spaces are also a hallmark of architectural design from the era – an aesthetic that’s sharply at odds with the open floor plans favored today. The space was further divided as the building grew. In 1915, a gym was constructed as a way of serving youth in the area and attracting them to attend church. The addition of the gym marked the beginning of the church’s expansion into something of a neighborhood community center.

Classrooms were later built above the gym, and in the 1940s an education wing, which currently houses a pre-school, was constructed on the campus’ southeast corner.

The renovation now underway is the first of a three-phase project to reconfigure much of the church’s interior space. Phase I focuses on the Hampshire Street entrance, which will be reconstructed as an open area that’s wheelchair accessible, inviting and brings the building’s activities together, said Kathryn Kamm, an architect and member of Plymouth Church who serves on the project’s build committee. It will also offer passersby a literal window into the congregation’s many activities, she said.

“Right now, for those walking by, (Plymouth) is just another dusty old East Side church,” Kamm said. “This will make us stand out as a more active and vibrant church.” 

The redesign is based on feedback from congregants and partners of the church, who were asked what they liked and didn’t like about the existing configuration. 

Due to the building’s architectural importance and its contribution to the historic streetscape, its exterior will remain as much intact as possible, Micha said. “We want to send a signal of activity and life,” he said, “but not in an overstated, overblown way – rather one that respects and celebrates the Eschweiler design.”

The building will be rededicated on May 19, 2013, which is the 100th anniversary of the original building’s completion. The Rev. J. Bennett Guess will be featured at the event. Like Warner, he is an out gay man.

While the plans for the renovation are impressive, equally impressive is the way the congregation and the surrounding community came together during tough economic times to raise the money needed, said Warner, Kamm and Micha. Much of the project’s cost will be eaten up by ho-hum work such as moving utilities, asbestos abatement and working around the inevitable structural surprises lurking in the church’s old walls – not exactly the sort of inspiring efforts that make people want to open their wallets.

Church officials began looking into the renovation in 2005, but the project went on hold after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. In 2010, the church conducted a congregational meeting to reopen a dialogue about the project. Parishioners agreed with the need for the project but asked to delay the capital campaign for a year.

Then, in 2011, the entire sum for the project was either raised or pledged within a matter of months. The strong response among donors was largely the result of the role that the church plays in the larger community.

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund was among those supporters.

“In the communities of faith, I think Plymouth Church is a stellar example of walking the walk and talking the talk,” said Joe Pabst, who founded the fund. “It exemplifies goodness. The church provided space for Equality Wisconsin and SAGE when both organizations were frankly in a pinch. I have great respect and admiration for people and an organization that would come through for people like this and go beyond their own community of parishioners.”

After the renovation is complete, the church will have an even greater capacity to accommodate local groups as well as to host events and activities, Kamm said. And that’s a prospect that the church will welcome with its arms more open than ever.