In 1830, Cincinnati was a bustling economic and cultural center west of the Allegheny mountains. Its population in the forty years since settlers first arrived had grown to 26,500 and included Irish and German immigrants as well as a large number of Easterners. It was a group of these transplanted New Englanders that joined together to form the First Congregational Church of Cincinnati in 1830. Like so many other Congregational Churches in New England, this one was affiliated with the American Unitarian Association. Their first meeting house was a small building on Fourth Street in the heart of the city.
The Taft Connection
The article by church member Walter Herz (now deceased) that appeared in the Cincinnati Historical Society's magazine, Queen City Heritage, portrays a number of early influential ministers and lay persons who were part of the congregation in the first century. As the title of Walt's article declares, "Influence Transcending Mere Numbers," the members of First Church exerted a significant impact on the community. Probably the most famous members of the congregation were the Tafts, including William Howard Taft who grew up in the church and later became President of the United States.
In addition to this article, two other church histories have been published, one written in 1917 by Minister Emeritus George Thayer and the second written in 1982 by longtime member Edwin Lutton.
The Move to the "Suburbs"
In the 1880s, the congregation decided to move from the downtown area to what was then considered the suburbs. Many congregants had moved to the neighborhood called Avondale and they wanted the church close by. The church's current site at the corner of Reading Rd. and Linton St. was purchased and ground broken in 1888, and Rev. George Thayer (1882-1916) directed the effort. Designed by the noted local architect James McLaughlin, the sanctuary is graced by several Tiffany windows and a distinctive wood-carved pulpit.
Rev. Thayer's ministry was the longest in the church's history, and he was the first of three ministers to be awarded the title of Minister Emeritus. The next minister, Alson Robinson, however, served less than one year. His strong pacifism in the midst of World War I did not sit well with a majority of members and he was forced to resign.
John Malick (1918-1939) succeeded Robinson and served the second longest term in church history. During this period, the church changed its name from the First Congregational Church to the First Unitarian Church and added a meeting room and classrooms to the original structure. Rev. Malick served on the Cincinnati School Board, participated in the State Constitutional convention and spoke out against prohibition in the city.
The Modern Era
The modern era of the church's history begins with the arrival of Rev. Ellsworth Smith. He attracted many new members and the congregation grappled with the need to either build a new church further out in the suburbs or to expand at the present site. The congregation made the conscious decision to remain and expand the building in what was becoming an inner city neighborhood. A large addition with new church offices, a meeting room, kitchen and additional classrooms was competed in 1956. This period marked an important milestone for the church, as the first African American members joined First Church.
The church experienced continued growth under the next minister, Rev. Robert O'Brien (1957-1962). A number of current members joined during this time. This growth, combined with the church's decision to stay in Avondale, spurred some members who lived in the northern suburbs to form a new fellowship. Northern Hills Fellowship (which called its first full-time minister in 1980), was founded in 1961.
Our church was the site of the first kindergarten training center west of the Appalachians and contains a memorial to congregation member William Howard Taft. Some highlights of the church's recent history have included the placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the celebration of our 150th anniversary in 1980, the re-dedication of the original building on its 100th anniversary in 1989 and the purchase of the parking lot across Linton Street.
The sanctuary seats 230 and its excellent acoustics and graceful atmosphere make it a natural for the many music concerts held here each year. In addition to the sanctuary, the facility includes a large meeting room and kitchen, office, minister's study and 10 classrooms.
The Tiffany Rose Window
On Sunday, May 27, 1900, during the Seventieth Anniversary of the dedication of the First Church edifice on Race and Fourth Streets, the gift of a rose window behind the pulpit was recognized.
It was given by the descendants of the men and women who had been prominent in the creation of the society, in their memory. The following July a bronze tablet was installed with the names of these founding members inscribed. The designer of this beautiful gift was Frederick Wilson, of the house of Tiffany and Company, New York.
In the center is the figure of Truth, dressed in flowing robes. The figure yields a sword in the right hand and flaming torch in the left hand, where also hangs a wreath. The figure wears a massive key about the neck. Surrounding the figure are antique lamps honoring the virtues of Truth, Righteousness, Love, Courage, Patience, Justice and Freedom.