Messiah Church


Messiah Church

3816 Toledo Avenue at West Grand Boulevard

This church should not be confused with the Episcopalian Church of the Messiah that is located on East Grand Boulevard at East Lafayette. That beautiful Gothic church was designed by Calvin Otis in 1852 and erected at the intersection of Congress and Shelby.  It was moved, stone by stone, to its present site in 1899 to make room for a bank in Detroit's financial district.  Many Germans migrated to Detroit in the late Nineteenth Century; some Roman Catholic, some Jewish, and numerous Lutherans affiliated with different synods.  The neighborhood where Messiah Church is located welcomed numerous Germans, although the area just northeast of downtown near St. Joseph’s Church and the Eastern Market  had a larger German population.  Census 1900 counted 287,000 residents in Detroit.  Thirty thousand of them reported they were born in Germany and another 51,000 were born in the United States but had one or both parents born in Germany.  Perhaps 30 percent of Detroit’s population spoke German at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

In August, 1897, ten German men met in this neighborhood to organize a new congregation.  They named it The German Evangelist Congregation of the Messiah and recruited, as their first minister, the Reverend J. G. Hildner who had served in Detroit churches for almost a quarter century.  The congregation originally met in a structure on Vinewood, but jobs were available in Detroit for German immigrants, so this congregation had the resources to purchase land and commission theconstruction of the attractive building that you see.  The cornerstone was laid on September 7, 1902 and 366 days later, the church was dedicated. 

The congregation persisted in using German throughout the First World War, but that language was falling out of favor and the United States has been a graveyard for languages other than English.  Few non-English tongues survive into the third generation.  The last liturgies in German were said here in 1922.  I think that a few Masses are offered in German every month at St. Joseph’s Church on the east side.  I suspect that is the only congregation that still uses German in the metropolitan area.

Many inner city congregations faced great challenges in the years following World War II.  Numerous parishioners were leaving for the suburbs and many blacks who had their own churches were moving in the neighborhoods when whites depaqrted.  The Reverend Ivan Miller, who led this church from 1943 to 1958, was one of many Detroit clergy who attempted to welcome, not oppose, the blacks who moved into formerly all-white neighborhoods.  The Catholic dioceses hired a staff of socially trained specialists to tell the clergy and faithful in inner city parishes that they should welcome their new black neighbors.  Quite a bit has been written about these well-intentioned endeavors.  It appears that these admonitions to accept racial integration often were not well received.

The Reverend Miller was followed by the Reverend Richard Bieber who led the congregation for three decades.  Apparently, he strongly endorsed an open-door policy that called for the Messiah congregation to minister to the needs of the increasingly black, and then later, Hispanic neighborhood that developed in this section of Detroit.  In doing so, the congregation became less and less linked to their parent church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  By the late 1990s, the congregation severed their connection to that body and affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church.  This is an evangelical, congregational but quite structured, church with considerable emphasis upon its multiethnic congregants.

The architects Frederick H. Spier and William C. Rohns designed this church.  They made major contributions to the state’s substantial architectural history.  Cyrus Lazelle Warner Elditz was the leading architect for the Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad in the late Nineteenth Century.  He designed the magnificent and huge Kalamazoo depot that still serves Amtrak trains.  Elditz was commissioned by the New York Central—the financial supervisor of the Michigan Central Railroad—to build a new depot in Detroit for the Michigan Central.  This is the station that was located at Third and West Jefferson until it was razed in the 1960s for the construction of the Ponchtrain Hotel.  However, it was not used by the railroad after the modern Michigan Central Depot in Roosevelt Park opened in 1912.  Frederick Spier was hired by Elditz to play a major role in the design of the Detroit’s West Jefferson Michigan Central Detroit depot.  After beginning this project, he recruited William Rohns to work with him.  Rohns completed his architectural studies at the Hanover Polytechnicum in Germany and migrated to Detroit in 1883. The following year, he and Frederick Spiers established an architectural firm with, I presume, the Michigan Central depot as their first major commission. The Spier-Rohns collaboration proved to be a very productive one.  They designed depots for the Michigan Central Railroad in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Lansing and Grand Rapids.  All of them still grace the urban landscape.  In addition, they designed several buildings for the University of Michigan, perhaps the most architectural significant being the Richardsonian Romanesque Kelsey Museum of Archeology.  They also designed the impressive St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church on a bluff in Ann Arbor, an edifice that is not currently shown on this website.

This Messiah Church is, perhaps, the only Jacobean Revival church in Detroit and, presumably, the only excursion into Jacobean design by Spier and Rohns.  This style of architecture was popular in English during the reign of James I and Charles I in the early decades of the Seventeenth Century.  It is characterized by an extensive use of open parapets and rounded arch arcades, with numerous columns and pilasters.  Note the attractive porch-like entryway on this church and the open work in the tower.  Its development in England resulted, in part, from the arrival of many craftsmen from the Low Counties who worked with a different array of materials than those used in England including stucco.  The Jacobean style was only briefly popular in England but it had something of a revival in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century in England.  Spier and Rohns must have been influenced but I do not know the complete story.  I do not know why the elders of this congregation selected the Jacobean Revival style but I am pleased that they did.  This is a building that merits a listing on the historic registers.

Date of Construction: 1902 and 1903
Architect:  Frederick Spier and William Rohns
Architectural style: Jacobean Revival
Use in 2011:  Active congregation
City of Detroit Designated Historic Districts: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph:  Ren Farley
Description updated: November, 2016

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