History of the Burton Congregational Church Building
The Burton Congregational Church was organized in 1808. The first meetings were held in the academic building built in 1806 and located in the park. After this building burned in 1810, the congregation moved to the ballroom of the Peter Beals tavern. Later the worshippers occupied the schoolhouse in the park and then the second academic building on the southeast corner of the park.
The present church building was built in 1836 at a cost of $4,000 and was originally located within the park directly opposite where it stands today. The building was large for its time and a matter of township pride. It was thirty feet from floor to ceiling with galleries on the sides and rear and a conference room over the vestibule. The pulpit stood in the front or east end between the two front doors and very high up with a flight of stairs on either side. Entering the audience room, one had to walk down the aisle facing the entire congregation and turn to take a seat, but there were no turning heads to see who came in late. Pews were owned or rented, as any other piece of property. This was a popular and common way for the church to raise money, and it was paid in place of today's pledges.
The church building was frequently used as a public hall. On the brick floor of its vestibule, in the first days of the Civil War, the tramp of the soldiers drilling was often heard. Its walls have also resounded with the marvelous eloquence of schools boys on exhibition days. The building was also used for many years as the main hall for the agricultural fair, the forerunner of the Great Geauga County Fair, when it was held on the square. From its galleries hung festoons of rag-carpets and bed-quilts and other specimens of women's handiwork, and its walls were gay with corn and pumpkin and all the products of the farm and garden. On a sadder note, Governor Seabury Ford, a member and officer of the church, was stricken in his pew with the paralysis that eventually led to his death.
In 1850 the church edifice was moved from its original site in the park to the spot where it has ever since stood. The labor of moving the building was lessened by a generous application of soft soap to the planks along which it was rolled, and it has been suggested that this may explain why the affairs of the church have moved so smoothly ever since. At this time also, the pulpit was placed at the west end, the pews turned around, and the gallery at the west end taken down and placed at the east end. During these repairs, services were held in a hall on the fairgrounds.
In 1875 a floor was built across the height of the old galleries, which were removed, thus making the building two stories, the upper story being the audience room and the lower story the Sunday School rooms, parlor, and kitchen. A steeple rising 104 feet from the ground crowned the roof in the front center, and the audience room was frescoed and furnished with new seats and pulpit. A pipe organ was bought, and a place especially prepared for it and the choir.
In 1892 a circular two-story addition was built at the west end or rear of the church; the bottom was for a kitchen and Sunday School library, and the top was for the organ and choir. The repairs and furnishings, which included new stained glass windows, frescoing, carpets, pews, cushions, lights, and furnace, cost $8,500. the change gave the church an ordinary seating capacity of 350 and a possible seating capacity of 500.
A new pipe organ was installed early in 1939 at which time the walnut paneling was built around the pipes. In 1947 the church was insulated.
In the early 1950's it became apparent that there was a great need for remodeling and expansion. At the annual meeting on January 15, 1953, a committee presented plans for remodeling the existing building and adding an annex measuring 48 by 60 feet. A building campaign began in December 1953 during which nearly $60,000 was raised. With the total cost of the work estimated at $70,000 to $75,000, the remainder of the money was made up in investment funds and legacies. The work was started within a year, and the existing building was brought up to minimum safety standards, while the first floor was converted to seven Sunday School rooms. The addition was to hold eight new classrooms, a lounge, a large dining or social hall, a spacious kitchen, and storage rooms. A pastor's study was included and dedicated to former Pastor Emeritus Stevens and his wife by friends. Furnishings for the study were in memory of Lorena Walter by her daughter. The lounge was furnished in memory of Dr. G. R. French by his wife.
In 1967 another major renovation project took place. The sanctuary was the main target as new flooring, pews, upholstery, carpeting, and lights were added. The chancel and choir loft were lowered and remodeled. The focal point was a freely-suspended wooden cross thirteen and a half feet long and six feet wide. The seating capacity was now 245 with 52 additional places in the choir. Nine classrooms were painted along with the hallways and stairwells. New furnishings included tables, chairs, chalkboards, and bookshelves.
Since then, many renovations big and small have been made. The church has been partially resided and always painted in a timely manner. Storm windows have been added, and furnaces upgraded. The social room has been remolded and modernized along with the choir room and office. The stain glass windows have been reinforced, and in some cases, replaced. Ceiling fans and air conditioning have been added to the sanctuary in order to make both winter and summer services more comfortable.
The movement of the sanctuary to the second floor in 1875 created an obstacle for persons who cannot climb stairs. In 1991, with the help of a generous bequest from Dorothy Cummins, an addition was built on the north side of the church to house an elevator. With that addition, every floor of the church building is now fully accessible. Three original stain glass windows that were removed from the choir loft during the 1952 renovation were reconditioned and placed in this new addition, the cost of which was covered by the sale of a church cookbook.
The lower hallway has been renovated several times through the years. The restrooms were fully updated and are now wheelchair accessible. A section of the original part of the basement has been turned into a food cupboard that is staffed by church volunteers and serves the entire county.
Several rooms of the church have been remodeled as memorials. A library was created out of a spare room and dedicated in memory of Victor Erikson by his family. The Ronyak room was created out of a classroom and furnished in memory of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Ronyak by Mr. and Mrs. James Ronyak. The French Room has been refurbished several times in memory of Frank and Olive Nelson by their daughter and her husband Dorothy and John Cummins. Four classrooms have been remodeled in memory of Dorothy Gander by her family. In 1992 the front entry, narthex, restrooms and front hallway were completely renovated in memory of G.B. and Lottie D. Fox by Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Weiland. As recently as 2007, the kitchen was gutted and had a complete overhaul due largely from a bequest of the family of Tucker Pfouts and many hours of volunteer work from church members.
We cannot begin to mention the names of all the church members who have given untold hours of volunteer help over 170 years in order to nurture and protect the building proper. A great deal of energy, ideas, and love can be seen in every crack and crevice. A former architect referred to the design of the church as "Steamboat Gothic" because of its unusual appearance, but to its membership and friends it is just a beautiful place to worship God.
Jane Kay Gonczy