First Universalist Church of Elgin

Hello intrepid blog readers! We are already on our third installment of Blog 2.0…we’re just growing up so fast. Next thing you know we’ll be going through our rebellious teenage years and only post new blogs past curfew.


Today’s building is the First Universalist Church.

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Designed by George Hunter and W. Wright Abell in 1891 and completed in 1892 by Harry Ford and John Fluck it cost a stunning $20,000. Today, calculating for inflation, that equates to roughly $526,000.  As a brief non-sequiter, using this formula while calculating backwards, my student loans seem so much more reasonable!

First Universalist Church sits on the northwest corner of Dupage and Villa Streets, at 55 Villa Street.  This photo was taken facing southeast showing the original stone sign for the structure.

First Universalist was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It was nominated at the state level for its significance under both criterion A and C meaning its ties to the Watch Factory via George Hunter (say whattt history is so interconnected) bear historical importance and its architecture is deemed integral in terms of its design within the industry, in this case church architecture from the latter half of the 1800s.

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(Courtesy of: Historic Architectural Resources Geographic Information System via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

eaah-tablec4aFirst Universalist sits a few blocks east of the river and just west of Gifford
Park.  Situated on the edge of Elgin’s booming late nineteenth century downtown, it marks not only the growing Elgin but a city whose demography saw a growing percentage of immigrants bringing with them strong ties to a variety of religious affiliations thus necessitating an increase in places to worship.


The millions thousands dedicated few who read last week’s blog likely noted my preface to the architectural section in which I semi-apologized for doing the same style two weeks in a row.  (That style is cool and those buildings were cool, mom!)  And so this week it is time for something different. Therefore, First Universalist Church is of the Richardson Romanesque style, also referred to as Romanesque Revival.


Common characteristics of the Romanesque style include:

  • Cylindrical apse and chapels
  • Square, round or polygonal towers almost always with a conical roof

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  • Heavy masonry construction usually with square, rough stonework
  • The use of the round arches and barrel vault
  • Asymmetrical

Some of the above I think is pretty straightforward. The bricks and tower are seen in the picture above.  The conical roof is essentially just a fancy pants way of saying “cone shaped” and you can see from the main image among others that this building certainly isn’t constrained by rigid symmetry.  Additonally, we can see the round arches on the main featured image for this post and also here:

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Love this shot.

Now, the ones that are less common are probably apse and the term barrel vault. An apse is most often an architectural term referring to the semicircular or polygonal opening within in a building, usually with vaulted ceilings, most often seen in churches.

Barrel vaults are an architectural term inspired by none other than the level in Donkey Kong where you have to make it up the ladders while jumping over barrels. Not really. They actually look like this. While this is more of an interior feature, I think even from the pictures posted so far we can see how to connection from the tower to the larger section of the structure facilitates a perfect avenue for a barrel vault.

What I find really interesting about the Romanesque Revival style is the preponderance of sources that mention, at the very least if not go into more detail, a specific person attributing to the creation of the style.

Henry Hobson Richardson, who you may remember from the such names as the name of this style, was the second American to ever attend the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  I’ll let the beloved Virginia McAlester take it from here when she says that, “[d]uring the 1870s [Richardson] evolved his strongly personal style, which incorporated Romanesque forms and which…was applied principally to large public buildings.”

Highlighting ornamental individuality was a practice well-cultivated in the latter part of the 1800s.  Seen in both the rise of the Romanesque styles for public and religious buildings, similar colloquial and residential styles popped up often in such styles as the Queen Anne and other Beaux-Arts homes.


Here at Pedaling Preservation 2.0 we’ve done two other posts: the Elgin Watch Factory Observatory and Fire Station No. 5.   While only the Elgin Watch Factory Observatory has direct ties to the Watch Factory that built the city’s backbone as well as more timepieces than anywhere else in America, both posts on Elgin stand as direct ties to the economic forces that the Factory developed and sustained until its doors closed in 1966.

The Observatory was build to not only ensure but guarantee accurate time. Fire Station No.5 was built to ensure the safety of Elgin residents and the town flourished south and west in the second half of the nineteenth century. And while those to other buildings were not specifically religiously affiliated, they all have very similar ties.

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As mentioned before, the architect for First Universalist was George Hunter, who also lead the design for Elgin’s Watch Factory Observatory.  And while his specific legacy in design is one way the Observatory and this church share close ties, all three buildings equally have the watched industry and ancillary factors to thank for Elgin’s prosperity and thus their existence. First Universalist takes it one step further, however, as it is designed to look like a pocket watch, specifically a hunting case watch.


This is so cool! Okay so the picture on the left is a birds eye view of the layout of First Universalist provided on the church’s own website.  The main building thus represents the actual watch case, with the roof being the cover.  The balcony for the choir tower (which would be inside near where the A and C are located on the picture shown) is the hinge for the cover.  The tower is the  snap of the case.

An artistic nod to the economic forces that helped Elgin grow,  this architectural design was not just to look pretty but to represent the people that were to pray in its pews. Said best by E.C. Alft:

When the Universalists erected a new and larger church in 1892, it was designed in the shape of a pocket watch, an architectural synthesis of the religious and secular callings of the membership.

But there’s a broader context in which the history of this church should be placed.  After the Civil War, America experienced what some historians call the Third Great Awakening. Spanning from the mid-1860s to roughly 1900, it also overlapped with the Progressive Era.  While the Third Great Awakening is not as well known as the first two, #littlesiblingstatus, those who argue for its importance note the moral basis in which it hinged, an aspect similarly deeply ingrained in Progressive Era mentalities and ideals.

An engaged urban public was exactly what the Progressive Era was all about, particularly in the context of those looking to better themselves. Where better to engage in social activism rooted in morality than within the walls of a church? Those that attended First Universalist were highly involved in issues of the day from women’s rights to prohibition, and the importance of the church on its community is highlighted by the fact that three out of the first six Elgin mayors were members of the congregation.

These roots of First Universalist are still palpable today, with Elgin recently being ranked 2nd in the state of Illinois for most diverse communities, safest communities, and best cities for young families. And if one ever needs a reminder, its vestige to the past is forever cemented brick by brick as it sits in the shape of an Elgin Factory Watch.

What is it today?:

Today it stands as Iglesia Principe De Paz, or Prince of Peace Church, and is open to current congregations.

You can read more at their website, here:

Random Announcement(s):

Thanks so much to Rich over at Rediscover Records for the shoutout on Twitter!  All two of us here at Pedaling Preservation were super excited!

Also a shoutout all involved over at the Elgin Fringe Festival!  I came, I saw, I volunteered, I bought art and most of all I loved it!  Can’t wait until next year and kudos for such a wonderful job this year.



Also, big shoutout to Pedaling Preservation’s resident (and only) staff photographer Maddie Richmond for selling two of her pieces at this year’s Fringe! You rock.


Click to access 200445.pdf

Population Chart courtesy of:

McAlister, Lee and Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.