The Centennial of the Huguenot Memorial Church Sanctuary
The Little Red Church. In 1876, the year of its founding, the Huguenot Memorial Church completed its first house of worship, a frame building that became known as the Little Red Church. The interior was plain: carpeted aisles; oak and pine paneling and pews; the pulpit, communion table, and trim in walnut. A small minister’s study and vestry room were in the rear. Twelve stained glass windows added color to the sanctuary. The church and Sunday school rooms were inefficiently heated by a coal stove and lighted by gas. Seating capacity of the church was estimated at 200. Church membership doubled from 58 in 1906 to 126 in 1911 and nearly doubled again to 208 in 1916. Sunday school membership more than tripled from 63 in 1911 to 203 in 1916. Crowding, a lack of privacy for Sunday school classes, inadequate sanitary facilities, poor heating and lighting, and the fire hazards of a wood building had to be addressed.
The Building Committee. At the congregational meeting of April 1915, the Huguenot Church appointed a committee to investigate and report on the costs for “building a new church or of enlarging the present church.” Mr. Merton C. Robbins chaired the committee of four members who unanimously agreed on a Gothic style. A canvass for funds began the following year, helped by an anonymous donation of $20,000, provided that an additional $60,000 be raised by subscription. Despite restrictions caused by World War I, the Pelham community raised over $100,000 for the building, 80 percent of it from pledges. The Little Red Church was sold and moved across the Post Road and set on a new foundation for use as a retail store.
The Architect, Benefactor, Contractor. Francis A. Nelson of Montclair, NJ, and New York, NY, was chosen as designing architect for the building, following a competition held under the auspices of the New York Chapter of the Architectural League. His firm, Nelson & Van Wegenen, planned a magnificent structure of cut field stone, blue flagstone floors, oak-timbered ceiling and pews, and slate roof. The stone exterior symbolized “the eternal values for which the church would stand.” Minutes of the Building Committee suggest that the field stone was quarried on land near Lake Champlain, owned by the Witherbee Company, and was generously donated and freighted by Mr. Silas Witherbee. HMC signed a contract with the firm of Henry J. Brown & Son of Brooklyn for $66,000. The church signed a mortgage with a New Rochelle bank in 1918 for $25,000, which was increased to $100,000 in 1931, and paid off in 1946. Steam heating was supplied from a coal furnace through heat ducts. HMC was fortunate in being able to complete the main contracts and a several minor contracts (lighting, hardware, windows, etc.) before the United States entered World War I, after which contract prices nearly doubled.
The Building Plan. The original building was the present sanctuary (with capacity for 400) plus an “east-west wing,” consisting of a bell tower, a Sunday School (capacity for 300) with two galleries, a primary room, library, minister’s room, and meeting rooms for men and women. The Sunday school galleries (or balconies) were located in the front and back of the Sunday school. The bell tower, built out of field stone, housed the bell, organ soundboard and pipes. Blueprints show that the farthest extent from the sanctuary was the “primary room,” for teaching primary school students. The men’s meeting room (for Bible classes) was above the primary room. The library was a small room (8 ½ by 8 ½ feet), known today as the Flower Room, on the south side of the Soper Chapel. (Today’s deacons prepare flowers for shut-ins and others in a bathroom located off the vestry room.) The men’s meeting room became today’s Tower Room. The women’s activities were housed in a “triplex apartment,” consisting of the Women’s Room (with a fireplace, since removed) on the main floor, a rooftop gallery, a kitchen, serving pantry and assembly room in the basement. The Women’s Room included the area now used as the chancel of the Soper Chapel. A staircase on the north side of the chapel ascended to the second floor of the Sunday school but was later removed. A door opened out to the flat roof over the women’s meeting room “so that the ladies may have their refreshments served here when the weather is pleasant.” A seldom used stairway still leads downstairs to a classroom.
Construction, Phase 1A. Construction took place in three distinct phases. When unforeseen expenses occurred during the first phase, another anonymous donor (later revealed as Robert C. Black), gave $5000, provided that another $15,000 was raised. During construction, Sunday services were held at the Manor Club for $10 per Sunday. A large stained glass window was dedicated to Building Committee member, George A. Phelps, who died in 1916. It was installed behind the chancel a year later. Phelps was only 43 years old when he passed away, leaving a wife and two young children. Brass plaques were installed in the narthex to honor Huguenot benefactor Silas Witherbee, Trustee Robert C. Black, and Elders/ Stated Clerks of Session John H. Dey and William K. Gillett. The old reed organ (Mason & Hamlin) of the Little Red Church was removed in 1917. Mrs. Black donated a new organ made by Odell & Company, which was installed in the chancel area. During excavation, no fewer than seven springs were discovered, one under the subcellar of the boiler room. In the first year of occupancy, the foundation showed serious leaking of underground water. Steam heat and electricity replaced the coal stove and gas light of the Little Red Church. Oil heat later replaced the steam heat.
Phase 1B. The Sunday school wing was opened a year later on Children’s Day, June 9, 1918. The first public meeting in the still incomplete auditorium was a Victory Service, held on the Sunday after the signing of the Armistice on November 11, which ended World War I. Yet another anonymous donor pledged $25,000, provided that $50,000 more be raised by the Building Committee, just days before the dedication was held on December 8, 1918.
Phase 2. A large church house to accommodate the expanding Sunday school and provide church offices was begun in 1929 and completed in 1931. The church house and “east-west wing” were separated by a driveway. Captain and Mrs. Henry B. Heylman replaced the Odell organ with an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ in memory of their son, Henry Patterson Heylman, in 1943. The original twelve stained glass windows in the sanctuary were replaced with memorial windows between 1945 and 1953. The Heylman-White window, located between the sanctuary and narthex of the church was completed in 1946. The narthex or entry area was enlarged, increasing the seating capacity from 400 to 450.