The First Congregational Church at 311 S. Hickory Street is small and falling apart and not a building most would look twice at. It's small, the building has visible water damage from a flood decades ago. It’s steeple is missing and needs a new coat of paint.
It also has stunning stained glass windows that, according to Tom Wilson, 65, are dazzling especially when the sun is just coming up in the morning, especially the triangular frame above the alter.
“It’s why I bought the place,” Wilson said.
He plans on keeping the inside of the chapel similar to how it looks now, with its dark wood frames and light beige walls. He might get rid of the extra organ near the pulpit.
He’s been working on the church since March 2017 to bring the church back to its original appearance from when it was built in 1871. By working with the Franklin County Historical Society and the Kansas Museum of History, he wants it to be a premier wedding venue.
“My goal is to get that building back to level that it really deserves to be at,” Wilson said, “and hopefully after I’m gone, somebody will do the same.”
Designed by John G. Haskell, who was a famous architect for various landmarks across Kansas, including the University of Kansas’ iconic Fraser Hall.
The church changed hands over the years, and was even moved down the block to make room for a Memorial Hall. It was a Church of Christian Science for about 100 years right before Wilson bought it.
“You want to do it right,” Wilson said. “You got have some sort of sensibility, respect the past.”
Walking through the church, he knows its history by heart.
“It’s amazing when you look back because Ulysses S. Grant was the president when the church was built,” Wilson said.
The church is small, it’s one story with an unfinished basement and it’s main floor only consists of the chapel and a parlor. It doesn’t bear any resemblance to the great cathedrals of Europe, but when talks about it, it’s history could rival Notre Dame.
Wilson taught three dimensional art at Gardner Edgerton High School for 35 years before retiring in May this year, but he has been renovating properties in the area long before his retirement.
Wilson has a number of properties that he’s renovating including buildings in Lawrence, Edgerton and Gardner. One of those projects includes the auditorium next door to the church. Wilson envisions it could become a good option for receptions after the church’s wedding ceremonies.
Most of the renovations he does himself, but for this one he will need help from professional contractors to maintain proper licensing and all of the building’s historical requirement. He also enlists the help of his students, such as Jackson Curbow, a former student of Wilson’s and a senior at Gardner Edgerton.
He’s taken three different ceramics classes with Wilson, who Curbow said was happy to have students participate in his renovations.
“He’s super laid back and he’s really devoted to ceramics in general. He absolutely loves it,” Curbow said. “I think it’s kind of hard to find a teacher who’s devoted like that.”
Wilson doesn’t know when the renovations will be done, but he can see exactly how he wants it to look when he’s done.
In the attic, above “a trap door” might showcase a large clock that might’ve been in place.
Wilson not only has marked the church with his handiwork, lately he’s been maintaining the landscaping, but has also marked it with things close to him. In the basement, there are metal advertising signs that he’s had for decades. In front of the church, before the front door, is a stone bench that was once in front of Wilson’s childhood home.
“I just thought it sort of went with the structure of the church,” Wilson said. It adds a little bit of a nicer touch on the outside.”