By barbara bowers Special to The Citizen
The Old Stone Church at the corner of Eaton and Simonton streets started out as a new wooden church in 1847, 30 years before its solid, indigenous fa√ßade was constructed in a unique manner.
"In 1877, Architect William Reid Kerr was commissioned to design and build a new stone church, which he began constructing over the existing church's frame," said Reverend Ruben Velasco, the pastor at Key West United Methodist Church, a.k.a. the Old Stone Church. "When he installed the new roof in 1884, the earlier building was dismantled and carried out the front door."
In all, it took 15 years to complete the sanctuary, which is one of five Methodist ministries that have served the island since 1832. Recently, though, the last three existing congregations, First United, Fleming Street and Ley Memorial, merged to form the Key West United Methodist Church, and in 1994 the entire flock of local Methodists returned to their mother church, "The Old Stone," the oldest Methodist church in South Florida.
Although some remodeling has taken place -- and in 1908 the bell tower went from a steeple to an English castle-like structure, then back to a steeple again in 1915 -- the Old Stone Church retains most of its original charm.
"At certain times of the day, usually during the morning or late afternoon services, the stained-glass windows almost come alive," said Herb Kebschull, a church member since 1970.
Each of the 16 elegant, stained-glass windows depicts bible stories or nautical themes characteristic of seafaring communities. The oldest, a pastel-colored glass dedicated to the memory of Rev. Robert Martin, dates from 1885. Because the stone church wasn't completed until 1892, this window probably was first installed in the old wooden church. What's more, during a 1980s remodeling, frescoes were discovered under layers of paint on the walls surrounding the existing windows, suggesting that the frescoes were painted before all the stained-glass windows were in place.
Until the 1960s, the only changes made to the interior were new pews and new light fixtures. "I know these lamps were installed in 1950 because my husband put them up there," said Jean Greene, one of several long-time church members guiding today's tour of the church, the Education Building located next to the church on Eaton Street and the Jones Fellowship Hall next to it.
The original lighting is noted in a history pamphlet about the Key West United Methodist Church. It "consisted of a series of chandeliers suspended from the decorative florets on the cross beams above the center aisle. Each chandelier had several kerosene lanterns ... lowered by means of a rope and pulley system."
The electrical upgrade was a sign of the times, as was the terrazzo floor that replaced the hardwood in 1961. That's also when the E.M. Skinner organ was installed, although it would be another 27 years before the organ pipes were moved to their present location at the front of the church, where they appear to be vertical sculptures between teak panels.
"Tom Pope was the architect for the 1988 project," said Dorothy Saunders, an Old Stone Church member since 1954 with her husband, Captain Ernie. "While the renovation included a number of things, the focus was on moving the organ pipes."
Originally, the organ pipes were at the front of the church above the altar. However, during the 1961 makeover, they were moved to the back, at the same time the entire chancel area was torn out and the central pulpit divided. Today, the choir loft is located in two sections beneath the pipes on either side of the altar, with a pulpit to the left and a lectern to the right.
"You'll note that above the altar we have a cross and not a crucifix," said Reverend Fletcher Anderson, a retired pastor from Ley Memorial, who currently offers theological training to Methodist ministries in Cuba, Argentina, Peru and Mexico. "We believe that Christ has risen...he's alive."
"We offer a traditional service, wherein robed officials preside over the service, but soon a more contemporary service will be offered along with the traditional one," said Pastor Ruben, whose sermons are delivered from the pulpit. Lay members read scriptures at the lectern and communion is served at the chancel's teak railings, a wood selected "because of its natural beauty and connection with ship building."
Teak is featured in the church's decorative panels and columns, but the cathedral ceiling is Dade County pine, selected for its hard, virtually indestructible quality. And according to the history pamphlet, the crown molding is hand-carved mahogany to reflect "the intricate handwork displayed in the gingerbread of the older Key West houses."
The church's parsonage at 411 Simonton St. is a picture-perfect example of Key West's gingerbread houses, also known in these parts as Conch houses. It too, was designed by William Reid Kerr, who first came to the island as a member of the Union Army to help construct Fort Zachary Taylor. But the parsonage was completed in 1891, one year before the Old Stone Church was finished.
"Old Stone" was so named because it was constructed of native coral rock, quarried from the Simonton Street side of the church, near where the parsonage is located. Lest this younger House of God upstage its old wooden neighbor, almost a century after it was built the parsonage appeared in the movie "Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef."
But all of Key West United Methodist Church buildings will star collectively for one week during "Celebrate Jesus," Oct. 4 through 11. The seven-day event will culminate on Friday, Oct. 10. From 6 to 9 p.m., all of Key West is invited to the open house that will also feature the choir, its director, Dean Walters, and organist, Jim Cutty. For more information call 292-2392.
Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.