Albion is a small canal town in Orleans County in Western NY. A county that is 57th out of 57 counties in NY state that spends money on tourism. If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking ‘Well, that’s because there isn’t anything in Orleans County to go see Chris!” Turns out, we’re both wrong–there are some very cool things to see, and a lot of history worth taking note of. I have driven through Albion numerous times and always remark about the nearly countless numbers of historical markers, and make note of things to come back to see. While looking in to the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church, I stood under perfectly aligned stars and easily was put in touch with Bill Lattin, the Orleans County historian who also happens to be a member of the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church. What I didn’t know ahead of time, is that Bill knows just about everything there is to know about the entire county’s history and the more I visited with him, the more enthralled I was to have such an opportunity to learn. Additionally, he’s the one who’s been putting all those signs up around town, so there was plenty to discuss. I met Bill at the church and he told me the story of Pullman.
People who settled here seeking freedom previously had been subject to the experience of having the Bible interpreted for them, and the opportunity to interpret the Bible for oneself only came as the result of the wide open experience of settling in the new land. Like many religions born of American soil, Universalism’s roots are that of settlers from Europe who sought a home where governmental authority didn’t dictate personal beliefs. It celebrates traditions dating back to 1741 where Dr. George DeBenneville first preached in Pennsylvania after coming here from London. The non-creed, all-inclusive dogma of Universalism claims that God will ultimately grant all humans salvation, and that our lives are often a series of ‘awakenings’ where we grow closer and closer to truly knowing God. Essentially, the idea that we may make a choice to harm another human won’t keep us from salvation, but that we still had some lessons to be learned (sound a bit like Buddhism??). Many of the traditions pre-date Christianity, and incorporate rites and devotions and a moral code for human conduct. Universalism is one of the quintessential examples of our country’s Freedom of Religion.
Today, Universalism is a bit different than it’s inception. Many would say that Universalism was at one time a Christian set of beliefs, and that through the progression it developed in to a non-creed system that would cater to Christians, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and even Atheists! In 1961, the Unitarian Church and the Universalist Church combined their efforts and became known as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
OK, on to Pullman now…..
George M. Pullman lived in Albion, NY where his parents had moved the family, but he moved away as an adult to Chicago to really let his business of moving buildings flourish and his wealth accrue. While I won’t get in to it much here, Pullman went on to have an incredibly successful railway car business in Chicago. The business unraveled with Pullman at the helm of a worker’s strike to make unfortunate history that includes a bit of a riot, and his name in Chicago being sullied to the point of his burial needing to happen in the middle of the night, and his casket protected by a number of out-of-the-ordinary security features. While in Chicago, he maintained friendships with many of his childhood friends, and while home on a visit in NY one of them approached Pullman with the idea of wanting a Universalist church closer to the center of town, since the nearest congregation was a few miles up the road. (Remember, in the 1800’s it was a lot of work to travel 3 miles, particularly in the Upstate NY winters!) Pullman agreed that if the group could raise $5,000 on their own, he’d pony up the rest and they’d make history. In 1893, Pullman chose the spot for the church, which is on the corners of Main and East Park Street, just a couple blocks south of the Erie Canal and paid $7,500 for the plot of land. Pullman chose his location with a discerning plan to provide the building a level of prominence that would send the message that the Presbyterians across the street weren’t the only ones that people would take notice of. Interesting side note: Pullman tried to also buy the property on the adjoining southside, but due to some bigotry issues at the time, he was denied. In the late 1800’s, a progressive, liberal, non-creed denomination wasn’t something that all people recognized as a respectable faith–and in many areas, Universalists were downright treated as second class citizens even as late as the mid-1900’s. Nevertheless, he used the lot he bought and filled it nearly edge to edge with a spectacular Medina pink sandstone Old English Gothic architecture church that over 100 years later still begs to be viewed while driving through the village.
The construction to build the design work of architect Solon Beman was begun in 1894. Beman had already provided the design work for a number of other projects that Pullman had built, so their relationship was a good one. Though there is little religious iconography to be seen at Pullman, it’s easy to recognize right off the bat that the floor plan of the nave is that of a cross. Beman’s idea to keep the architecture stately and pronounced was important, but a simple design that wasn’t overtly religious was what everyone involved was seeking in the project.
When first walking into the church, you notice that the aisle is flanked on each wall with a bronze plaque of Pullman’s parents. The plaques were designed and crafted by Carl Rohl-Smith, a Danish sculptor who is known worldwide. The woodwork is a stained, darker oak and the walls are a unique faded salmon surrounded by a border of ivy that was stenciled on by hand. Bill mentioned that what you see today isn’t original, but it was as close as they could come using photos of the original paintwork to complete the restoration, and that Bill himself was the one who stenciled the leaves, and other members of the congregation helped complete the restoration themselves.
One of the most notable parts of the church, and one of those things that I think Orleans County should be advertising incessantly as an attraction is a collection of 56 Tiffany Glass windows. The majority of the windows are of a decorative nature, but have no elements of religious tone to them. The west end of the nave that lines Main Street has three larger windows, and took a decidedly longer period of time to determine a theme for. Apparently Louis Comfort Tiffany felt that a landscape scene would not only be picturesque, but also reflect the beliefs of the Universalist church itself. Since Pullman was footing the $5,000 bill for the single, center window (Side note: I find it incredibly odd that the amount $5,000.00 shows up numerous times in the history of this church!) and he decided that a window of Christ with outstretched arms and a three-dimensional look was how the window should be made. It wasn’t a guarantee that the window would be completed by the dedication of the church, but Tiffany made it happen. This window also happens to be one of the few that Tiffany signed his name to.
Bill continued to show us around and point out things like how the doorway to the belltower is shaped like a bell so they could actually fit it through the door (though there was never a bell installed), and the ‘electrolier’ which was incredibly state of the art since Albion was one of the first towns in the area to have electric. The average person may not always love knowing the finer, obscure details on a tour, but for me it’s totally what makes a great learning experience. After spending probably an hour or so chatting, there was one really important aspect of the church to be explored.
When you first enter the church, you certainly notice the high arched ceilings, and the bright, ornate windows, but you can’t possibly help notice that nearly an entire wall is ensconced with a pipe organ. This organ is an Opus 812 and was purchased from and installed by the Johnson & Son Organ Company out of Massachusetts for the super sweet price tag of $6,000. Remember the facade pipes at Willard Memorial that Tiffany painted, and the 7th Day Adventists painted over when they bought the place? Today at Willard, there peeks through the paint that has faded just a hint of the gold leaf stencil that Tiffany laid down as decoration. Luckily, Pullman had Tiffany do the same gold leaf stenciling on the pipes in his church, so it was very cool to be able to see it up close and unadulterated. I didn’t get to play this organ like I have in the past, but Bill turned it on and played a few keys–to our surprise, the pipes that Tiffany decorated aren’t facade pipes at all, but active pipes! What makes the organ somewhat unique is that in addition to having been one of the ‘top of line’ organs of its time, it was powered by the town’s municipal water supply by a pump directly below it in the basement. Today, it has been converted to electric power, but the original water pump is still in place.
After seeing nearly every room of the church and realizing he had a captive audience that wasn’t waning, Bill continued to tell us stories and give us information about the congregation. He then said “Well, you guys know that this congregation was sort of a carry over from the congregation at the cobblestone church on Rt. 104 right? The oldest cobblestone church still standing in all of North America?” Bill continued, “Well, did you want to go see that too? I could take you now if you want!” You can probably guess what our answer was but I’ll save that story for another post, and wrap up with saying that I am super grateful to have crossed paths with Bill–he was a very cool guy, and I can’t imagine there’s anyone in the entire county who could’ve told us as much as he did. This ‘exploring the burned over district’ project continues to put very cool experiences in our path, and the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church was a great one to add to the “Been There” list. If you’re in the area and Pullman is open, make a point to stop in and see some of the most rare Tiffany windows that exist–and say a prayer to whatever God or Gods you either believe or don’t believe in.
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com