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Historic Detroit church undergoes extensive restoration

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St. Joseph is preparing for the next 150 years

The nave of a church with rows of pews and a center aisle. The ceiling has many vaults and curves and is painted light blue. There’s also arched windows on either side, some of which have stained glass.

Standing across from Eastern Market, St. Joseph Church has a rich history dating back to 1870. Designed by Francis G. Himpler, construction started on the Victorian Gothic church that year, and was completed in 1873. Its details landed it on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s currently undergoing its first significant restoration in its history.

As little as two years ago, Canon Michael Stein tells Curbed that everything happening to the church pointed toward closure. Although historic, the church hadn’t been properly restored or maintained. In early 2016, a wind storm severely damaged the historic steeple, and its slate cladding was removed for safety. The parish was divided between two other churches, and St. Joseph received the fewest visitors. It looked dire for the church.

View from across the street of a three-story duplex and tall Gothic church. The church has a green copper steeple with scaffolding around it. Photos by Michelle & Chris Gerard

St. Joseph broke off in its own parish under the Institute of Christ the King in October 2016 with just $1,000. Since then, it’s grown to 600 visitors each Sunday. Stein notes that the church is very active in the community, and they partner with other local organizations. The church has a prominent location near the Dequindre Cut and Eastern Market, which attracts traffic. And unlike many Detroit churches, the doors are open around the clock.

After a generation of abandonment and deferred maintenance, Stein says that they’re prioritizing the restoration into critical, essential, and aesthetic fixes. Anyone driving by Eastern Market will notice the first phase of work; extensive scaffolding frames the historic steeple.

The wood underlayment is currently being replaced on the steeple, followed by the slate and copper. Detroit Cornice and Slate is working on the project. As an interesting historic note, Detroit Cornice and Slate also worked on the building in 1892 when the spire was added. At that time, it was the tallest building in Detroit at the time.

Stein says that they can’t do a lot of the inside work until the outside is secured. They’re using real slate to match the original, and applying a patina treatment to match the original copper. In the near future, they’ll tuck point the stone work and replace the roof.

Inside, it’s easy to not even notice the flaws due to the sheer beauty of the building. Its historical prominence came from the Mayer and Company original stained glass windows—the first of their kind in America.

The church chancel with ornate wood panelling, stained-glass windows, and a gold organ.

A light blue ceiling with stars draws the eyes up; slowly looking down, some of the damaged plasterwork is apparent from years of water damage.

A close-up of the blue painted arches in the church ceiling.

The acoustics in the church are phenomenal. The organ, which was built in 1973, is regularly used, and when choirs sing from the balcony, the sound and pitch reverberates—it’s one of the rare instances where a choir can truly hear themselves.

Stein still uses the original pulpit located within the pews, built before microphones.

Additional work will include redoing the electrical—it still has knob and tube—and then the HVAC. Stein says not only will a new climate control bring more comfort, but it will help preserve the historic details.

The ceiling will also be painted. Its current light blue isn’t the original color. The ceiling once had the darker blue that can be seen in the pulpit, and the walls were red and green.

The church has also finished logistical updates, including landscaping by volunteers and new lighting in the once-dark parking lot.

The church raised $900,000 in the first year of its capital campaign. In its next two, it hope to raise an additional $1.6 million to fully finish the restoration process.

Note: Curbed originally stated that the organ was original. We were notified that the current one was built in the 1970’s, and we’ve updated the article to reflect this information.