July 21, 2023

Bringing Light Back to Historic Houses of Worship

Light is a fundamental symbol of hope, goodness, redemption, justice, and survival across many faith traditions. From the Diwali diya (lamp) to the Jewish menorah to Advent wreath candles, light is a recognizable and unifying feature of religious practice and iconography worldwide.

Too often, however, historic houses of worship face challenges with outdated electrical and lighting systems. Among other issues, outdated lighting and wiring can render spaces unusable from lack of visibility and pose fire or security risks. These systems are typically expensive to replace and often take secondary priority to other urgent repairs such as roof replacements and water mitigation work. Yet installing lighting upgrades can have a drastic impact on the sense of place and life safety of historic houses of worship.

Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois, and Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York, recently completed major lighting and wiring upgrades with support from the National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Fund offers funding and technical assistance towards preserving community-serving historic houses of worship. The success of these projects demonstrates how lighting work can enhance worship and visitation experiences, expand community outreach, and increase safe access to historic houses of worship for all.

Wide angle view of the sanctuary of the Old First Reformed Church.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Interior of Old First Reformed Church.

Second Presbyterian Church (Chicago, Illinois)

Second Presbyterian is one of the oldest congregations in Chicago, Illinois. Esteemed church architect James Renwick Jr. designed the Gothic Revival-style building in 1874. After a fire gutted the church’s interior in 1900, Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw created an elaborate Arts and Crafts interior including murals and windows from Tiffany Studios. Now a multicultural church, Second Presbyterian is known for its work providing meals and fellowship to people facing housing and food instability.

With $250,000 in National Fund support and over $600,000 in matching funds raised by the congregation, Second Presbyterian installed new lighting in the Fellowship Hall and North Parlor, along with other work. The main electrical service to the church had not been updated since 1901, and cloth-bound historic wiring posed a high risk of fire. Work brought the building up to code and doubled the electrical capacity of the church to support the array of electrical appliances and technology necessary for modern worship and outreach.

Exterior of Second Presbyterian Church.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Exterior of Second Presbyterian Church in 2023.

Restored lighting fixtures in sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Restored lighting fixtures in sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church in 2023.

Michael Belletire, who oversaw construction, reflected that the new lighting “added markedly to our fellowship.” The independently controlled cove and discrete down lighting, which complements restored historic chandeliers across the church campus, can be dimmed to three levels. The dimming feature provides different illumination intensity to support the wide range of community activities held in the Fellowship Hall.

Old First Reformed Church (Brooklyn, New York)

Old First Reformed Church developed as one of the first churches in Brooklyn, New York, and is one of the founding congregations of the Reformed Church, the oldest Protestant denomination founded in America with a continuing ministry. The congregation now occupies a Neo-Gothic-style church constructed in 1888 and outfitted with stained-glass windows from Louis Comfort Tiffany, William Willet, and Otto Heinigke. Today, more than 600 people visit Old First weekly for worship services, music programming, and community events.

A National Fund grant of $250,000 with $800,000 in matching funds raised by the congregation allowed Old First to upgrade its electrical system, add track lighting, and restore the historic light fixtures in the sanctuary. The congregation had suspected the original wiring was unsafe but the actual conditions were even more concerning than they had expected—during repair work, contractors discovered gas leaking in the walls. A more positive surprise came after removing layers of dirt from the two largest chandeliers in the sanctuary, revealing that the fixtures were made of hand-tooled copper in addition to brass.

Exterior of a stone church.

photo by: Jane Hively Barber

Exterior of Old First Reformed Church.

Workers lowering a grand chandlier for restoration in the Old First Reformed Church.

photo by: Shivnanand Samaroo

Lowering grand chandelier for restoration in sanctuary of Old First Reformed Church in 2021.

This completed work has literally caused members of Old First to view the church in a new light. A representative of the church commented, “while the space always felt deeply sacred, it also felt tired, worn, and dim. It is now bright, airy, and inspiring.” The newly restored fixtures, as well as the now visible restoration of the sanctuary ceiling, have attracted current members to see and worship in the sanctuary for the first time since the pandemic. This project created “a tremendous sense of new energy in the space” and “an excitement even to take on what’s next” regarding ongoing preservation needs.

Due to the lighting and electrical upgrades, the congregation has started to see the church as “an asset to…programing and community relationships. People are excited about the restored lighting and are talking about it in the community.” The enhanced appearance and safety of the church have caused additional community groups to rent the space. The electrical upgrades have increased the capacity of the space to host larger performance groups, some of which have already performed in the newly lit space.

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Emily Kahn is the former associate manager of the National Fund for Sacred Places at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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