Except for the much-altered First Presbyterian Church (c. 1824) in nearby Florence, this is the oldest known house of worship still standing in Alabama. Situated in the fertile cotton country near the foot of the Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River, Tuscumbia flourished in the 1820s as a shipping point and local trading center. In fact, during this period it ranked along with Mobile, Huntsville, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and Florence as one of the principal towns in the state. And at a time when rude log or frame worship places were the order of the day in Alabama’s rough, newborn settlements, Tuscumbia boasted two commodious brick meetinghouses, Methodist (now destroyed) and Presbyterian, which testified to the town’s wealth and refinement as much as to its piety.
Stylistically, First Presbyterian Church is also Alabama’s sole remaining example of that curious fusion of Late Georgian (or Federal) neoclassicism with incipient Gothic impulses seen frequently in churches of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states of this period, but rarely found in the lower South. A modillioned cornice and a bold triangular pediment pierced by an oval sunburst overtop a tall central doorway and the flanking windows, set high in the facade, are emphatically pointed. The Gothic mimicry is repeated in a trio of large pointed window openings down each side. Originally, large, multipaned, clear glass sashes filled each window, protected by heavy louvered shutters. A somewhat underscaled tower, topped by a weathervane, straddles the gable roof and maintains the Gothic theme in its narrow pointed belfry openings.
It can hardly be coincidental that the superb Flemish bond brickwork of the church recalls that of Belle Mont, the residence of Dr. Alexander Mitchell five miles south of Tuscumbia. Mitchell himself was likely a chief contributor to construction of the church; his daughter was married to Reverend George W. Ashbridge, the leader of Tuscumbia’s Presbyterian flock. Philadelphia-born and Princeton-educated, Ashbridge’s involvement could account for the architectural similarity between this church, on the far Alabama frontier, and contemporary New Jersey meetinghouses (usually Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed) that display the same mix of stylistic elements.
Inside, a blind pointed arch frames the pulpit area while subordinate arches at either side define a pair of entrance doors leading from the narthex. A double row of turned columns carries an arched ceiling and a spacious U-shaped gallery, with the organ positioned high at the rear. The first organ, dating from 1849, was installed by Johann Koehnken of Cincinnati. Renovations in the late 1880s removed the original pews and high pulpit, followed in 1904 by replacement of the original windows with art glass. Light sandblasting has also marred the patina and once crisply tooled joints of the exterior brickwork. Notwithstanding such ill-advised modifications to the original fabric, the church remains an important expression of academic architecture from the earliest years of Alabama statehood. And, as a foretaste of the full-blown Gothic Revival that would appear in Alabama a couple of decades later, the church juxtaposes nicely with St. John’s Episcopal Church (1852) just two blocks away, one of the state’s earliest expressions of the Ecclesiological movement as rendered in Carpenter Gothic.
Figuring prominently over several generations in the life of First Presbyterian’s still-active congregation was the family of Helen Keller, world-renowned advocate for the blind and disabled.
Gamble, Robert. The Alabama Catalog: Historic American Buildings Survey. A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
Holder, Eleanor Finley. A History of the First Presbyterian Church, Tuscumbia, Alabama. Sesquicentennial Observance, 1824–1974. Privately published, 1974.