Waukesha City Church is a body of believers, not a building. That said, we are grateful to God for his generous provision of the space in which we are blessed to worship each week. Our building was built by First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha, a congregation born here before Wisconsin became a state. We celebrate God’s providence throughout the history of our city and our state as we now steward the Historic First Presbyterian Church Building as Waukesha City Church’s gathering place for worship and fellowship.
First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha dates back to September 8, 1846, when the town was still known as Prairieville. Reverend Aaron L. Lindsley, recently arrived from New York, and Reverend Silas Pratt petitioned the Presbytery of Wisconsin on that date, thus formally founding what was then the “First Presbyterian Church of Prairieville.” There were 10 charter members.
The young congregation, with no building of its own, used the First Baptist Church for its worship service until February 14, 1847, when it moved to the Prairieville Academy, a predecessor of Carroll University. There a Sunday School with 70 members was organized by founding church member Prof. Eleazar Root, who later became the first Wisconsin Superintendent of Education. Root, along with Prof. John W. Sterling, were the two first faculty at Carroll College, which had also been founded in 1846. This was the beginning of a long history of close ties between First Presbyterian and Carroll College. In fact, Sterling served as pulpit supply while Lindsley went East to secure funds to purchase a building. Sterling went on to become one of the two first professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Root and Sterling were not the only church members of historical significance. Another early member was Alexander Randall, who became governor of Wisconsin in 1857 and, later, Postmaster General under President Lincoln.
The current site of our building was purchased from Horace and Hariett Ward for $100. In 1848 an additional lot was purchased from Thomas H. Olin for $150. By September 1849 construction was progressing. The basement was used for the Sunday School before the rest of the building was constructed. Additionally, in 1849 Prof. Lucius Root began holding preparatory Carroll College classes in the basement. Classes continued there until 1853, when Carroll’s first building was completed. The original building, a structure measuring 40′ x 60′ and seating 300, was soon finished, although the tower was not completed until 1869. The Sanctuary was officially dedicated on June 24, 1855. Interestingly, during this time, pews were sold or rented for a term of one year.
Despite expansions, remodeling, and the removal of the tower in 1912, the sanctuary is still today enclosed by the original walls, and the original roof rafters are still in place. Our church building is “the oldest Old School Presbyterian Church edifice in Wisconsin in continuous service since its erection in 1849,” according to the Synod of Wisconsin’s 1951 publication “Early Presbyterianism in Wisconsin.”
A Century of Change
The first Carroll College graduation exercises were held in the building’s sanctuary in 1857. This tradition continued for years. Because of a fire that devastated Carroll College’s one building in 1885, college classes returned to the basement for two years, until Carroll could raise money for a new building.
Already around 1867 more space was needed and the building was enlarged at a cost of $2,000. Also in the 1860s, sheds were erected on the east and north sides of the building for churchgoers’ teams of horses. They remained until the early 1920s. A manse (house for the minister) was purchased on Arcadian Avenue in 1902. In 1941, it was replaced by a manse at 727 Beechwood Ave.
In 1922 the church building was enlarged on the lot purchased from the A.E. Alpin family. A new pipe organ was installed. The entrance was relocated, and the location of the chancel was moved from the north end to the south. New Sunday school classrooms and a gymnasium were added. Membership at this time was 700. This major remodeling gave the building the basic footprint that it has today.
By 1946, when First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha celebrated its centennial, membership had reached 1,050. In 1954 an Annex was purchased at corner of East and South Streets. It housed the Gray Mare Nursery School and later the Waukesha Women’s Center.
In 1977 a new Austin pipe organ was installed and placed in balcony. The balcony was redone and a railing installed for safety. The choir moved from the front of the sanctuary to the balcony at this time.
First Presbyterian was one of the first two Waukesha buildings designated historic landmarks by the Waukesha Landmarks Commission in 1978. A plaque with the number two adorns the building near the front entrance. The following year, the church building was listed in the American Presbyterian/Reformed Historical Sites Registry.
Renovations were finished in 1981 that changed the layout of the chancel area. Changes “emphasized the fellowship of God’s people around the communion table,” leaving less distance and fewer obstacles between the congregation and the chancel area. The refurbished sanctuary was dedicated on May 23, 1982.
In a renewed effort to use the church building itself as a resource for mission, in 1984 First Presbyterian pledged $125,000 to convert the basement gymnasium area into an adult daycare. The Caring Place was opened in 1988, the first non-profit adult daycare in Waukesha County. It served as a model for adult daycare centers in southeast Wisconsin. The Caring Place was closed on April 30, 2021.
God’s Provision to Waukesha City Church
From our church’s incorporation on November 07, 2011, we have been focused on ministry as a local church within the city of Waukesha. It’s there in our name, and we have no intention of “outgrowing” either this name or this mission. Toward that end, we have from the beginning sought to find a permanent home base in Waukesha, preferably downtown.
In our early years, Sunday services were held on Sunday afternoons at the St. Matthias Episcopal Church building, at 111 E. Main Street – a couple blocks north of First Presbyterian. In order to facilitate meetings on Sunday mornings, we began renting the Waukesha Civic Theater, at 264 W. Main Street. In the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we were asked to stop meeting at the theater, and began Sunday services in the afternoon at Waukesha Bible Church, at S53W24079 Glendale Road.
While Waukesha Bible Church was wonderfully gracious, our desire was to return to the city, and our prayer was for a place of our own there. The pandemic policies that pushed us out of downtown led to increased urgency to search for a permanent downtown home. At one point, we considered converting a Wisconsin Avenue office building to our needs. While excitement grew for this opportunity, reality began to set in – the costs of converting from one use to another were prohibitive. The search continued.
From our founding, leadership had been praying for the opportunity to occupy one of Waukesha’s many historic church buildings. In the spring of 2021, we learned that First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha was preparing to close and sell their building. With great enthusiasm and gratitude, we expressed our interest and began building relationships. In late February of 2022, the building sale was complete. Waukesha City Church had a permanent home – and a base for intentional Gospel-proclaiming ministry in downtown Waukesha.
The God of all providence has granted us the privilege of owning and using the Historic First Presbyterian Building. With its roots in the 19th century, and the beginnings of our city, we delight to seek His good plan for its use into the 21st century.