Hoof prints and blood stains were reputed to exist beneath the carpet and pews of the 1809 sanctuary, which was used as a hospital during the Civil War.
The rumors turned out not to be true. A recent renovation revealed old heart pine floors, but no hoof prints or stains.
“I was extremely disappointed,” the Rev. George W. Robertson, the church’s senior pastor, said with a laugh. “We had our hopes up.”
First Presbyterian spent a year and $3.5 million renovating the sanctuary, where President Woodrow Wilson’s father was once pastor. The new sanctuary was dedicated in August. On Sunday, Lenora Morrow, an internationally recognized organist from Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, played a recital to dedicate a new organ between services.
The new organ and restored hardwood floors, visible for the first time since the 1920s, are only part of the renovation, which touched several buildings on the church’s campus on Telfair Street.
A ramp was added to make the church more accessible. Pews were refurbished. Technology was updated. The nursery was expanded. Portions of the roof were replaced. In the most labor-intensive project of them all, the 170-year-old sanctuary windows were restored. The shutters covering the windows had been painted shut over the years. For the first time in decades, natural light pours into the sanctuary.
“This renovation was really the renovation of a century,” said Paul Roberts, the director of music and arts ministries. “It was so massive. Everything you can see was changed.”
The church worshipped without an organ in a fellowship hall during the renovation. About 150 members joined in that time, including several who had never worshipped in the old sanctuary, Robertson said.
This summer, they experienced the joy of worshipping in the historic sanctuary, now updated with modern conveniences, better acoustics and lighting.
“Our acoustics were not good before,” Robertston said. “I could see the people sing. They were red in the face, but you couldn’t hear them.”
Where possible, old materials such as the antique glass and former shutters were reused or will be salvaged for other projects. The same is true for the organ, which reused several pipes.
“One rank in the organ goes back to the 1800s. It was specifically retained, like a sourdough starter,” said Roberts, who estimates the rank has been carried over from at least four organs in the church’s history.
As for the floors, Robertson said the contractor offered to fabricate hoof prints but, for the sake of historical integrity, the church decided against it.