KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Long before the Radisson, the Exchange, the American National Bank Building and the Comerica Bank building took over the Kalamazoo skyline, downtown’s focal point was the sanctuary and steeple of the First Baptist Church.

It was finished in the mid-19th century, just in time for a very special guest to pay a visit to Kalamazoo.

“This is the only public building standing when Abraham Lincoln rode in to town to give a speech in 1856,” said Jeff Ross, who serves as co-chair for the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition’s capital campaign.

First Baptist Church in Kalamazoo. (May 2023)
First Baptist Church in Kalamazoo. (May 2023)

The house of worship was not the only thing founded by the people of the church.

“This congregation started Kalamazoo College. Members of this congregation started the Ladies’ Library (Association), Head Start, just dozens of different other social service organizations that were founded out of the people here who cared about this community,” Ross said. “That’s just an amazing legacy. For over 170 years, they’ve been serving Kalamazoo.”

In 2021, the congregation gifted the church to the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition, through which 20 nonprofits and startup businesses call the building their home.

The Michigan Historic Site marker at the First Baptist Church in Kalamazoo. (May 2023)
The Michigan Historic Site marker at the First Baptist Church in Kalamazoo. (May 2023)

Now, the city’s oldest public building needs some updates. Ross said those include adding or replacing the heating and air conditioning, elevators, washrooms and sprinkler systems. The railings along the balcony and upper-level seating in the dual-use sanctuary and performance hall need to be brought up to modern standards.

“When that was built in the 1800s, they didn’t have codes like we have today. It comes up to your knees, so we need something a little bit higher for safety,” Ross explained.

In early May, KNAC launched its Inspire campaign, an $11 million fundraiser to preserve and renovate the church. Alongside the upgrades, Ross says the plans entail reconfiguring the offices and wings to triple the tenant capacity from 20 to 60.

According to a press release, $8 million money will come from public funds; Ross pointed to government tax credits as an example. The original private fundraising goal was $2 million but higher construction costs from inflation forced it to be revised to $3 million, which leaves the campaign $400,000 short.

Ross hopes the community who shared and enjoyed this space will help keep it around for the next 175 years.

“It’s not just preserving a neat old structure. When you think about the number of people who have sat in these pews… the energy in (them) gives me chills,” Ross said. “It’s not over. It’s just a little bit of a different venue. There’s still going to be music… We’re still touching people’s lives. That is what’s going to continue.”

Those interested in pitching in to the Inspire Campaign can visit KNAC’s website or email the campaign coordinator at buildingmanager@knac1853.org.