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A brief glimpse of history of the Union Church

June 11, 2014 - By Meg Peters

Review Staff Writer

While planning the design and construction documents for what could be the future Lake Orion Village hall, the design team of Steve Auger and Associates is researching the Union Church history.

They are relying on a book called,  A Church for All Seasons: The History & Architecture of the Union Church written by Leslie Pielack.

Project Manager Scott Reynolds said preserving the church's history, along with staying close to the village's timeline and budget, is one of SA&A's main priorities.

The church was built in 1854 using timber-framing technology. Local Methodists ministered by Elder Warren and pioneer Congregationalists who met in the home of Needham Hemingway, erected the Union Church. It was the first permanent church of Lake Orion and measured 35 by 50 feet.

Local trees were harvested and hewn by hand into crevices called mortises most likely from the dense white pine forests in the western part of the township. According to the previously mentioned book, the foundation was made of cobble, like many of the other local buildings at the time.

Congregational services were held at 2 p.m. while Methodists met at 10 a.m., and the church was shared for nearly 20 years.

A few years after the civil war ended, the Detroit and Bay City Railroad built a line in 1871 through Orion and Oxford ultimately increasing the local population. The Methodists moved out and began building a site on the southeast corner of Flint and Lapeer, and later moved to their current location at Flint and Anderson in 1901.

The Union Church, then referred to as the Congregational Church, began its own remodeling and beautifying process. Gothic Revival triangular head windows replaced previous windows, and a broad, double entry Italianate style door was added between 1877 and 1880. A coved tin ceiling was installed, and pale green and gold paint were brushed onto interior walls, topped with decorative, hand painted stenciling that was rediscovered in 2005.

As tourism became the prominent focus of the Orion economy in the late 19th century, the city grew to accommodate new cottages built on the lake. But it was short lived and seasonal, and soon Orion was divided into the rich who owned large real estate holdings and the average farmer. The village's winter population fell between 1890 to 1900, and barely changed by 1910.

Congregational members slowly stopped attending service, and the Congregational Church was leased by the Orion Baptist Church in 1905, which controlled the building for the next half-century.

The church was deeded to the Baptists in 1921 for $1. It stated that "if any time in the future they fail to hold services for a period of two years, the property should revert to the Village of Orion to be used for a public park."

"Above all, the restriction demonstrates commitment to Orion's future," Pielack writes.

In 1905 the Ladies' Aid Society purchased electric lighting and in 1921 $6,000 in substantial improvements were added to the church. It is thought that the Gothic windows were replaced with the opalescent leaded glass seen today, including an arched glass transom over the doors which were also replaced. The porch roof was also added, and more decoration was built in 1929 for $2,500.

The era after World War II was the last phase of major improvements to the church. During 1945 to 1951 while the Reverend Earl Cook was in charge a full basement was built and the north wall was pushed back 20 feet. Oil heat was installed and modern pews replaced dark Victorian ones.

In 1954 the Emmanuel congregation was annexed to the Baptist (Union) Church, providing a pastor's study, nursery, ladies lounge, office, and the "old prayer room" which is the current stage found in the church.

In 1974 the village entered into a 20-year land contract with the First Baptist (Union) Church for $65,000. Police and village administration moved into the building, and Divine Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church used the sanctuary, marking the fourth congregation to utilize the church.

In 1978, however, the village became interested in the old village fire hall and moved back downtown before successfully registering the Union Church as a state historical site in 1979.

The Apostolic Church of Pontiac was the only church to bid on the Union Church, and agreed to a land contract of $75,000 with the village, which it defaulted on in 1985.

Once again the village owned the church, and all the insurance problems attached to it.

The village struck a deal with Orion Township in 1986 who leased the building for the senior center with the village retaining ownership. This allowed the village to pay off the rest of the original land contract to the Lake Orion Baptist Church in November, 1987.

The township was obliged to renovate the east side of the building to provide a public community center. The union church on the west side of the structure was locked up.

By 1995 the church's abandoned condition led to partial roof deterioration, the steeple shifting, and sagging interior floors. The township raised $50,000 along with the Orion Historical Society who raised the same amount to repair the issues.

Currently the Union Church building is owned by Oakland County. The idea is to turn it over to the Michigan land bank with development guidelines and recommendations.

If the village can find an appropriate and cost efficient construction bidder, and Lockharts BBQ re-signs its purchase agreement, the village could move into the old senior center by fall.

The Department of Public Works, the LO Police Department and village administration offices would all be twice the size of their current dimensions.

Village administration offices are currently 980 square feet. Moving to the senior center would provide them 1660 sq. feet. The police department, currently 550 sq. ft., would grow to 1610 sq. feet. The current village chambers at 720 sq. ft. would move to the actual Union Church at 1480 sq. ft.

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