In October of 1847, Henry Ward Beecher, the popular Presbyterian minister, came to Madison to visit friends. Riding the very first train from Indianapolis to Madison, a huge crowd gathered at the station to celebrate this new rail line. Beecher described the trip in unflattering terms: “The car was no car at all, a mere ex tempore woodbox, used sometimes without seats for hogs, but with seats for men, of which class I (ah! me miserable!) happened to be one.” Beecher was a staunch supporter of abolition who later said, “It is double-edged evil, that cuts both ways, wounding master and slave; a pest to good morals; a consumption of the industrial virtues; a burden upon society in its commercial and economic arrangements; a political anomaly; and a cause of inevitable degradation in religious ideas, feelings, and institutions”. He raised thousands of dollars to help slaves purchase their freedom, and he sent rifles--nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles” to abolitionists fighting in the Border War in Kansas. While in Madison Beecher visited Reverend Harvey Curtis, minister at the Second Presbyterian Church, which was the original name and use for the John T. Windle Memorial Auditorium. Beecher held a revival meeting at the church that was well-attended, and 46 members were added to the congregation.
The former Second Presbyterian Church, now the Windle Auditorium, was built as a result of irreconcilable differences within the Presbyterian Church in the 1800s. By the 1830s, religious difference and the hotly debated question of slavery caused a schism. The congregations split into two--the Old School, which was more traditional theologically and did not support abolition, and the New School, which called for ministers to preach against slavery. In late 1834 church trustees, including J.F.D. Lanier and Jeremiah Sullivan, commissioned Edwin Peck to build a new church. Peck, who was acquainted with Lanier and Sullivan through political and business ties, was supervising construction of the Indiana State House in Indianapolis. In 1835, Peck built a Greek temple-like church for the new Second Presbyterian congregation. In October of 1835, Dr. William Matthews became the first pastor. Lyman Beecher, who was the head of Lane Theological Seminary in nearby Cincinnati and father of Harriett Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, spoke at the dedication service.
A thin veneer of white stucco, scored to give the appearance of large cut blocks of stone, covers the brick structure. A high foundation with eleven steps leads to the main level creating the temple appearance typical of public Greek Revival buildings. A low, plain triangular roof sits over a wide decorative band supported by six massive pilasters, three on each side, and two fluted, Doric columns that support the central, recessed entryway. Large, wood double-doors lead into the body of the church while two side entrances open into anterooms.
The sanctuary features the church’s original 1867 Johnson tracker organ which was used during services until 1961. It was restored in 1984 and includes all its original parts, components, fixtures, accessories, and the wood pipes inscribed with the names of prominent Madison individuals. The original, vaulted ceiling of the church featured square coffers ornamented by rosettes. Renowned as some of the finest plasterwork in the region, the rosette ceiling was removed years ago.
The former church is considered the oldest community building in Madison, predating all other existing churches, schools, the courthouse and other government buildings and other places of public assembly. This structure later served a Lutheran congregation, a funeral home, the Chamber of Commerce and the offices of Historic Madison, Inc.