Story and photos provided by Amy Loch, Director of Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
This November we are celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the Sheerar Center, originally built by the First Church of Christ, Scientist in 1928. Each year thousands of people visit the Sheerar Center for recitals, weddings, shows, church services and to see the Stillwater History Museum. Many of these people inquire about the building’s history and original features. While some portions of the building are almost a time capsule of the 1920s, other sections have undergone several renovations to keep the building relevant and accessible.
The First Church of Christ, Scientist dedicated their first church in Stillwater on June 25, 1895, where the Sheerar Center stands today. In 1915, with membership increasing, the idea was formed to build a new facility. In 1927, church members selected architect C. F. Durey to draw up the plans for a new building. In November of that year, the congregation signed a $40,000 contract for its construction. In preparation for the construction, the original building was moved to the west edge of the property and remained in use until the new church was completed. Construction was sufficiently completed so that the first service in the new building was held on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving 1928.
The building was built in a Colonial Revival-style and provided more space than the original, small wood-frame building. Some interesting notes of the building’s construction include the pouring of the sloped sanctuary floor and the strength of the building’s construction. The sloped sanctuary floor was poured on New Year’s Eve in 1927, while several Church members served the workers a midnight meal. John Melton, a historian and former church member, said “the building was designed to be fireproof. The walls, floors and basement ceiling are all constructed of concrete interlaced with steel bars. When shelving was added later, the masonry screws kept hitting these steel bars.”
The church building was originally built with three arch-topped dormers across the north side of the roof, which were later removed. The initial plans also called for a large, colonial-style steeple, which was never constructed. The cornerstone for the building was laid on February 8, 1928 at 6:30 am when church members gathered. Inside they placed a copper box with a bible, select periodicals, and a local newspaper.
In 1948, when Sunday school hour was changed to the same time as the church service, the basement was converted to be used as classroom space. It featured 10 separate rooms on the sides, a large Sunday school room in the center, and nursery in the northeast corner.
By 1966 it was decided that the old building would be too costly to renovate and the idea for a modern church building was formed. In 1970, Construction started on the new Church on West 7th Street. At that time, the Stillwater Arts and Humanities Council was seeking a facility to serve as a cultural center for the Stillwater community. Mike and Molly Sheerar contributed the initial $25,000 to launch a community-wide fundraiser totaling $80,000 to purchase the building.
The Sheerar Cultural and Heritage Center opened on May 7, 1973, with big plans for a community auditorium, meeting rooms, workspace, reading rooms, an art studio, and exhibit space. The original sanctuary was updated with an expanded stage, tectum panels for sound reduction, and the original wooden auditorium seats and many original lighting fixtures remained. The balcony originally had wood risers but was converted to an art studio space. On the north entry, the original three centered doors were replaced with two glass doors and a window. Fire emergency exits and safety features of the building were updated to meet code. The two restrooms were added to the auditorium in what used to be a coat room in the 1970s, and the butler’s pantry was seamlessly added in 1991.
On the lower level, the first priority was a new entrance that was easier to access. The east entrance of the building was moved a few feet north along the wall, to a flat surface without exterior stairs, and the old entrance was sealed with similar blonde-colored bricks. The interior east stairs were widened and reinforced to allow easy access to the basement. Inside the museum, the interior north and south walls were removed to convert the 10 classrooms into new exhibit bays. The newly formed Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History was formally opened on November 17, 1974.
The center has continued to be updated with new ADA compliant entrance ramps inside the east door of the museum and to the west door of the center. The east interior entrance ramp was installed inside the museum in 1992. This resulted in the removal of the men’s restroom in the northeast corner of the museum.
In 2008, the southeastern bay of the lower level was converted to office space, and the original first-floor church balcony was divided into two separate storage rooms. In 2012, the museum closed temporarily to remove two walls in the north and south bays of the lower level. The original ten bays were reduced to the present seven exhibit bays. The 2012-2013 construction also deepened the existing seven bays by a few feet.
Today the building still has its original 47 opaque colored glass windows, which have been covered with clear protective plexiglass. In 2015, the front steps were replaced and rededicated thanks to a generous donation by Bill and Barbara Dunn. This year, the community came together to support the museum’s drainage improvement project to keep water from seeping into the museum level during heavy rain. The plan for 2019 is to raise the necessary funds to update the building’s plumbing. To learn more about the Sheerar Center and our activities go to www.sheerarmuseum.org.