In 1826, twenty years after the first known permanent settlement in Gates Mills near what became Wilson Mills, Holsey Gates purchased 130 acres along the Chagrin River, built a cabin, dammed the river and dug a mill race. Much of the mill race can still be seen. It cut across a bend in the river, beginning about where the current dam is now, ran through the Hunt Club, crossed under Epping and Old Mill Roads just west of the library, and emptied back into the river across from the Gates Mills municipal buildings. Gates built three mills along the race: 1) the original saw mill approximately where the Library now stands; 2) a grist mill across the road and 3) a second saw mill further down the race. Holsey’s third home in Gates Mills was a house he built across the road from St. Christopher’s to accommodate both his family and a tavern. This building, subsequently transformed into the Eagle Tavern, the Maple Leaf Inn and the Hunt Club, was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1935 and was indeed completely destroyed by fire in 1994.
In 1838 Holsey built the Bell House, next to St. Christopher’s on the east, as a school which he rented to the township for $2.00 a year. Holsey’s son, Washington Gates, built what is now the Rectory in 1854. By the middle of the nineteenth century Gates Mills was a thriving community with, in addition to the mills, a rake and wagon factory, two cheese factories, two general stores and a post office.
While immigration from England to New England had been a religious movement, immigration from New England to the Western Reserve was not: early northeast Ohio settlers were responding to economic pressures. Very few churches were built before 1830, almost thirty-five years after the Western Reserve had been surveyed. When settlers did begin to build churches, they followed the style they were used to in New England. This style derived from James Gibbs’ St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, built between 1722 and 1726. Gibbs’ 1728 Book of Architecture was immensely influential in the American colonies and resulted almost immediately in the construction of the major eighteenth century churches of British North America in Philadelphia, Charleston and New York. More modest circumstances in New England dictated frame construction. A famous New England example of this is the First Congregational Church in Bennington, Vermont of 1804-5. Many settlers in the Western Reserve came from smaller communities than Bennington and they were accustomed to worshiping in smaller variants or at any rate they lived in small communities in Ohio which could only support smaller structures. Many small churches, similar to St. Christopher’s are still scattered over northeast Ohio. What by-and-large now distinguishes St. Christopher’s from other still standing Western Reserve churches built at the same time is not its style but the remarkable conservation of its structure and particularly its surroundings. Unfortunately many churches built at the same time as St. Christopher’s are now in poor repair and in discordant twentieth century surroundings, hedged in by tanning parlors and fast food establishments or surrounded by the emptiness of long abandoned communities.
When Holsey Gates built what became St. Christopher’s in 1853, Franklin Pierce was President of the United States. Lincoln, after one term in congress, had abandoned politics for a lucrative law practice in Springfield. Grant was in Oregon about to resign his commission. Robert Lee, Superintendent of West Point, would have been the only one of the three who Holsey Gates might have been able to place.
Gates’ church (Holsey determined the plan and contributed the land and $800 to the $1,300 total cost) consisted of the present vestibule, the tower and the main body of the sanctuary, with its three windows on each side, as it is seen today. Comparison of this structure with small country churches of the period, such as that at Hale Farm and that in the early village in Chesterland, shows that this was a good-sized religious building for its time, testifying to the mid-century prosperity of Gates Mills. This makes it surprising that the church never enjoyed a full-time pastor during its first seventy-five years and was always served by a circuit Methodist clergyman.
Gates Mills did not prosper after the Church was built. The community we see today was the result of two complementary developments at the beginning of the twentieth century: 1) the Cleveland and Eastern Railway which provided seventy minute service to Public Square and 2) the Maple Leaf Land Company which recreated an early nineteenth century village on 2,000 acres on either side of the river. This development was a manifestation of the early twentieth century historicist movement which would culminate in the Williamsburg restoration which began in 1927.
There have been Sunday services without interruption at what is now St. Christopher’s for 150 years. Episcopal Vesper Services on Sundays during the summer began in 1906. By 1926 approximately 34% of the population of Gates Mills was Episcopalian, 23% Methodist, 20% belonged to other denominations and 24% had no religious affiliation. The Methodist Trustees and their District Superintendent met with the Dean of Trinity Cathedral, the Archdeacon, and both Episcopal Bishops and decided to transfer the building, with the permission of the Gates family, to the Episcopal Church.
Much of the renovation of Gates Mills had been presided over by the classical architect Frank R. Walker. Walker built the Halle Department Store, St. Vincent Charity Hospital, the Cleveland Public Auditorium, the Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Cleveland Post Office, the Federal Reserve Bank and Severence Hall. Moving to Gates Mills in 1915, Walker also built the estates of Walter White (Hawken School) and Francis Drury (Gilmour Academy). He was the obvious choice to touch up the community church. With a first floor addition on the north side of the building for classrooms, kitchen and office, Walker more than doubled the size of the church in 1928. Demolishing the northern wall of the previous building, Walker added, through an arch, the present twenty-five foot deep chancel. To accommodate the building to the site (prevent it from falling into the river), the original structure was moved approximately fifteen feet south.
A second major campaign was undertaken twenty-five years later to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the church. The basement and the first floor were enlarged and reorganized. A second floor was added with offices for the Rector, the Secretary and additional classrooms. At the conclusion of this 1953 campaign the church had the general form it has today.
There have been two further additions. What is now the second floor classroom/choir rehearsal room was built out over the first floor nursery in 1965. In 1984 the current building was completed with a northern addition to the guild room and the basement was extended below this to provide for another classroom.
A peal of eight bells was cast in England and installed in the tower in 1927. To consolidate its right-of-way between St. Christopher’s and the Bell House (the train must have produced a spectacular distraction when it went by during a church service) the Cleveland and Eastern Railway built a housing for the original church bell in the garden where the sculpture of St. Christopher is today. This bell was subsequently given to the Mayfield United Methodist Church to replace the bell they lost when their church was completely destroyed by fire in 1945. Fifteen additional bells were added to the carillon in 1964. In 2000 an eighteen rank Hradetzky tracker organ was installed in the choir loft.