The Unitarian Society in Marietta was founded in February 1855 by Nahum Ward (1785-1860), a prominent land speculator and philanthropist. Mr. Ward had arrived in Marietta in 1811. He served this community as Mayor (1833-36) and was quite the "socialite" of his time. His home, located in the very center of town, was the site of grand receptions. In 1825, he held a reception for the Marquis de Lafayette and in 1843, John Quincy Adams was his guest of honor. Being a Unitarian since his boyhood in New England, Ward decided to place a notice in the January 30, 1855 edition of the Marietta Intelligencer. He asked all friends of liberal Christianity to assemble at the Court House for the purpose of establishing a Unitarian Society in the community.
Construction of their new church began in July of the same year. It was completed two years later and dedicated on June 4, 1857. The total cost of the building was $25,000 and was assumed by Mr. Ward himself. He then sold it to the congregation for the sum of one dollar.
The brick used for the Church was all hand-made from clay taken from the old Indian earthworks at Sacra Via park. The brickwork for the main structure was done by A. Geren, and for the tower by William Kexal. One lone white brick can be found on the Third Street side of the Church tower. This brick was placed there by a workman because of a gap left by the original builders. After climbing the 85 ft. tower, the workman placed his "signature" on the structure with this brick (he was paid an additional fifty cents to perform this task).
Stone work in the building's foundation was done by N.S. Alcock and the steps and the stone wall beneath the wrought-iron fence were made by Stepps and Glosser. The fence itself was made at the foundry of Putnam, Poole and Company from across the Muskingum river in Harmar. Although having the appearance of wood, the windowsills are actually made of cast iron. The window sills along with the caps and cornices were made at the foundry of Owen Franks in Marietta. Franks, a long-time member of both the Unitarian and Universalist societies here, was also a noted riverboat captain and one of the owners of "Larchmont" a grand home still privately occupied on Second Street.
The overall design of the Church is Gothic and is an imitation of a rural chapel which Ward had admired during one of his visits to England. The architect was Mr. John M. Slocomb, who also designed other Marietta landmarks including the "Castle" on Fourth Street and St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Second Street. Construction of our Church was supervised by Nahum Ward's son, William S. Ward.
The woodwork on the interior is spectacular and was painted to look like oak by N.H. Shaw while the glazing work was done by John Clintworth. The curving stairway that leads to the balcony has a banister of heavy walnut and was the work of a former slave who gained his freedom in the south through his skills as a craftsman.
The painting on the wall behind the pulpit is entitled "Christ Weeping Over Jerusalem". It was originally done in plaster during or shortly after the construction of the Church. It was painted by noted Marietta artist, Sala Bosworth and is an imitation of a painting of the same name by the English artist, Sir Charles Eastlake. The Eastlake original (only three feet in length) is in the Tate Gallery in London. The positioning of the figures is somewhat different in the Bosworth painting, and it has been said that the figure of Simon Peter somewhat resembles Nahum Ward, himself.
There is scripture and doxology (St. John and Exodus) painted on a screen to the right of the pulpit area. The artist is unknown. Behind this screen is a stairway that once led from the pastor's study (now children's nursery) directly to the pulpit.
The original stained-glass windows of the Church were replaced some time in the early 1900's by the present windows which are dedicated to the memories of former members. Only one window retains the original nineteenth century design.
All of the interior woodwork, wainscoting, and pews are the original. Some of the pews still bear the nameplates that identify the families that used them in the 1800's. In the early days of the Church, contributions took the form of pew rentals, paid semiannually. Pews so identified include those of Nahum Ward, Captain Owen, and other church founders.>
Like many of the older buildings in downtown Marietta, the UU Church suffered heavily during the years when the Muskingum and Ohio rivers regularly overflowed their banks. Thankfully the locks and dams system of the rivers now prevents major flooding. The damage was particularly bad during the disastrous floods of 1884, 1907, 1913, and 1937. In 1913, for example, floodwaters rose to completely cover the basement and to a height of three feet in the sanctuary. During the 1884 flood, the Church's original pipe organ was destroyed and a new organ was purchased and placed upstairs in the Church balcony in 1907. Unfortunately, this organ required major repair that was prohibitively expensive. Thus, it was dismantled in 2007 and the rear window was revealed. This brightened the sanctuary immensely. The pipes of the original organ still grace the left side of the sanctuary.
The original bell still hangs in the bell tower of the Church. This bell was brought to Marietta on November 5, 1856 aboard the riverboat steamer "Lightfoot". The bell was made in the celebrated foundry of J. McNeeley and Sons in Troy, New York. It weighs 1100 pounds and its distinctive tone is the result of the unusually large quantity of silver used in the alloy. Unfortunately, the bell was cracked in early 1939 and is now only heard when an occasional mischievous youth cannot resist the temptation.
The original parsonage (now the Church office, religious education building, and private rental) is located next to the Church. This building was built in 1871 on land purchased by William S. Ward (Naham's son). The building was used as a home for the ministers of the Church until the late 1960's when a long-time member bequeathed her lovely home to the church for use as the minister's home.