When you think of the quintessential New England Village, what do you think of? These villages of white houses around a town green, usually anchored by a congregational church with a tall, white steeple, have been the subject of myriad photographs and memories for decades. Why are so many like this? Well, historically, the bright white we know of as a common house color was not available until the 1920s. Before the early 1900s, “white” paint was more cream or off-white as we would describe it. Many such villages started seeing white paint proliferate as Titanium Dioxide was mixed with pigments to generate the bright white, about at the same time Colonial Revival style homes saw a second resurgence in popularity. The bright-white paint was more expensive and represented stability and prestige. Publications like Yankee Magazine showed photographs of these charming villages blending into the freshly fallen snow or fall foliage and the romanticization of New England truly began. Newfane, Vermont is one of these villages, which are dominated by the bright white paint. It is an obvious choice, especially due to the number of classically inspired Greek Revival style houses.
When the village of Newfane, Vermont moved down the hill to the flat of town, new buildings were constructed for county and religious uses almost immediately. The local Baptists, Congregationalists, and Universalists together pooled their funds together to erect this church building, which became known as Union Hall as they organized together to construct it. The design follows Gothic Revival principles with the lancet windows and crenelated tower cresting. The design features were later expanded into the larger Congregational church constructed years later when that group built their own church on a nearby site (featured in the last post). The “Union” did not last long as all the congregations built new structures. This building was vacant for years and was later converted to a Grange Hall and town meetings were held in the structure.
Brookline, Vermont is home to just 540 people but has one of the most beautiful brick churches in the state! The Brookline Baptist Church sits along a quiet road in town and is an excellent example of vernacular Gothic Revival architecture in the Vermont. Brookline’s first organized church congregation were Baptists, who established a formal organization in 1785 out of local homes and barns. By 1836, enough funds were gathered to erect a church, but of brick, a more substantial building material than traditional wood-frame buildings. The church remained active throughout the nineteenth century, and the vestry addition was constructed off the rear in 1895 to provide space for community gatherings and meals. Dwindling membership led the church to become mostly used for weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, and craft fairs by the second half of the 20th century. The Town of Brookline presently owns the significant structure, and while preserved, it does not appear to get much use.
The First Congregational Church was first established in Ridgefield, Connecticut just four years after the establishment of the town. Civic leaders in October 1712 successfully petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for permission to levy a tax for “the settling and maintaining of the ministry in the said Town of Ridgefield.” Rev. Thomas Hauley, the first minister, also served as town clerk and school teacher. The first meeting house, on the town green, opened for worship in 1726. Plans for a new meeting house were drawn up in 1771 to fit a growing population, but construction was not complete until 1800. The second church was built in a more traditional style with a steeple. With a shift in the towns demographic from rural homeowners to ritzy exurb to New York City, a more suitable church was required by the end of the 19th century. Josiah Cleaveland Cady, one of the many great New York architects at the time was hired to design a new church suitable for the wealthy New Yorkers who summered in town to consider a neighbor, and he did not disappoint! The building blends many styles from Queen Anne, to Victorian Gothic, to Romanesque Revival in a way that isn’t clunky as in some other versions.
The oldest religious structure on Providence’s west side, the Beneficent Congregational Church is a key Providence landmark. The church visually dominates the part of Downtown that saw widespread demolition in a period of urban renewal, where a large portion of historic buildings and homes were razed for new development and parking. The current structure (the second Meeting House on this location) was built in 1809 to plans by Barnard Eddy and John Newman, the latter of whom supervised construction. It was substantially altered in the Greek Revival style in 1836 to a design by James C. Bucklin, which oversaw the addition of the columns and Classical trim. This work was funded with a $30,000 donation from textile entrepreneur Henry J. Steere in honor of his father. Steere also gave to the church a chandelier containing 5,673 pieces of Austrian crystal! It is not the columns or chandelier that catches people’s attention, it is the massive dome. Legend has it that when designed, Reverend Wilson wanted to recall the domed Custom House in Dublin, which had been dedicated shortly before his emigration to America. The building looks similar to the Massachusetts State House, built in the 1790s, especially when the church’s dome was covered with gold leaf. Due to weather damage to the gold leaf, the congregation voted in 1987 to replace the roof with more durable copper sheeting, which now has a green patina.
By 1829, the population of Providence, Rhode Island was spreading from the east side of the Providence River (near Brown University) to the west. Around this time, two dozen parishioners of the St. John’s Episcopal Church on Providence’s East Side purchased the old Providence Theater on the west side of town and renovated it for use as a church. By 1835, the congregation grew to 260, and a new church building was needed. Grace Church hired the foremost architect of the time, Richard Upjohn, to design the beautiful new building, which was the first asymmetrical Gothic Revival church in America when it was completed in 1846! In addition to its architectural significance, the building contains the first painted windows ever seen in Rhode Island. Downtown Providence eventually grew up around the church, really diminishing the chance at a good photo of the building, but later urban renewal and the razing of parts of the downtown area (many undeveloped to this day) provide some interesting sightlines of the towering steeple.
Fondly referred to as the “Old Sloop” in town (a name conferred by local fishermen in the 1800s), the First Congregational Church of Rockport stands as one of the most prominent landmarks in the old village. The village of Sandy Bay (now downtown Rockport) had a growing population since the 1700s. Prior to 1755, churchgoers from Sandy Bay made the journey every Sunday by horse or foot in good weather to the parish in Annisquam or the First Parish in Gloucester, and in poor weather, met in a small log schoolhouse on this site. Eventually, a church building was erected in town, which was used until after the Revolutionary War. In 1805, a new meetinghouse was built where it stands today. In 1814, the British invaded Sandy Bay colony and residents rang the Old Sloop’s bell to sound the alarm. British forces fired a cannon at the bell to silence it, but hit the steeple instead. A replica cannonball can be seen to this day in the steeple as a nod to that historic event. In 1840, the people of Sandy Bay voted to establish the Town of Rockport. At that time, the meetinghouse was completely redecorated and the steeple enlarged. After the Civil War, the church was outgrown, and in 1872, the Old Sloop building was cut in half and separated by about twenty feet with an addition built in the middle. At that time the steeple was enlarged and strengthened to accommodate a new and heavier bell and the Town Clock. In 2015, the church began a campaign to replace the deteriorated steeple, which was rebuilt, faux cannonball and all!
The Assonet Congregational Church, now the United Church of Assonet was originally known as the Town Church and was organized in 1704. In 1807, fifteen residents of town, all from prominent families, gathered to ‘‘manifesting the desire to enter into a Church estate.’‘ Land was deeded to the church in 1807, and the Federal style edifice was constructed the next year. Documentation on its construction is limited, with research stating, “we can only speculate on the construction of this beautiful Church
building. It is believed that Ebenezer Peirce (1777-1852) of Assonet and Middleboro was the master builder assisted by ship builders of the village. Mr. Peirce sent his sloop “Unicorn” to the Penobscot River region in Maine to procure most of the lumber.” The church is in great condition today, even retaining its bell, cast by Paul Revere, and original box pews. Sadly, in October 1910, the steeple was struck by lightning and the acorn top blew off. The 1880s clock was damaged but repaired. The steeple was re-installed or reconstructed, but deferred maintenance required the church to remove it and the Revere bell in the early 2000s until funding could be gathered to restore, nothing yet. What I wouldn’t do to see the original acorn top of this steeple again!
In 1904, residents of the newly established village of Waban in Newton, Mass., began meeting with the hope to establish a non-denominational church there. As the population of the village grew rapidly in the first decade of the 20th century, funding surged and it was determined that a place of worship was necessary. William C. Strong, a Waban resident and well-known horticulturist, donated the land from his large holdings, many of which was already being developed for house lots. The church building, designed by Boston architect James H. Ritchie, had its cornerstone laid in November 1911. Construction followed rapidly and the building was formally dedicated in September, 1912. The building follows the Arts and Crafts movement, especially Ralph Adams Cram’s revival of the English parish church.
This modest country church in North Canton Village, CT is a fine example of a restrained Stick style church building. The simple plan, steeply pitched roof, adorned woodwork trim to resemble the bracing underneath, and the central spire all work together to create such a beautiful architectural composition. The building was constructed in 1871, and formally opened for its first service one year later.