Center Church, New Haven, Connecticut

Center Church on the New Haven Green, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2018:

Center Church has been featured in several previous posts, which show the building along with the neighboring churches. However, this particular view provides the best look at its design, which was the work of noted architects Asher Benjamin and Ithiel Town. It was completed in 1814, but the congregation itself is considerably older, dating back to 1639, just a year after New Haven was settled. The first two meeting houses were located near the center of the eastern part of the Green, at approximately the spot where these two photos were taken. A third meeting house, built of brick, was completed in 1757, and stood a little further to the west, probably in the middle foreground of this scene.

This third meeting house remained in use until the early 19th century, when it was replaced by the current church, which stands even further to the west than its predecessors. This site was not without controversy, though, because the western part of the green had long been used as New Haven’s burial ground. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people had been buried here during the 17th and 18th centuries, before the opening of the Grove Street Cemetery in 1797. The burials on the Green had largely ceased by the turn of the 19th century, and around 1812 the church decided to construct its new building on a portion on the burial ground.

This action caused considerable controversy in New Haven, with many objecting to the perceived desecration of their ancestors’ graves. The book Chronicles of New Haven Green, published in 1898, provides the following description:

A public meeting was held at the County House, in March, 1813, at which a protest was adopted, signed by one hundred and seventy-eight subscribers, and resolutions passed vigorously denouncing the proposed location of the building. The construction was nevertheless commenced, but when the workmen began to excavate the trenches, a number of persons assembled with shovels and began to throw back the earth as fast as it was thrown out.

The work went on, though, and few of the graves were ultimately disturbed. Instead of removing the remains or the headstones, the church was built over a part of the existing burial ground, which became the floor of the basement. This created an unusual sort of crypt, with all of the headstones left standing in the same position that they had been in prior to the construction of the church. As it turned out, these graves would be better preserved than the ones outside of the church. In 1821, those stones would be moved to the Grove Street Cemetery, but the remains were not disinterred, leaving several thousand unmarked graves that are still located beneath the New Haven Green today.

Aside from its unconventional basement, the design of the church was typical of many New England churches of this era. It was built of brick, and featured Federal-style elements such as rounded arches over the windows, a balustrade along the roofline, and a classically-inspired columned portico at the front entrance, with modillions around the pediment and an ornate carving in the middle of it. Asher Benjamin, who at this point was a well-established architect, provided the original plans for the church, which was evidently based on St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. However, the design was modified by his former protege Ithiel Town, who was at the beginning of a long and successful career as an architect.

The completed church was dedicated on December 27, 1814, with a ceremony that included a closing prayer by Timothy Dwight, the eminent theologian and author who served as president of Yale from 1795 until his death in 1817. At the time, the pastor of the church was Nathaniel W. Taylor, a young Yale graduate who had studied under Dwight. Like his mentor, he went on to become a prominent theologian. He served as pastor of the church until 1822, when he left to accept a position as a professor at Yale. He was also one of the founders of what later became the Yale Divinity School, and he continued to teach didactic theology at Yale until his death in 1858.

Reverend Taylor’s successor, Leonard Bacon, was installed as pastor in 1825, at the age 23, and he served for more than 50 years until his death in 1881, although he retired from active ministry in 1866. He was also a Yale graduate, of the class of 1820, and in 1823 he had graduated from Andover Theological Seminary. Like his predecessor, he would go on to become a prominent clergyman, but during this time he also achieved fame as an author and editor. He was the editor of the Christian Spectator, which was a literary journal that later became the Yale Review, and he was also a founder and the longtime editor of The Independent. In addition, he published several books, including Slavery Discussed in Occasional Essays from 1833 to 1846. This abolitionist book helped to influence, among others, Abraham Lincoln, whose famous statement, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” is actually a paraphrase of Bacon’s assertion in the book that “if those laws of the Southern States, by virtue of which slavery exists there, and is what it is, are not wrong — nothing is wrong.”

The first photo was taken only a few decades after Reverend Bacon’s death, and by this point the church building was already nearly a century old. Very little changed on the exterior during this time, and although another century has passed since this photo was taken, the church has remained well-preserved today. Along with the two other nearby historic churches, it is now a contributing property in the New Haven Green Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Underneath the church, the crypt has been unaltered since the building was completed, and 137 headstones still mark the graves. It is the only visible remnant of the large colonial cemetery on the Green, and it is seasonally open to the public for tours.

Temple Street, New Haven, Connecticut

The view looking north on Temple Street from near the corner of Chapel Street in New Haven, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This block of Temple Street passes through the New Haven Green, and in front of three historic churches that stand on the Green. The southernmost of these, the 1816 Trinity Church, is just out of view on the far left side of the scene, but the 1814 Center Church, along with the more distant 1815 Union Church, are both visible on the left side of the street. The latter two churches have very similar designs, with each one featuring a brick exterior and Federal-style architecture. Both of these photos also show the eastern portion of the Green, with a number of people walking across it or sitting on benches. The longer exposure time of the first photo is shown by the blurred images of several people walking on the right side, while the people seated on the left remain sharp and clear.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, much of this scene has remained largely unchanged, particularly in the foreground and on the left. All three churches are still standing and in active use by their congregations, and they are contributing properties in the New Haven Green Historic District, which is a National Historic Landmark. However, there have been some significant changes to this scene, particularly in the distance on the right side. This block of Elm Street was once known as Quality Row, and had a number of elegant early 19th century mansions that are visible in the first photo. These included the Nathan Smith House, which stood second from the right. It was built around 1815, and was once the home of U. S. Senator Nathan Smith, but it was demolished – along with the rest of Quality Row- by the 1910s, soon after the first photo was taken. The block is now occupied by the 1911 New Haven Free Public Library on the left, and the 1917 New Haven County Courthouse on the right.

Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, Connecticut (2)

The Trinity Church on the Green, at the corner of Chapel and Temple Streets in New Haven, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2018:

As discussed in an earlier post, Trinity Church was one of three churches that were built on the New Haven Green in the mid-1810s. However, unlike the other two, which were Congregationalist churches designed in the typical Federal-style architecture of the period, the Episcopalian Trinity Church featured a very early Gothic Revival design. Completed in 1816, it was the work of prominent Connecticut architect Ithiel Town, and it is perhaps the first Gothic church to be built in the country. Unlike the neighboring Congregationalist churches, which were built of brick, the exterior of Trinity Church was made of trap rock, quarried from the nearby East Rock. The top of the tower, however, was originally built of wood, and the Town’s design also featured wooden balustrades along the roofline.

The most significant exterior change to the church came in 1871, several decades before the first photo was taken, when the wooden tower was rebuilt of stone. During this renovation, the rotting wooden balustrade was also removed, and was not replaced. Other changes that were done before the first photo was taken included the installation of stained glass windows, and the addition of the pyramidal spire on the top of the tower. Aside from this, the exterior remained largely unaltered from its early 19th century appearance, although the interior has seen some significant changes, including a major renovation by architect Henry Austin in the late 1840s.

Today, very little has changed since the first photo was taken more than a century ago. The pyramidal spire has been removed, although it was not original to the church anyway, and the rest of the exterior has been well-preserved. Along with the other two neighboring churches, it is now part of the New Haven Green Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Much of the area around the church has also remained largely unchanged, including the Green, which still serves as a park in the center of the city. Both photos also show part of the Old Campus of Yale University, particularly Phelps Hall, which stands in the distance to the right of the church in both photos.

Center Church and United Church, New Haven, Connecticut

Center Church and United Church, as seen looking west on the New Haven Green, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This view shows two of the three historic churches that were built on the New Haven Green in the 1810s. The oldest of these, on the left side of the scene, is Center Church, which was completed in 1814. It was built of brick, and featured a Federal-style that was designed by Asher Benjamin and Ithiel Town, two Connecticut-born architects who were among the leading American architects of the early 19th century. Like many New England churches of this period, it featured a columned portico, along with a tall, multi-stage steeple that rose above it.

Although not readily apparent in this view, one of the more unusual features of Center Church is its basement. Throughout the colonial era, this section of the Green served as New Haven’s burial ground, and an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 bodies were interred here. Center Church was built in the midst of this cemetery, but rather than removing the remains or the headstones, the church was simply built above them. The ground became the floor of the basement, but otherwise the graves were not disturbed, and the headstones are still well-preserved today. However, this was only a small portion of the entire cemetery. The rest of the headstones, which are once located around the outside of the church, were moved to Grove Street Cemetery in 1821. The remains themselves were not disinterred, though, and they are still buried here under the Green.

In the meantime, Center Church was joined by two other churches in the mid-1810s. To the right of it, at the corner of Temple and Elm Streets, is the United Church, which was completed in 1815. It was, along with the neighboring Center Church, a Congregationalist church, and it likewise had very similar architecture. There is some disagreement among historic sources over who the architect was, but it appears to have been Ebenezer Johnson, Jr. His design was likely influenced by Center Church, but the United Church does have some differences, such as a lack of a portico, and it featured a shorter steeple with a rounded top, instead of a tall pointed spire.

The third church to be built here on the Green was Trinity Church, completes a year after United Church in 1816. Although not visible in these photos, it featured Gothic-style architecture that sharply contrasted with its Federal-style neighbors, and was one of the first Gothic churches to be built in the country. Today, all three of these church buildings are still here, and they are all contributing properties in the New Haven Green Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Overall, very little has changed in this scene, and even many of the buildings in the distance have remained. These include another historic church, the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, which can be seen in the background just beyond and to the left of the United Church. It was built in 1849, with a design similar to these other two churches, and it still stands at the corner of Elm and College Streets.

Old Campus, New Haven, Connecticut

The Old Campus of Yale University, seen looking west from the New Haven Green, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This scene has hardly changed in more than a century since the first photo was taken, yet it would have looked very different just a couple decades earlier, when the Old Brick Row still stood here. Constructed between 1752 and 1824, this group of seven building comprised the bulk of the Yale campus until the late 19th century, when they were steadily replaced by more modern Gothic-style buildings, as seen in the first photo. This transition also marked a dramatic shift in the layout of the campus. Unlike the Old Brick Row, which had been built in a single line that was set back from the street, these new buildings were constructed right up against the street, along the entire perimeter of the block, with a large quadrangle in the center.

These two photos show the east side of the Old Campus, which consists of a group of five buildings along College Street. The oldest of these is Farnam Hall, which stands second from the right. It is somewhat difficult to distinguish from the other buildings, but it is identifiable by its somewhat lower roof line. It was completed in 1870, and was the first of the dormitories to be built under the new campus plan. Immediately to the right of it, on the far right side of the scene, is the Battell Chapel, which was completed in 1876, and to the left of Farnam Hall is Lawrance Hall, a dormitory that was completed in 1886. All three of these buildings, along with nearby Durfee Hall, were designed by noted architect Russell Sturgis, and they all feature the High Victorian Gothic style of architecture that was popular during this period.

The two buildings on the left side of the scene were built a few years later. They were architecturally similar, although their style could perhaps best be described as English Gothic. As explained in a previous post, these were also designed by prominent architects. To the left is Welch Hall, a dormitory that was completed in 1891 and was designed by Bruce Price. The final link in this row of buildings, Phelps Hall, was built five years later. It was designed by Charles C. Haight, who gave it the appearance of a medieval gatehouse. On the ground floor is the Phelps Gate, which serves as the main entrance to the Old Campus from the east, and the upper floors were built with recitation rooms.

Several more buildings would be added to the Old Campus after the first photo was taken, but otherwise the quadrangle was largely complete by the time Phelps Hall was constructed. This particular view has hardly changed at all. The buildings have seen only minor exterior alterations, and the only new building visible in the present-day scene is the Harkness Tower, which was completed a block away from here in 1922, and can be seen in the distance just to the left of Phelps Hall. Another building of interest, which appears in both photos, is Connecticut Hall. Visible in the distance on the far left side of the scene, it is the only surviving building from the Old Brick Row. It was built in 1752, and although threatened with demolition at the turn of the century, it was ultimately restored, and it now stands as the oldest building on the Yale campus.

State House, New Haven, Connecticut

The Connecticut State House on the New Haven Green, seen from the south side of the building, sometime around the 1870s or 1880s. Image from The Connecticut Quarterly (1895).

The scene in 2018:

During the early colonial period, the modern-day state of Connecticut actually contained two separate colonies. In the northern part of the state was Connecticut Colony, which was centered around Hartford on the Connecticut River. To the south, along the shores of Long Island Sound, was New Haven Colony, which was centered around its namesake town. These two colonies were ultimately merged in 1664, but the divide between Hartford and New Haven persisted for many years. In 1701, the two towns were designated as co-capitals of the Connecticut Colony, and legislative sessions altered between them, with the May session being held in Hartford each year, and the October session here in New Haven.

Two capital cities also meant two capitol buildings, and New Haven had a series of different state houses that were all located here on the New Haven Green. The last of these, which is seen in the first photo, was completed in 1831, replacing an earlier brick state house that had been in use since 1763. Its design was the work of Ithiel Town, a prominent Connecticut architect whose earlier New Haven works had included Trinity Church and Center Church, both of which are still standing nearby on the Green. Together, these three buildings demonstrated Town’s wide range of abilities, between the Federal-style Center Church, the Gothic-style Trinity Church, and the Greek Revival-style State House.

Town’s imposing design for the State House gave the building the exterior appearance of an Ancient Greek temple. It was built of stone, and had porticoes on both the north and south sides of the building, with classically-inspired columns, entablatures, and pediments. On the interior, the building included space for both the state and county governments. The basement and the first floor housed county offices, along with the county courtroom, a jury room, and various committee rooms. The upper floor had the two legislative chambers, with the House of Representatives at one end of the building and the Senate at the other, and there was also a room for the secretary and two rooms for the governor.

Following its completion in 1831, New Haven’s State House served, along with the older Hartford State House, as one of the state’s seats of government for more than 40 years. However, by the 1860s it was clear that maintaining two separate capitol buildings was both expensive and redundant. Railroads had significantly shortened the travel time between the two cities, which are a mere 35 miles apart, and the practice of having two capital cities apparently had more to do with each city’s sense of prestige than with any major convenience. Both cities lobbied hard to become the sole capital, and even Meriden threw its hat into the ring as a sort of compromise candidate. In the end, though, the question was settled by the voters of Connecticut, who chose Hartford as the capital, perhaps in part because of that city’s promise to contribute land and $500,000 toward the construction of a new State House.

The final legislative session at the New Haven State House was held here in 1874, and the following year Hartford took over as the state’s only capital. The new State House was completed in 1878, and still stands in Hartford’s Bushnell Park. In the meantime, the old 1797 State House was used as Hartford City Hall for many years, and it has since been preserved as a museum. However, here in New Haven the public sentiment was strongly divided over the fate of the city’s former State House. Having been vacated by both the state government and the county courts, the building was in need of a new use, and many argued in favor of preserving it and converting it into a public library. Perhaps with this proposal in mind, city voters approved an 1887 referendum to spend $30,000 on repairs to the building. However, the city council overruled this decision, and determined to demolish the iconic structure instead.

Even in the 1880s, long before the modern historic preservation movement gained widespread appeal, this was a highly controversial decision, with many praising the building’s architecture and its symbolic significance to the city of New Haven. Among the outside voices calling for its preservation was the Boston Advertiser, which published an editorial to that effect in 1889. In it, the newspaper argued:

That old State House is a priceless memento of a glorious past. It is a perpetual reminder that New Haven was originally an independent colony, and that, for nearly two centuries and a half it shared with Hartford the honor of being a state capital. Within those walls were uttered words whose echoes reached the continent and beyond the sea. Its style of architecture suggests the classic learning which, from the beginning, has been more faithfully taught in that locality than anywhere else in the world. . . . To tear down that building would be to obliterate one of the chief milestones on the path of time.

Not everyone in New Haven saw the State House in such a light, though. Apparently still embittered at losing the capital contest to Hartford some 15 years earlier, the New Haven Register responded to the Advertiser with an editorial of its own, arguing:

It will be news to most New Haveners to be told that the State House is a “priceless memento of the glorious past.” It is not, nor has it ever been priceless. It is a memento of New Haven’s folly in allowing Hartford to gobble up the capital. It is a perpetual reminder that New Haven in the past has shown a deplorable lack of public spirit in important crises. It is not a “chief milestone on the path of time.” Rather it is an encumbrance, a public nuisance, a bone of contention, an eyesore, a laughing stock, a hideous pile of brick and mortar, a blot on the fair surface of the Green. The Boston paper doesn’t know what it is talking about.

Both of these excerpts are quoted from The New Haven State House, a book that was published in 1889 shortly after the building was demolished. Interspersed within this history of the building were a number of advertisements, several of which attempted to use the demolition as a marketing strategy. One such ad declared “Two Great Mistakes! The greatest mistake ever made by New Haven people is shown by the destruction of the State House. The Second Mistake is in supposing that B. Booth has only second hand and auction goods at 388, 390 and 392 State St.” Another simply stated “The State House Gone. The City Market Remains,” and a third was for a photographic studio that promised “the Best Views of the Old State House that were made.”

Following the demolition of the State House, the area was cleared and reverted to open park land, as part of the New Haven Green. However, this western portion of the Green, known as the Upper Green, was also the city’s colonial-era burial ground, where an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people were buried. The headstones have long since been removed – aside from a small portion of the graveyard that is located in the basement of Center Church – but the remains themselves are still interred here under the Green. Today, though, there is little here to suggest the presence of a burial ground, or the former presence of a state capitol building. However, the New Haven Green is not without historic buildings, as three early 19th century churches still stand on the far right side of this scene, including the two designed by Ithiel Town.