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.

United Church, New Haven, Connecticut

The United Church, at the southwest corner of Elm and Temple Streets, as seen from the New Haven Green around 1900-1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

New Haven’s United Church, also know historically as North Church, has occupied this building on the Green since its completion in 1815. It was one of three church buildings to be built here during the mid-1810s, and it features a Federal-style design that was typical for churches of this period. The architect of United Church is somewhat unclear, but sources generally credit Ebenezer Johnson, Jr. with designing the building, and noted architect David Hoadley with overseeing the actual construction work. Either way, the design was likely influenced by the adjacent Center Church, which was completed a year earlier. Both churches have a brick exterior, a multi-stage steeple, and a pediment above the main entrance, although the United Church lacks a columned portico, and its steeple has a rounded top instead of a pointed spire.

The United Church was built a block east of the Old Campus of Yale University, which is visible in the distance on the left. The campus was developed in the 18th century, but most of these early buildings were demolished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to construct the modern-day Gothic college buildings. The majority of this work was completed by the time the first photo was taken, and the most visible of these new buildings was Phelps Hall, with its distinctive tower that rises above Welch Hall to the left of it and Lawrance Hall to the right. Lawrance Hall is the oldest of the three, having been built in 1886, while Welch and Phelps were built in 1891 and 1896, respectively.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, very little has changed in this scene. The elm trees on the Green are long gone, with most having presumably succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease in the mid-20th century, but otherwise the Green continues to function as a public park at the heart of New Haven. The United Church is still an active congregation, and its historic 1815 building has remained well-preserved, with no noticeable exterior changes from this angle. Along with the other two early 19th century churches on the Green, it is now part of the New Haven Green Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Further in the distance, this view of the Old Campus has also remained largely unchanged since the first photo was taken, and these buildings are used as freshman dormitories and as offices for several academic departments.

Trinity Church and Center Church, New Haven, Connecticut

Trinity Church on the Green (left) and Center Church (right), seen from across the New Haven Green, around 1900-1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

These two churches were completed only two years apart, and were designed – at least in part – by the same architect, yet they represent two very different architectural styles. On the right is the Federal-style Center Church, which was completed in 1814. It was the work of notes architects Asher Benjamin and Ithiel Town, and it reflects the typical appearance of New England churches during this period. Common features include a columned portico with a triangular pediment above it, a tall, multi-stage steeple, and an exterior of red brick. The United Church, located just out of view to the right, was completed a year later, and in many ways its design was a close imitation of Center Church.

A third church, Trinity Church, was also built on the New Haven Green around the same time. It was completed in 1816, and can be seen in the distance on the left side of the scene. However, while the two earlier churches were Congregationalist, Trinity was an Episcopalian parish, and its members were interested in a design that would set it apart from the new neighboring churches. As discussed in more detail in an earlier post, the result was a stone, Gothic Revival church, perhaps the first church of this style to be built in the United States. Like the neighboring Center Church, it was designed by Ithiel Town, and his work predated the widespread popularity of Gothic Revival architecture by several decades.

The first photo was taken nearly a century later, and shows the view of the Green with both churches still standing. Aside from a partially-reconstructed steeple on Trinity Church, neither building had seen many exterior changes by this point. Today, the churches are more than twice as old as they were when the first photo was taken, yet they have still remained well-preserved. The only noticeable difference is the removal of the pyramidal spire atop Trinity Church, which was not original anyway. The Green itself has also remained largely unchanged, aside from the loss of the elm trees that once gave New Haven its nickname of Elm City. The only other major change to this scene since the early 20th century has been the construction of the Hotel Taft, which was completed in 1912 and can be seen in the distance between the two churches.