Central Congregational Church, Providence, RI

The Central Congregational Church on Angell Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The church in 2016:

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Established in 1852, the Central Congregational Church was originally located on Benefit Street, in the western part of the College Hill neighborhood. However, within 40 years the congregation had outgrown their first home, and in 1893 they moved into this building on Angell Street. This area is located on the opposite end of College Hill, furthest from downtown Providence, and was developed as a residential neighborhood in the last decades of the 19th century.

The new church building was designed by Carrère and Hastings, a prominent New York architectural firm who designed a number of prominent Beaux-Arts style buildings at the turn of the 20th century. Designing at the height of the Gilded Age, the firms’s works ranged from grand hotels in Florida, to mansions in Newport and the Berkshires, to the New York Public Library. However, their Renaissance Revival-style design for the Central Congregational Church was among their early commissions.

With yellow brick and plenty of terra cotta, it has a Mediterranean appearance that almost seems out of place in New England, but it has stood here for over 120 years. The original tops of the two towers were damaged in a hurricane in the 1950s, and were replaced with far less ornate ones, but otherwise the church’s exterior appearance has remained the same in both photos. Today, the building is still home to the Central Congregational Church, and it is a contributing property in the Stimson Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Westminster Street from Eddy Street, Providence, RI

Looking west on Westminster Street from Eddy Street in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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Westminster Street in 2016:

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Taken over 150 years apart, these two views both show Westminster Street as a busy commercial center in downtown Providence. The camera’s exposure time for the first photo was too long to capture the pedestrians and vehicles passing by, but their blurred streaks give the impression of a bustling, fast-paced scene. Today, the scene is crowded with vehicles of a different kind, and almost nothing is left from the first photo. Most of the buildings here today date back to the 19th century, but they were built a decade or two after the first photo was taken. Because of this, the 1865 photo gives a glimpse of the street as it appeared before it was completely altered by developments of the 1870s and 1880s.

The first photo was taken the same year that the Civil War ended, and in the postwar years Providence experienced a dramatic population increase. For most of the 19th century, the city’s population had been doubling roughly every 20 years. This trend continued after the war, with the city growing from just over 50,000 in 1860 to over 100,000 in 1880, and then to over 200,000 by the first decade of the 20th century. In the process, street scenes like the one here on Westminster Street were changed, with the plain early 19th century buildings giving way to larger, more elegant ones of the Victorian era.

The most prominent building in the first photo is the First Universalist Church, on the right side at the corner of Union Street. It was built in 1825, designed by Providence architect John Holden Greene to replace the previous church on the same site, which had burned down earlier in the year. The congregation was still meeting here 40 years later when the first photo was taken, but in 1872 they moved to their current building on Washington Street. Soon after, the old church was demolished and replaced with one of the commercial blocks on the right side of the 2016 photo.

Today, none of the commercial buildings from the first photo survive. The oldest one is the red brick building at 239 Westminster Street, visible in the upper right center of the photo. Although it was altered later in the 19th century, the oldest part of the building dates to 1866. On the other side of the street, visible directly behind the lamppost, is the Burgess Building. Completed in 1870, this is the oldest one in the present-day scene that remains relatively unaltered. None of these are old enough to have appeared in the first photo, though. The only building of any kind that is still standing from the 1865 scene is Grace Church, visible a few blocks away on the right side of the street. This Gothic Revival church was designed prominent architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846, and although it is mostly blocked from view in the present-day scene, the top of its spire can still be seen in the distance.

First Congregational Church, West Springfield, Mass

The First Congregational Church on Park Street in West Springfield, around 1912. Image from Picturesque Springfield and West Springfield (1912).

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The church in 2016:

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In the 18th and early 19th centuries, few issues caused as much controversy in some New England towns as the location of the meetinghouse. West Springfield experienced this in 1802, owing in part to its unusual geography. This area along the common has long been the social and commercial center of the town, but geographically it is located in the southeastern corner of the present-day borders. In the days when everyone in town was expected to attend the same church, this was an inconvenient location for the farmers who lived in the northern and western parts of the town, so when a new meetinghouse was proposed at the turn of the 19th century, it caused considerable debate.

The result was a compromise of sorts. Rather than favoring those in the town center or the farmers in the outskirts, a site was chosen that was equally inconvenient for all, on Elm Street opposite Kings Highway. Located nearly a mile north of the center, on a hill overlooking the Connecticut River, this meetinghouse was completed in 1802. Its construction costs were paid by John Ashley, a farmer in the northern part of the town who stipulated that the First Congregational Church needed to remain there for at least 100 years.

Hamstrung by Ashley’s conditions, the church could do little but count down the years, but nothing prevented town residents from forming a new church society, Park Street Congregational Church, which they established in 1870. Two years later, their brick Gothic-style church opened here on Park Street, providing a new, more elegant building in a prominent location for the residents of downtown West Springfield.

Architecturally, the new building was part of a trend in post-Civil War New England, which eschewed the more traditional plain white church buildings of previous generations. The actual design was copied from Springfield’s Church of the Unity, which had been completed three years earlier. The Church of the Unity was the first major commission of Henry Hobson Richardson, who later became one of the most influential American architects of the 19th century. His works inspired many imitations, perhaps the first of which was this church here in West Springfield. Although it hardly compares to the architectural grandeur of the Church of the Unity, this scaled-down brick copy shows the influence that, even as a young architect, Richardson’s works had on his contemporaries.

The Church of the Unity was demolished in the early 1960s and its site is now a parking lot opposite the Springfield Public Library, but the Park Street Congregational Church is still standing today, just with a different name. In 1909, with the century-old limitations now expired, the First Congregational Church was able to move from its old meetinghouse, and they merged with the Park Street church here in this building, where they remain today. The old 1802 meetinghouse, although no longer used as a church, is also still standing on Elm Street, providing West Springfield with two historic church buildings that represent two very different 19th century architectural styles.

First Church, Deerfield, Mass

The First Church of Deerfield on Old Main Street, around 1891. Image from Picturesque Franklin (1891).

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The church in 2016:

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Deerfield’s Old Main Street is a remarkably well-preserved New England village, with a number of historic homes and other buildings dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries. The entire village is included in the Old Deerfield Historic District, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the most prominent buildings in the district is the First Church of Deerfield, also known as the Brick Church. Although not as old as many of the nearby homes, the church has been at the center of the village for nearly 200 years.

It was built in 1824 and designed by architect Winthrop Clapp, although it was virtually a copy of the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield, which had been built in 1819 about three miles away. The Greenfield church had been designed by Isaac Damon, whose other works included churches in Springfield, Northampton, and Southwick. Although he did not actually design the Deerfield church, his influence is still evident, and it bears a strong resemblance his other churches.

Damon’s Greenfield church has long since been demolished and replaced with the present-day building, but the Deerfield church is still standing. Its interior was restored to its original appearance in 1916, and today the building still houses an active Unitarian-Universalist congregation. The brick exterior has remained essentially the same as it was when it was built, and its surroundings have also changed very little, with the village still retaining its appearance as a small, colonial-era community.

The Common, Greenfield, Mass

Looking west across the Common toward Park Square in Greenfield, sometime around the 1880s. Image from Greenfield Illustrated.

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The scene in 2016:

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The Common is at the heart of downtown Greenfield, and over the past 130 years or so, not much has changed in this view. This scene includes three historic buildings, which are partially hidden by the trees on the Common. To the left is the Second Congregational Church, which was built in 1868 on the site of an earlier church and is still standing, largely unchanged. To the right is another well-preserved building from the same era, the George A. Arms Block. Built in 1876 at the corner of Main Street and Court Square, this four-story brick building is one of many surviving 19th century commercial blocks in downtown Greenfield.

The building in the center of both photos is also still standing, although it has undergone far more drastic changes than the other two. Built in 1848 as the Franklin County Courthouse, it was originally a wooden Greek Revival building designed by Isaac Damon, a Northampton architect who designed churches, courthouses, and bridges across Western Massachusetts. A few decades earlier, he had designed courthouses for Hampden and Hampshire Counties, and he had also designed Greenfield’s original Second Congregational Church just to the left of the courthouse.

In 1872, Damon’s courthouse was essentially rebuilt, with little if anything left from the original structure. Because of the need for a more fire-resistant place to store county records, the exterior of the courthouse was covered in brick, and it was redesigned in a Gothic Revival style, in keeping with the architectural tastes of the era. The building’s design was again altered in 1954, when the exterior was renovated to its current Colonial Revival appearance. Today, the building is now Greenfield’s municipal building, and it, along with its neighbors to the left and right, are part of the Main Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Second Congregational Church, Greenfield, Mass

The Second Congregational Church on Court Square in Greenfield, around the 1870s or 1880s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The church in 2016:

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Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church was established in 1817, during a time when many New England churches were experiencing division. Here in Greenfield, though, the source of the dispute was not theological but geographical, as the two factions could not agree on a location for the meetinghouse. Ultimately, the offshoot congregation built their church here in what is now the center of Greenfield. Their first building was designed by prolific Western Massachusetts church builder Isaac Damon. This brick Greek Revival design was copied a few years later and a few miles south of here in Deerfield, and still stands today as part of Historic Deerfield.

Here in Greenfield, though, the old church was demolished in 1868 and replaced with a new building on the same site. By this point, the Greek Revival style of the early 19th century had fallen out of style, and Gothic Revival had become prevalent in post-Civil War churches. This church was designed by the Boston firm of Richards & Park, and included many of the common Gothic Revival features, including a stone exterior, an off-centered steeple, and pointed arches over windows and doors. The church is still standing today, essentially altered from its original appearance. It is one of many surviving 19th century buildings facing the Common, and is part of the Main Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.