Tuesday, May 30, 2017

View from the Steeple, Litchfield Congregational Church

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: A friend, who takes pride in his name being, “Artie,” told me, “Style is the outer form of spirit.”  It’s a notion with which I’ve always been sympathetic, but I had never heard it put so succinctly. The Congregational Church on the green in Litchfield, CT, is often cited as one of the supreme examples of Congregational Church architecture in early America. However, few works of art have suffered as much amid the turbulent winds of taste and style. Of course, the church was important for far more than its artistic expression. It had been one of the foremost pulpits in New England; from 1810 to 1826 it was the church of Lyman Beecher whose words were spread around the world, and Lichfield was where he would raise his famous children whose words would spread the cause of abolition. 

The current church was built in 1829 when the congregation had outgrown their 1761 building. It was built in a style so prevalent, that there are five other Congregationalist churches in Connecticut of almost identical design. It reflects a spirit as balanced and ordered as the words and mechanisms of the Constitution and rooted in two thousand years of culture. It expresses divinity while being also human-scaled. It’s free of the artistic influence of an individual artist. It is the work of craftspeople and expresses the consensus of an entire community as to what a church should be. 

After the Civil War, more and more taste sought shadowy places, looming gables, fantastic asymmetries, lone towers where one might be unique. Henry Ward Beecher said, “not a single line or feature,” of the old building was beautiful. Whatever the ups and downs of the economy, the nation was feeling expansive. Rail travel and commerce had opened new possibilities, life-changing engineering innovation was everywhere, and the homely Federal Style was looking old-fashioned and quaint. 

In 1873 the revival of Gothic Style led the Litchfield congregation to abandon the church we know. They built a large Gothic church, and unceremoniously decapitated the old church and slid it down the street to make room for the new. The new church featured a corner tower and steeple with lancet windows and tracery, and over the tripartite portal of the new church was a stained-glass rose window that lit the way of churchgoers, organ sounding behind them, as they left services. 

Much of the world turned in 1912. Duchamp's nude famously descended a staircase into a world already reacting to Picasso's Damoiselle de Avigonon. The musical world was trying to make sense of Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring was a year away. Futurists were calling for global conflagration. How the sudden shift to the movements and manifestos of Modernism was echoing in Litchfield is unclear, but that year they began a movement to restore the old church and to remodel the fronts on the business block to give them a more Colonial appearance. A war intervened, and they never got that far, but local action and money did prevent the construction of a movie theater on the site where the 1782 John Collins House and Old Curiosity Shop still stand as shown in this picture.

In Bostwick’s, 1920, History of the Town of Litchfield, CT, he complains that they tore down beautiful Federalist buildings and replaced them with “the ugliest structures the eye of man has yet rested upon…. We are clearing them away now; scroll-saw decoration and pseudo-Gothic construction are going to the scrap heap.” He laments that the one beautiful building, the former Congregational Church of Litchfield, has been “tucked off in a corner, where it shelters a movie show.” 

In 1930, as the world entered into the depths of the Depression, Litchfield tore down their perfectly good 1873 Gothic church and meticulously restored to the same site the 1829 church an earlier generation had decapitated. Style is the outer form of spirit. John Ruskin claimed that of the three manuscripts a nation creates: the books of deeds, words and art, “The only trustworthy one is the last.” What do our buildings say about us?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Beaux Arts Congregationalists

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Even as a generation of American architects was seeking to solve the layout, structural and aesthetic issues of tall buildings, Stanford White was designing Beaux Arts temples and palaces to serve as libraries, train stations, banks, clubs, arenas, theaters, and mansions. They set the taste for the wealthiest people in the country. 

One of the treasured “City Beautiful” buildings of Naugatuck, CT, once “Rubber City,” is Stanford White’s Congregational Church on the green, designed in 1903. It was the year the Flatiron Building scraped the sky in New York City. 

What an interesting architectural juncture is represented here! It is the evolving tradition of white clapboard community meeting houses, re-imagined in White’s stylish classicism. It is lavish simplicity. If style is the outer form of spirit, what is the journey from those hill temples to this vaulted space in the valley?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Naugatuck Station

Slide-Talk this Sunday, May 21 @ 1 PM
sponsored by the Naugatuck Historical Society

Finding Brass Valley

A Place in Time that Has Almost Vanished

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Naugatuck’s city center is one of the jewels inspired by the City Beautiful movement which promised an orderly architecture would promote the moral rectitude needed for civil society. It became popular with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, called “White City” for its gleaming, white Beaux Arts pavilions, plazas, and fountains. Designed by the greatest architects of the age, it was a model of what a city should be and a reaction to what cities were becoming in the rush to build tenements and housing for waves of new immigrant labor. 

In Naugatuck, they remember John H. Whittemore as the leading force in creating the elegant McKim, Mead & White town center. Because Naugatuck is so small, the force of the City Beautiful movement is concentrated there achieving gracious grandeur as it organizes city life, and it survives intact today.

John Whittemore was still at it up to the end of his life. In 1907, the year before he died, Whittemore commissioned Henry Bacon, who would go on to design the Lincoln Memorial, to replace the old station with something worthy that might elevate those who rode the railroad. Today it’s quaint and empty, awaiting new life as a restaurant, replaced by a platform down the track with an awning and low maintenance.