Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Style Sense - Woodbury North

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  I missed it initially. The First Congregational Church of Woodbury (previous TODAY’S post, 7-4-17) and the North Congregational Church of Woodbury (photographed here) are very similar in size and overall plan with similar wrap-around galleries and ceilings similarly domed between the side galleries; they are alike in form, but in style they are distinct. 

I walked north on Main Street – strolled really – from the First Congregational Church to North Congregational Church, and it took me under ten minutes. It took no longer when the two meeting houses were built nearly simultaneously between 1814 and 1818, and there is still a friendly rivalry over which building came first, but what was the need for two meeting houses in such proximity?

Petition to the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut in New Haven on the 2nd Thursday of October, A.D. 1816:
"The Petition of the subscribers, Inhabitants of the Town of Woodbury in the County of Litchfield to your Honors humbly showeth…that for forty years past unhappy dissensions have prevailed in said town respecting the location of a meeting house for the use of the located Ecclesiastical Society in said town, which is coextensive with the limits of sd town…." [The petition continues by explaining the history of the dispute.]

“Dissensions!” The petition makes clear the history of attempts to build a new meeting house. It is a dispute repeated in towns all over Connecticut as communities swelled following the Revolution. Just as growth pushed new settlers to plantations on the fringes of established communities where they established daughter churches, similar growth enlarged the membership of the mother church as well. 

By 1795 Woodbury's second meeting house was inadequate for the swelling population. New settlers opened land in the north and made it valuable, while the original settlement at the south end of town had hardly changed. In 1795 a new central location was suggested and, the 1816 petition tells us the central site was, “approved… by a large majority" of the church membership, but disapproved by two-thirds of members allowed to vote. In spite of this, the central location was quickly approved by the Court of Litchfield, but no church was subsequently built.

By 1813 there were even more settlers in the north. Some had built sawmills and gristmills along the Weekeepeenee River in the section known still as Hotchkissville, and a new application was submitted approved, and still no church was built. In 1814 the dissenting northern settlers, having raised their own money, began building their church on the twice-approved site. However, in 1816 it was still illegal in Connecticut to have two churches of the same denomination in a single town. We’re told that in order to get around this law, the congregation submitted the 1816 petition distinguishing its theology by calling itself the "Strict Congregational Society.” We’re told they wrote it inside the meeting house they still had no permission to build. 

What might we read into the Congregation’s chosen name at a time when religious awakening had gotten a second wind, and men like Lyman Beecher were taking up the old, fiery rhetoric and emotional appeal that had languished during a half century of strife with England and through the struggle to establish upon rational principles an independent nation out of thirteen squabbling colonies? Does the name “Strict Congregational Society” imply anything about how northern dissenters viewed of their neighbors, long established at the other end of town? 

And what part was played by Connecticut’s new Constitution which became the law of the state in 1818 taking the town out of the church’s business and the church out of the town’s? If nothing else, there was a new reason to move the church from the town’s green; was that change to everyone’s liking?

But mostly, what should we make of those differences of architectural style? The First Congregational Church is richly detailed with fluted square columns that carry the gallery rail, which is divided into framed panels and supports a second set of round columns topped by crisp ionic capitals that hold up the roof. The elaborately carved altar is framed by paired, fluted ionic pilasters carrying a tripartite entablature and a broad, ornately carved arch. The church is a virtuoso display of the woodcarvers craft and of Classical detailing that catches our eye and imprints human proportions on every surface of the large space. 

In contrast, North Congregational Church is simple, chaste, without hand-crafted classical references, and the meeting space is dominated by eight, round, floor to ceiling columns, like ship’s masts, that swaddle the congregation as they lead eyes upward. How much significance might we place on such differences in style? Pastor Sandy told me the eight columns were a special gift from a member of the congregation, and that they were made by Mystic, CT, ship builders and hauled up into the hills by oxen. It’s a story worthy to have been passed across two centuries.

"…{I}t is Resolved by this Assembly that the Petitioners and their Associates be… incorporated into a distinct ecclesiastical Society by the name of the Strict Congregational Society of the town of Woodbury… And whereas said society has the same limits and boundaries as said First Ecclesiastical Society.

"And the inhabitants of said Town, and those who may hereafter become inhabitants thereof, or residents therein, may elect to which of said society he, she, or they will belong agreeable to the provisions of the thirteenth section of the act entitled “An Act, for forming, ordering, and regulating Societies.” And any of the members of the respectful Societies, shall have liberty at any time hereafier within the month of March annually to leave the society to which he or she may then belong, and attach him or herself to and become a member of the other society by enrolling his or her name as aforesaid with the Clerk of the Society to which he or she may attach him or herself, and shall thereupon be exempt from being taxed for the future expenses of the Society which he or she may have so left as aforesaid."


Special thanks to Kathy Logan, Marty and Rev. Sandy Koenig of North Congregational and  Maria Platt and Rev. Howard Mayer for assistance and permission to photograph.

North Congregational Toward Altar

First Congregational Toward Altar

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