The 1801 meetinghouse of the First Religious Society is regarded by architectural historians as an iconic example of the Federalist Style that blossomed in New England around the turn of the 19th century, when the older barn-like style of churches was rapidly giving way to a more exuberant expression – more spacious, classically ornamented, and with tall and prominent steeples reaching to the sky. Open any book about New England churches and you will likely see its picture there, The architect of this fine building is not known for certain. The building contractors were Spofford and Palmer, and Timothy Palmer, designer of an early bridge across the Merrimack, may have been the primary architect. Another possibility is Samuel McIntyre of Salem, who is known to have provided the applied plaster ornamentation for the pulpit and galleries, and who a few years later designed a building with a very similar facade and steeple for a church in Salem. Local legend has it that much of the massive structural work was done by shipwrights.
When the old Market Square meeting house was torn down, only the organ, bell, clock, and weathercock were moved to the new building. The old bell was replaced in 1816 by a larger one from the foundry of Paul Revere and Son, and in 1834 a larger organ by Joseph Alley, one of Newburyport’s two early organ builders, replaced the original organ built in 1794 for the Market Square building by Josiah Leavitt of Boston. The late 18th century “act of parliament” clock still hangs on the gallery rail, and the glass-eyed gilded weathercock, said to have been imported from England, still surmounts the tip of the spire.
Very few changes have been made in the building. During the 1830’s, when the present organ was installed, some changes were made in the gallery pews, and the stairs, which had previously gone from the front vestibule to the room above (initially the only meeting space; now the choir room), were replaced by the present double staircases going directly into the gallery. In this period also the pulpit, which had originally been at about gallery level and accessible only by a small stairway from the room in back, was lowered, and the present pulpit stairs built. The old box pews, not perhaps designed for comfort, are original, and many exhibit features such as footstools, arm rests, shelves and drawers which were added by the families that formerly owned and occupied them. Pew ownership ceased in the 20th century, replaced by the now more usual pledge system for fund-raising.
Other minor changes were made later in the 19th century, apparently in the 1860’s and 1880’s. Two crystal chandeliers which once hung in the center of the room and over the pulpit were removed and replaced in the 1850s by gas fixtures on the columns, the gallery rail, and the ends of the pulpit. These fixtures were later simply electrified and are still in use, although the pulpit lamps were removed in the 1960s. At around the same time pews 58 and 59 at the back of the church were removed to make room for woodstoves, which, with their long stovepipes, remained until 1925, when they were removed in favor of a furnace. The 1834 organ was rebuilt in 1889, and again in 1957 and 2013, but it still retains much of its original pipework and mechanism, as well as its handsome mahogany casework, and is praised for its tonal resources by visiting organists.
The most recent building alteration occurred in 2003-2004. By 1995 the growth in the congregation and church school, along with increasing program growth, was straining the facilities in both the meetinghouse and parish hall, and a committee was formed to explore ideas for expansion. This eventually led to the conversion of what had been a useless dirt-floored basement under the meetinghouse into a well-designed, accessible and flexible space in which an interior social hall is surrounded by offices for staff members, classrooms, a conference room, rest rooms, and a mini-kitchen. This freed up the parish hall for greater use as space for dinners, large meetings, rummage and book sales, and rentals, but resulted only in minor changes in the upper portions of the meetinghouse, chiefly consisting of the addition of a staircase, handicap elevator and an additional door in the vestibule. The staircase now doubles as a “tiny gallery” for art displays, the portion of the vestibule formerly altered for this use having been restored. Around this time also the building’s fire detection system was upgraded to a modern sprinkler system.
The church steeple, called by architect Ralph Adams Cram “the most beautiful wooden spire in New England,” fell into serious condition from dry rot in the 1940’s, and underwent considerable restoration in 1948-49. Later it received some additional repair work, and new lighting fixtures were mounted to highlight its beauty at night. However, by 2014 it was discovered that problems were again appearing. Examination by experts revealed that much of the earlier work was well below present-day standards, and some serious problems, including extensive rot in some weight-bearing structures, had worsened. Restoration experts were called in, and many threatened structural parts were subsequently replaced with historically correct new parts to make the whole structure sound again. The work, completed in 2016, took the better part of a year, but our steeple is again a safe and strong historical landmark.
Considered by architectural historians to be an outstanding example of the Federal style of American architecture, and featured in numerous books on the subject, the 1801 meeting house is regarded today as a remarkable survival, since so many other churches from this period have subsequently been either torn down or substantially altered. Its acoustics are excellent for speaking and music, and its many plain glass windows make it a place of warmth and light, even in midwinter.
The Parish Hall
To meet the needs of the Sunday School, and of other groups and committees within the church such as the Governing Board and the Alliance, a parish hall was built in 1873 which soon became a center of social and educational activities. At first a rather plain building with a steep pitched roof, it was later enlarged by the addition of a section on the front to accommodate two offices, which was designed to harmonize with the architecture of the meetinghouse.
Like most 19th century parish halls, this one consists of two large auditorium-like rooms on two floors, the upper one having a stage with two rooms behind it and the lower one a kitchen. The office above the entryway was said to have been meant for the minister, but only one minister is known to have used it, all others preferring the more accessible ground floor office. The upper office was thus used for many years by the church secretary, and was where most of the office equipment was kept prior to the reconstruction of the space below the meetinghouse.
Probably the two rooms behind the stage are the only ones originally intended for meetings or church school classes, but with the continually increasing size of the church school, movable dividers were installed in the upper hall to create four rooms. These dividers can be moved any time the use of the whole room is needed, as for musical or dramatic programs, or meetings of the AA and other large groups. The downstairs hall remains open, and is used for coffee hours, dinners, and meetings, as well as for art and craft shows, rummage sales and book sales. Lighting has been improved in both areas, and the former downstairs office converted to a rest room.
for the Historical Committee, 1994/revised 2017