September 13, 2021

Three Historic Steeples Reach New Heights

Rising dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of feet above churches, steeples and towers have served multiple purposes throughout their history—as beacons of light, timekeepers through clocks and bells, watchtowers, weathervanes, and iconic architectural symbols.

Today, historic steeples and towers across the country are at risk of structural decay and destabilization due to age and weathering. To support rehabilitation of historic community-focused houses of worship, the National Fund for Sacred Places offers grants, training and technical assistance to help historic steeples reach new heights. The National Fund for Sacred Places is a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust.

For three churches across the country that received grants from the National Fund, financial and institutional support allows not only for the protection of their historic structures, but also the longevity of their communities, events, worship services, and outreach projects in the places they’ve called home for generations.

First Church of Christ in Hartford (Hartford, Connecticut)

As the oldest church in Hartford, Connecticut, the First Church of Christ in Hartford was gathered in 1632 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Rev. Thomas Hooker was called to come from England to be their pastor. He arrived in 1633, and in 1636 Hooker, the congregation, and their animals traveled along Indigenous trails to the Connecticut River valley and settled Hartford.

The First Church (commonly known as Center Church) has occupied four meeting houses in Hartford. The first, a small log structure located where the Old State House now stands, was built in 1636 and was replaced shortly thereafter in 1640. In 1739, a third meeting house was built on the site of the current meeting house, at the intersection of Main and Gold streets.

The present meetinghouse was built in 1807 and renovated with a pulpit recess and barrel- vault ceiling in 1853. The first organ was installed in 1822 and has been renovated and upgraded multiple times since then. Clear glass windows on the main floor of the meeting house were replaced in the late 19th or early 20th centuries with English and American stained-glass windows, five of which were designed and made by Tiffany Studios. The tower bell was originally cast in England in 1633 and still rings today.

Exterior view of a church made up of red brick. There are a series of steps leading to the entrance which has four white columns and a white steeple.

photo by: Marie Ferrantino

Exterior view of the First Church of Christ in Hartford.

The church prominently features Classical Revival architecture, likely designed by Hartford native Daniel Wadsworth, an amateur artist and architect who founded the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art . The building features a two-story temple portico with ionic columns and a 185-foot tower that shines a bright white over the red brick facade.

The main floor of the meetinghouse seats approximately 500 people, and the sanctuary features an intricate stained-glass triptych of Jesus given in memory of early church ministers. The building is surrounded by the Ancient Burying Ground on the north and west sides, honoring generations of ancestors and featuring a variety of headstones ranging from brownstone to slate to marble.

In 2017, the First Church of Christ in Hartford received a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places to stabilize and restore the steeple and iconic clock, repoint and recaulk the exterior entry staircase, restore the ornamental iron rails, and upgrade the lightning protection system. The project ensured the structural integrity of the internal tower access stairs, tower framing timbers, and architectural details adorning the clock and bell tower.

Over its lifetime, the meetinghouse has served as the site of public meetings, speeches, funerals, weddings, concerts, presentations, performances, and worship services. Today, the church offers in-person and online worship services, as well as community outreach services, arts connections, and cultural enrichment events within its newly preserved meetinghouse.

First Baptist Church of Boston

The First Baptist Church of Boston began in secrecy. The congregation was founded in 1665 by a group of leaders who favored a Massachusetts law that prohibited infant baptisms, at a time when the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony favored infant baptisms. Early congregants met secretly in private homes, and many were persecuted or imprisoned by the state church for heresy. For several decades, the church was forced to move to Noddle’s Island and disguise its first meetinghouse, built in 1680, as a tavern, until the church was safe to build a meetinghouse in North End in 1764, then a new meetinghouse in Beacon Hill in 1854.

In 1882, the church moved to its current location in the Back Bay neighborhood, after merging with the Shawmut Avenue Baptist Church. The church commissioned architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who, alongside Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, forms what architectural historian James F. O’Gorman calls the “trinity of American architecture.”

The church demonstrates Richardson’s iconic style, called Richardson Romanesque, and features a frieze on the 176-foot stone tower designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. The frieze, called “Les Quatres Etapes de la Vie Chretienne” (“The Four Stages of Christian Life”) depicts Baptism, Communion, marriage, and death.

With support from the National Fund for Sacred Places, the First Baptist Church preserved the top two levels of the church’s tower, including the sandstone walls, rafters, and roof, making the tower structurally sound and watertight. The critical repairs not only preserved and protect the historic friezes from the elements, but also protect the pedestrians and visitors on the sidewalk below.

Although the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic posed construction constraints for the First Baptist Church in the spring of 2020, the project team used the time off from construction to dive into project planning and fundraising efforts, as well as commission a building envelope conditions assessment to help guide future preservation projects.

The preservation project helped strengthen existing relationships and build new community partnerships within the city of Boston, as well as raise public awareness and support for historic preservation of sacred sites. The First Baptist Church was able to re-open in late May of 2020, having smaller gatherings on Sundays through lockdown. Once lockdown was lifted, the church eventually re-opened for in-person worship services, and leaders hope to open the building for new arts and cultural events, historic tours, and preservation presentations throughout the remainder of 2021.

A detailed view of the bass relief sculpture on the steeple at the First Church of Boston. There is scaffolding around the sculpture of three individuals and an angel at the end.

photo by: First Baptist Church of Boston

Detail view of one side of the Bartholdi frieze on the First Baptist Church of Boston.

Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church (Indianapolis)

Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was built by and for immigrants. A growing 19th-century German immigrant population in Indianapolis founded their own church in 1858. As the city grew, the German population of St. Mary outgrew the original building and decided to move to a new location in the Germantown neighborhood, now known as Lockerbie Square, in 1910.

The church facade is constructed entirely of Indiana limestone and features a steel frame and a cathedral-like structure that was completed and consecrated in 1912. The church was designed by architect Hermann J. Gaul and was built as a gift to the pastor who introduced Gaul to his wife. Elements of the church are modeled after the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, to remind the German immigrant congregants of home.

A view of the steeples at a catholic church. They flank a central ornate round window.

photo by: Hirons

Exterior view of the steeples at Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Designed as a “hall style” church, St. Mary contains tall side aisles, long windows, and octagonal towers, steeples, and pointed arches. The exterior of the building is adorned with sculptures of saints, grotesques, floral elements, pinnacles, and corbellings, in a Gothic Revival style.

The church has a cruciform architectural plan, with two bell towers that stand on the west side of the church’s front façade. Thanks to the matching grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, St. Mary will be able to complete the preservation of the ornamentation on the towers, spires, and the west facade.

Though the construction timeline has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Mary leaders were able to connect with the community via Zoom and establish a connection with Cologne, Germany, the sister city of Indianapolis, and highlight the German origins of the church.

Today, the church continues its long tradition of serving immigrant populations. The church particularly caters to the Latinx population, who make up more than 40 percent of the church’s parishioners, offering Spanish language masses and support by bilingual staff.

The church hopes to continue to meet with community members to spread the word about St. Mary and its history through events, a lecture series, social media campaigns, volunteer events, and more.

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Morgan P. Vickers is a writer, historian, and graduate student based in Oakland, California. They are passionate about spatial histories, underrepresented narratives, and questions of belonging.

Applications for the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund grant program are due December 15, 2021.

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