This article was written by Gail Doucette Wojton in 1976.
ARCHITECTURE OF ST. PETER’S CHURCH
The church building whose l50th anniversary we celebrate in 1976 cannot be said to have been “completed” in 1826. For the structure blessed by Bishop Brownell and which he hailed at that time as “the second church in the Diocese in point of beauty and design and excellence of workmanship” (after Trinity Church, New Haven, which it strongly resembles, except for the placement of the tower) was far different from the church we rededicate this year.
The exterior of the church is traditionally held to have been modeled after an Italian church seen by the Reverend Samuel F. Jarvis of Boston while traveling in Europe, yet it undoubtedly had many of the characteristics of English Gothic as well.
Some called it “Jarvis’ Folly,” probably because its revolutionary style took some getting used to, but it earned the soubriquet with its injudicious use of wood for such Gothic folderol as battlements, turrets and pinnacles. This did not weather well in the New England climate and were removed in less than thirty years, leaving the church with a more or less “Federal air” rather than its original Gothic flavor.
The church bell in the tower was added five years later with funds the parish was able to raise from the sale of cemetery plots. In 1921 the bell was recast, the new bell exactly reproducing the original in tone and pitch.
The interior of the structure in 1826 was also vastly different from today. Two main aisles led straight from the present arched rear doors to the windowless altar wall, which was dominated by a high pulpit in the center, so large it was called the “audience room.” A huge “Eye of God” was painted on the wall above the pulpit. Below the pulpit was a small and relatively insignificant altar. An organ was later installed to the left of the center pulpit. There were no choir stalls up front. The balcony was used for additional seating, possibly by those who had not paid for pews on the main floor.
In 1856 the corner pews in the rear and front corners reserved for the blacks of the community were removed, thus egalitarizing the congregation.
In 1860 the present organ, boasting a fine Gothic case very much in keeping with the original exterior woodwork of turrets and pinnacles, was built by William Johnson in Westfield, Massachusetts, shipped by rail to Andover and then hauled the last part of its journey by ox cart. It was installed in the balcony, rather than up front where the first organ was placed, thus necessitating the blocking up of the central eastern window and the removal of the balcony pews.
Sometime in the 19th century the exterior brick was painted white; at that time whitewashing brick exteriors was thought appropriate to buildings which seemed vaguely Colonial. Most other monuments that were whitewashed, including Hartford’s Old State House and several churches in Boston, were vigorously sandblasted to undo this desecration, but the white paint on St. Peter’s, simply by not being periodically renewed, has slowly disintegrated, leaving the original color and texture.
A change in the order of worship in the Episcopal Church brought about a sweeping change in the interior of St. Peter’s in 1871. This ceremonial change called for the focus of worship to be on the altar instead of the pulpit. Therefore, the high pulpit was removed and a small wooden altar, a new wooden pulpit of considerably reduced size and a brass lectern were crowded within the chancel rail. The back wall was frescoed, to give the effect of a recessed chancel. (The ceiling and the side walls had been frescoed in the 1860s.) At this time the present three windows were let into the altar wall, and stained glass windows designed by Tiffany Company were added to the existing frames that same year. The windows on the Eastern wall still retain their original plain glass.
To accommodate the furnace installed that year, the original three banks of pews gave way to two banks on either side of a central aisle, where the central heat register is located. More than likely the present pews are the original ones.
Only minor changes have been made in the structure in the last one hundred years. Most of the woodwork in the interior was originally pointed a sage green; in 1900 the pews were grained to imitate golden oak, and in 1938 they were painted white. In that year also the choir stalls in the front of the church were constructed following the form of the old pews. The side walls and doors of the vestibule were not part of the original building either, but were added at a later date to conserve fuel
By the late 60’s, it had become all too evident that the beautiful Church was beginning to show its age. The north wall was cracking, and both the north and south walls were bowing dangerously outward from the weight of close to 150 years. After much research to find a solution which would alter the building the least, a system of metal chain plates and tie-rods was installed. Though hardly unobtrusive, the rods were deemed infinitely preferable to buttresses or other supports which would have destroyed the lines and character of the historic structure.
This year (1976), in keeping with the newest changes in the liturgy and style of worship in the Episcopal Church, the altar was rendered free-standing by pushing back the reredos, or wall immediately behind the altar, into a “V”, thus permitting the celebrating priest to face the congregation.
St. Peter’s Church was ahead of its time when it was built, and its progressiveness was not appreciated until many years after 1826, during the impact of mid-19th century Victorianism. Few other buildings in town were to copy its style, so today it is a jewel in a perfect setting.
In writing this history of St. Peter’s Church, I could not have accomplished the task without the documents compile by Kathleen Martin Fill, daughter of The Rev. Theodore Martin, rector of St. Peter’s from 1919 to 1929. Included in her treasure trove were the excellent historic writings of Miss Susan Pendleton, noted poet and historian; Dr. Austin Warren, founder and lecturer of St. Peter’s School; Allen L. Corr, lay reader of St. Peter’s from 1929 to 1934; and Mrs. Natalie Pfanstiehl, who composed a brief but excellent account of the early St. Peter’s. The section on the architecture of the church is based in great part on the research of John Baron, Jr., a brilliant young member of the Hebron Historical Society.
Gail Doucette Wojton