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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    The rise of a lost landmark

    This view of the First Congregational Church is probably from the 1870s or 1880s. In the distance at far left is Bulkeley School, also designed by the church’s architect, Leopold Eidlitz. (Public Library of New London)
    Architect Leopold Eidlitz designed the First Congregational Church in the unadorned Rundbogenstil style popular in German-speaking lands as well as the U.S. He lived in New London during construction.
    One of the earliest images of the church was published on a map of the city in late 1850, before construction was complete. The steeple did not yet include the familiar four-faced clock.
    A plaque in memory of the Rev. Thomas Power Field was among the items recovered from the church on Jan. 29, 2024, as demolition continued. During Field’s pastorate in 1857, the tower was repaired to address flaws in its construction several years earlier. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    First Congregational Church’s origin story includes architectural debate, structural flaws

    Editor’s note: In addition to the sources cited, this story is drawn from the records of the First Congregational Church at the Connecticut State Library, newspaper stories from the Custom House Maritime Museum, and the book “The Later History of the First Church of Christ, New London, Conn.,” by the Rev. S. Leroy Blake.

    The pews in the meeting house on Zion’s Hill were the old-fashioned kind, arranged in boxes with seating on three sides, which left people with their backs to the pulpit.

    In 1833 a committee of New London’s First Congregational Church looked into replacing them with modern bench pews, but it ended up making a broader recommendation: a new building.

    That didn’t happen right away, but the idea launched events that led to construction of the landmark church we lost on Jan. 25. With the building’s unexplained collapse seared into public memory, this is a look back at how it came to exist.

    The old meeting house, on the same site at State and Union streets, had been built in 1786, and despite the inconvenient pews, it would remain a while longer. Fourteen years later, the question of a new building was revisited, and subscriptions were sought from parishioners to defray the expected cost. The goal was to raise $18,000.

    When that was reached, the congregation bid farewell to its longtime home. In the final service there, on Sept. 30, 1849, the Rev. Abel McEwen, the pastor, looked back on its 63-year history.

    “This house of worship, in which I understand we now worship for the last time, has been … a place where the grace of God has executed … its work of salvation,” he said.

    The parish then moved to a temporary home to await the rise of a more imposing building.

    “It will possess a noble locality,” the New London Chronicle said, “be built of our own beautiful granite, and from what we believe all persons of correct taste will consider a very fine design.”

    * * *

    That design emerged from a broad 19th-century conversation about churches and architecture.

    Different denominations were wrestling with how their buildings should best reflect their theological stances, said Kathryn E. Holliday, a professor of historic preservation and American architectural history at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

    In the Congregational Church, leaders faced the question in a series of essays, she said. Shunning the elaborateness of Gothic Revival, a style associated with high church ritual, they sought something simpler.

    A recent German style was viewed by Congregationalists as straightforward and appropriate. Called Rundbogenstil, or “round arch style,” it combined elements of Romanesque, Byzantine and other traditions and featured flat facades, arched windows and inverted crenelations under the eaves. These evoked the alternating gaps in medieval battlements.

    Many German train stations and synagogues were built in Rundbogenstil, and in the United States, expatriate architects spread its popularity.

    Just as the New London Congregationalists raised enough money for a new building, the New York firm of Blesch & Eidlitz designed a church in Manhattan, St. George’s Episcopal, that was influenced by the Ludwigskirche, a Catholic church in Munich. Both bore the hallmarks of Rundbogenstil.

    The New Londoners engaged the firm to plan their building, and the lead role was taken by Leopold Eidlitz, who was born in Prague to a Jewish family, studied in Vienna, then immigrated to New York. Along the way, Holliday said, he absorbed a cross-cultural understanding of architectural approaches.

    Eidlitz conceived a Rundbogenstil building that reflected both the Manhattan church and its Munich forebear. The central tower “flanked by two stepped gables over the narthex is a direct inversion of St. George’s and the Ludwigskirche, echoing both English and German vernacular forms,” Holliday wrote in her book “Leopold Eidlitz: Architecture and Idealism in the Gilded Age.”

    “The New London church is intentionally very, very, very simple,” she said in an interview.

    Eidlitz lived in town during construction, and one of his children was born here, she said. Details of his activities are unknown, but she said the entrepreneurial architect may have done smaller projects like houses on the side.

    The First Congregational Church wasn’t Eidlitz’s only contribution to New London. He designed at least three other buildings, including Bulkeley School, a boys’ high school that opened in 1873. Today the High Victorian Gothic landmark houses the Regional Multicultural Magnet School. In an odd parallel to what happened last month, Bulkeley originally had a stone tower, which the school reluctantly demolished in 1926 after it was deemed unsafe.

    Like Bulkeley, the First Congregational Church was made of granite, which was severe-looking and demonstrated Eidlitz’s philosophy that architecture should reveal a building’s structure, Holliday said.

    “When you looked at it, you were looking at stone,” she said, “and you were looking at the stone that held it up.”

    * * *

    The plan was to quarry much of the granite from the construction site, and there was no shortage of it.

    The corner of State and Union was a rocky hill, and in 1849 the city was blowing up parts of it to level the streets. A man who lived in front of the meeting house sued the city for damage to his home, and the congregation bought him out so its new building could face State Street.

    Digging for the road work had extended beneath the old church, nearly undermining it, and the work complicated plans for the new one.

    “It is outrageous to leave ‘Zion’s Hill’ in its present predicament,” the Chronicle said in July 1849.

    Six months later, preparation for the new building was under way.

    “Great progress has been made in cutting down the rocky eminence upon which it will stand and the quantity of stone … made ready to work into the walls is much greater … than anyone had expected,” the paper said in January 1850.

    But it wasn’t enough because two other sites were also used as quarries. By June the builders had taken so much stone from the south part of the Second Burial Ground, where Williams Memorial Park is now, that the city ordered them to stop.

    The Chronicle insisted the quarrying didn’t harm the cemetery and protested that officials had acted “with more haste than justice.”

    As the church took shape, the paper praised its stone construction: “This unhewn granite is a hard looking material, viewed in detached parts … but looked at en masse, there is a grandeur in it.”

    By fall 1850, the building was nearing completion. Its image from a daguerreotype was published on a new map of the city along with that of another recent church, St. James Episcopal.

    History does not record when the building was dedicated or hosted its first service. But the evidence points to August 1851, when the sale of pews to parishioners began. A church history notes that the last stone was placed around Sept. 1.

    The Congregationalists finally had their new home. It was a monument both soaring, with an orb-capped spire pointing skyward, and humble, thanks to Eidlitz’s unadorned granite. To all appearances the building was as solid as their faith.

    * * *

    That turned out not to be true, as a letter to the church soon asserted in jarring terms. It resulted in an immediate meeting of the congregation.

    On Oct. 12, 1851, just after the building opened, Eidlitz, apparently still in New London, wrote with a warning.

    “The walls of the main tower of your church have parted in several places,” he began, “in consequence of defective masonry and unequal settling.” He blamed the problem, in part, on “the hurried erection of the steeple.”

    Eidlitz explained that he had secured the tower with “iron anchors” but made clear that this was not a permanent solution. He had taken up the matter with Richard Upjohn, a prominent British-born architect under whom he had studied. Upjohn had designed New London’s other new church, St. James.

    The two men reached a stunning conclusion: “It would be advisable as the only sure remedy, to take down the whole of the steeple and tower, and have it rebuilt by a more competent and reliable person than your present contractor.”

    The congregation’s Oct. 13 discussion isn’t preserved, but the resulting vote is: “that the society take no action at present.”

    For the time being, that’s where things stood. The next year, when the church granted the city permission to install a clock in the steeple, the wording of the vote acknowledged the possibility that the tower might have to be demolished.

    In 1857 the problem was finally addressed. Another architect, Richard Bond of Boston, advised that the structure could be safely repaired rather than rebuilt. At his suggestion, the cavity walls were bolted together and filled with cement

    “The tower now stands firmly in its beauty and strength,” a church history says.

    For all anyone knew, the patched-up building might endure forever.

    j.ruddy@theday.com

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