Churches for Change: New England Meetinghouses as Sacred/Secular Prototypes

Volume 49, Issue 2 :: By Howard Hebel, AIA • Photographs by Graham Hebel

Old Round Church as seen from the town approach.

Old Round Church as seen from the town approach.

New England’s meetinghouse churches constitute a diverse and distinctly American architecture of community and change. Born in turbulent times, these churches resonate powerfully with contemporary discussions of multi-faith and sacred/secular models. The Old Round Church in Richmond, Vermont, and the South Solon Meeting House in Solon, Maine exemplify these compact, eloquent structures and the range of architectural and artistic treasures they preserve in out-of-the-way places. In addition to possessing a striking, stoic beauty, these miniature masterpieces embody design principles of potential use for today’s architects and builders who again seek to invent places that welcome, uplift, and inspire people facing rapid change.

View from the pulpit of Old Round Church.

View from the pulpit of Old Round Church.

Continuity and Change

These compelling little buildings sprang up in frontier towns, often without architects, during the country’s post-revolutionary northward expansion. Their designs responded to the civic and spiritual yearnings of a young, ambitious, seeker nation, inventing itself on the go amid intense religious ferment and socio-political experimentation. There, they provided some of the first built expressions of community and centers for community life.

Conceived for multi-purpose service and often shared by different faiths, meetinghouses ennobled sacred and secular gatherings equally well. Far from separating Church and State, they reflected a tolerant, iconoclastic environment in which congregation and polity coincided. Along the way, meetinghouses helped nurture community, launch new denominations, promote political participation, and broadcast the Great Awakening’s call for spiritual and intellectual individualism.

Sacred and secular aspects of life eventually differentiated in these communities, building separate homes. As this process unfolded, these resilient buildings’ flexible, adaptable forms allowed them to adopt new uses gracefully. In the two centuries since their construction, many have changed programs several times in changing communities to remain relevant, useful, and loved.

Rates of Change

Plans of the meetinghouses drawn at the same scale. Round church courtesy of Udo Riga; rectangle church courtesy of Mills Whitaker Architects, LLC.

Plans of the meetinghouses drawn at the same scale. Round church courtesy of Udo Riga; rectangle church courtesy of Mills Whitaker Architects, LLC.

The two churches’ histories represent two typical transition sequences experienced by these flexible, adaptable buildings as different sacred and secular constituencies adopted them over time. The Old Round Church’s use evolved steadily through continuous inhabitation, leaving its original interior architecture intact. The Church began as a cooperative venture of six fledgling organizations constructing a shared meeting place: five Protestant congregations, from Baptist to Universalist, and the secular town government. Town meeting minutes of the time recorded that “no preference is to be given to anyone on account of his Religious tenets…in buying or paying for pews but to be equally free for every denomination.” The original land-donation presumed availability for secular use. Lacking a resident preacher, the group turned to an experienced builder to create a design without an architect and to raise building funds by selling family boxes. His polygonal design circumscribed a conventional plan in an unusual, unifying form that emphasized commonalities of gathering and galvanized community. Its original seating plan intermixed charter families of all five congregations. Its 1812-13 construction united professionals and volunteers.

The facility’s unifying effect has endured, due partly to its design and partly to the culture of shared use that created it and that it helped sustain. Early-19th-century Vermont’s scarcity of preachers often led to universal attendance, with doctrinal strictures relaxed. Harvest banquets and other social gatherings complemented secular governance between liturgical activities. Over the years, the congregations gradually built their own churches, the last departing in the 1880s. Richmond developed away from this site yet never disconnected, continuing to meet and conduct community business including meetings and voting there until the 1970s. Little needed to change in the church’s physical configuration to support over 160 years of evolving civic use. When the dire need for restoration at last mandated intervention, the town finally ceased civic use and deeded the property to its historical society to facilitate placement on the National Register of Historic Places and pursuit of preservation grants. The popular, restored building now hosts a variety of public and private events, including weddings, history days, and the annual “pilgrimage service” hosted by current members of the sole surviving original congregation, while providing a pristine touchstone to a period of profound change in the nation’s early history.

South Solon Meeting House beside its rural crossroads.

South Solon Meeting House beside its rural crossroads.

By contrast, the South Solon Meeting House’s use changed discontinuously through interrupted inhabitation, dramatically altering its interior character. This Church began as the aspiration of a single Congregational congregation to provide for community life at a key rural crossroads. As in Richmond, the land-gift deed to the “South Solon Free Meeting House Society” presumed availability for secular use. Here, a resident preacher led from the start, similarly turning to an experienced builder without an architect for design and fundraising through family-box sales. His simple yet striking conventional, rectangular design unified a fractious congregation and galvanized it into action, with construction in 1841-42 uniting professionals and volunteers as in Richmond.

The design’s drawing power has attracted a variety of constituencies over time despite misfortunes. In the beginning, community gatherings like meetings, church socials, and harvest festivals complemented liturgy. The town soon developed elsewhere, however, and then failed. The church stood alone while in use, and then ceased use altogether by 1904. The abandoned structure deteriorated until a 1930s revival led by the local Cummings family whose members also helped found the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the ‘40s. More dramatic rebirth came with the School’s 1950s adoption of the again-unused structure as home for a fresco-painting project to display Renaissance techniques revived by faculty. This project’s well-publicized design competition drew significant artists who transformed the plain original interior into an extraordinary and little-known national treasure, an accidental time capsule of 1950s American artistic ferment with competing abstraction and representation, while its basic building restoration reversed long decline. The building joined the National Register of Historic Places in the ‘80’s after again being forgotten for a time. A recent restoration has once again refreshed structure and envelope, equipping the building for renewed service as an active community-events venue and art destination.

Today, both buildings function as secular venues that welcome occasional sacred uses, both formal and informal.

View toward the pulpit of South Solon Meeting House.

View toward the pulpit of South Solon Meeting House.

Principles and Meanings

What can these buildings teach us about designing for change, not merely surviving change but adapting to it gracefully and even promoting it? Five characteristics have allowed them to remain vital and vibrant while vigorously serving a changing mix of sacred and secular inhabitants and programs.

Formal Simplicity: Simple, unitary forms make these buildings visually arresting and give their main spaces power to unify. Single building forms enclose single interior volumes. At Solon the form consists of a simple, gable-roofed rectangular solid with a finial-crested belfry, while in Richmond a near-cylindrical polygonal volume (16 facets outside, 32 inside) rises to a cupola-topped, polygonal conical roof. Both have pews that face front and center with a singular focus. Interestingly, the Old Round Church’s plan did not fully realize this form’s geometric potential for concentric pews facing an in-the-round central objective, though outer and balcony pew boxes do face inward. This simplicity gives the resulting buildings the power of clarity and directness. Diminutive size and fine, human scale add an inviting intimacy.

Simple detailing around pulpit and pews in South Solon Meeting House.

Simple detailing around pulpit and pews in South Solon Meeting House.

Programmatic Changelessness: Emphasizing meeting unchanging human needs over accommodating specialized or changeable programming keeps these buildings timeless and relevant. Despite change, people continue to need shelter, community, privacy, ceremony, reflection, wonder, and delight, especially in changing times. A minimum of fixed interior conditions and hierarchical subdivisions allows these buildings to accommodate a wide variety of changing constituencies and activities, as well as to accept a range of physical changes without losing fundamental identity. Both buildings feature simple, open spaces, multipurpose seating, and singular, raised presentation platforms that gracefully welcome human gatherings and only loosely configure their evolving interactions. Neither space is as flexible as those completely without fixed seating or directional orientation (like some contemporary multi-faith centers), yet both have proven themselves nimble adopters of changing roles over time.

Symbolic Neutrality: Freedom from tradition-specific vocabulary and iconography allows these buildings to meet needs of multiple and changing constituencies without violating the prohibitions of any. Relief from architectural and liturgical conventions leaves room for individual groups to express themselves, to articulate their own concerns and aspirations in their own ways, to find their own voices. The Old Round Church’s plain walls and ceilings and simple pew boxes serve as a stage for their human protagonists. In Solon, once-plain walls and ceilings provided blank canvases on which one constituency visualized traditional mythologies and insights in vivid and compelling new terms that still surprise, provoke, and inspire without dictating.

Simple detail in Old Round Church, such as classical columns turned from a single timber.

Simple detail in Old Round Church, such as classical columns turned from a single timber.

Thematic Universality: Universal themes engage all comers, suggesting common ground in humanity’s shared search for meaning and purpose. Timeless place-making principles such as overarching forms, classical motifs, and armatures of portal, path, and place; Platonic geometries of circle, square, rectangle, and triangle; and universal iconographies of daylight, views of natural beauty, wood, stone, and human gatherings connect to all traditions and resonate with all constituencies.

Economy of Means: Frugality of construction, locally sourced materials, and architecturally limited palettes give these buildings authentic and unpretentious character, making them approachable and welcoming, as well as easy to modify. They evoke many of architecture’s great dictums on the subject: Vitruvius’s firmness, commodity, and delight; Sullivan’s form follows function; and Mies’ less is more. The resulting environments allow users to concentrate on strengthening community and growing personally in ways of their own choosing, freed from distraction and preconception.

Conclusions for Today

Challenges and opportunities facing today’s designers and builders of religious structures, including demands for multi-faith and sacred/secular collaboration, are not new. Earlier builders addressed them, leaving a legacy of potential models for consideration. In the US, New England meetinghouses represent this resource particularly well, commissioned for multi-purpose roles hosting mixed programs and multiple faiths. While some have been abandoned, many still support and enrich their communities in new and evolving ways. This important genre of America’s architectural heritage offers powerful principles and prototypes for consideration by contemporary designers reinventing places for religious activities, and the place of religious experience in 21st-century life. Formal simplicity, programmatic changelessness, symbolic neutrality, thematic universality, and economy of means can help today’s community buildings attract people of diverse points of view to gather and share the sacred and secular work of continuously renewing themselves for life in changing times—and to continue doing so while change continues to accelerate—as these two meetinghouses have done so fruitfully for so long.

Bibliography

  • Leland, Asa, Registrar. Untitled original handwritten land deed to the South Solon Free Meeting House Society, dated June 4, 1842 and recorded by the Town Registrar on January 28, 1843.
  • Cummings, Mildred H. South Solon: The Story of a Meeting House. Published 1959 by The South Solon Historical Society, The Marchbanks Press, New York.
  • Rhodes, William, and Mixon, Stanley P., photographer. Round Meetinghouse, Town Common, .5 Mile South of U.S. Route 2, Richmond, Chittenden County, VT. Historic American Buildings Survey, Survey Number HABS VT-70. Compiled after 1933, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
  • Richmond Historical Society, The. Richmond’s Round Church or Meeting House, National Historic Landmark, Richmond, Vermont. Undated pamphlet published by The Richmond Historical Society.
  • Richmond Historical Society, The. www.oldroundchurch.com
  • Richmond, Town of. Untitled hand-written minutes of the Richmond, Vermont annual town meeting of 1812, conducted and recorded on February 7, 1812.
  • Riggs, Harriet Wheatley, Town Historian. Comments Pertaining to Ownership of the Old Round Church, Also Known as Richmond Meetinghouse (meeting house), Town House, Round Church. Unpublished memorandum of February 7, 2016.
  • South Solon Historical Society, The. South Solon Meeting House: A Fresco Diary. Undated, unpublished manuscript by The South Solon Historical Society.
  • South Solon Historical Society, The. www.southsolonmeetinghouse.org
  • Turner, Martha, and Riggs, Harriet W. The Richmond Round Church 1813-2013. Published 2013 by The Richmond Historical Society, Queen City Printers, Burlington, VT.

The author, an associate principal of Newman Architects in New Haven, Connecticut, explores religious architecture as a personal passion. New York City photographer Graham Hebel collaborates with his father, Howard, on documenting and presenting religious architecture.

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