Saturday, October 13, 2007

Old First Church: In Search of Salvation

New Year's day usually signifies a clean slate, a fresh start. This coming January 1st will bring with it a tragic ending, as the landmark Old First Church on Court Square in Springfield closes its doors, its future as a meeting place and House of Worship cast to the Fates: A casualty of the rising costs of upkeep and dwindling community support. The congregation, members of the United Church of Christ, voted in September to disband and mothball the church, despite a two-year effort to find an alternative to such a sad and solemn course. A meeting this past June, well-publicized with articles in the Springfield Republican and on MassLive, only attracted 25 souls interested in the church, which itself has been the soul of the city for nearly 200 years, the cocoon of a congregation that dates to 1637, and that had outgrown three meeting-houses prior to the construction of the current thousand-seat structure, which was built in 1818. Officially recognized as a historical state landmark in 1971, the church was honored as a public treasure again in 1972, gaining a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

This drawing by Springfield architect George Clarence Gardner is found in the book, Springfield Present and Prospective, as illustrative accompaniment to the first chapter of that work, titled The Visible Charm: As it Was, Is and May Be, authored by Gardner's father, Eugene C. Gardner. The senior Gardner was also an architect, and was responsible for the design of Chestnut Middle School and the Westfield Sanitorium (now Western Mass. Hospital), along with many other well-known local structures. The illustration elaborates on Gardner's concept of the Old First Church as the heart of the city as follows:
"As in the old New England towns, almost without exception, the first church erected was the point from which all things emanated, toward which all things tended, and around which everything revolved. It not only dominated the green turf in front, and the sometimes dreary burial ground behind, or at one side, but it set the pace for all other local affairs, social, political and educational as well as religious. It has not always happened, however, as here, that this ethical and business center has remained the visible aesthetic center. And although but a comparatively small part of our best architectural growth has been adjacent to Court square, and other churches have shared the burdens and responsibilities of directing our temporal as well as spiritual concerns, the characteristic, though by no means ornate, or altogether graceful, spire of the First church remains, as regards locality, the civic center of gravity. A skeleton map of the situation as it is today is fairly represented by the foregoing sketch."

This Clifton Johnson photo of the First Church shows a cobble-stoned Main Street. The First Church was also called the (Fourth) First Church Congregational. Springfield's original meeting-house was built in 1645. Seats in the first (unheated) meeting-house were sold by subscription, with the prime seats coveted by the wealthiest residents of the young village, the pecking order of Springfield society well-established each time the community came together.

The soldier's monument, donated to the city by Gurdon Bill, is front-and-center in this C. E. Perkins photo of Court Square. A drinking fountain stands in the foreground. This photo, as well as the previous and next one, is scanned from the book 'Springfield Present and Prospective,' published by Pond & Campbell in 1905, giving one an approximation of the three photos' ages.

E. J. Lazelle captured this Court Square scene, complete with horse-and-carriage to the right in the photo, standing on what looks to be a wet Court Street. The leafless trees suggest early winter or spring. The court house can be seen to the left of the Old First Church. Not everyone was impressed with this structure, Springfield's third court house, as related by Judge A. M. Copeland and Edwin Dwight, co-authoring the chapter, The Story of Springfield, in the book Springfield Present and Prospective.
"The erection of the present - third - court house was authorized by the legislature in 1871, and it was finished and ready for use in 1874. The duty to see to this work was with the county commissioners, none of whom were lawyers or had any practical experience or any definite idea of the proper construction of a court house, or of those things essential to its convenient use. Those whose business best qualified them to suggest points of practical importance either were not consulted, or their opinions, if expressed, were ignored. The building was not what it should have been, though costing the sum of $304,543, including land, building and furnishings, and few years have passed since its occupation in which the county has not expended large sums of money in necessary alterations. A plan is now on foot for additional structures to meet the growing need of the county."

Court Square is referred to as Springfield's "civic center" in the caption of the above postcard from the donated Shaffer collection. Indeed, Court Square was originally known to residents as "Meeting-house Square," the vital functions of a growing community centered in the area for close to four centuries now. The municipal group of City Hall, the Campanile and Symphony Hall are across Court Street from 50 Elm Street's Old First Church. These three landmarks of architectural splendor, representing the city's finest hour, have also fallen into disrepair, threatening to fall into a point-of-no-return of dilapidation and prompting a drive in 2006 to secure financing through bonds to renovate the structures.

Another postcard view of First Church and Court Square, from the Robbins family collection. This linen-postcard hails from the early forties. The Court Square Theatre is to the left, on the south side of Court Square.

This photo from Veteran's Day, 2001, captures the dueling spires of the Old First Church and the Campanile against a beautiful November sky. The church was built by Captain Isaac Damon of Northampton, who also built the bridge spanning the Connecticut river that stood for 100 years prior to the construction of the current Hampden County Memorial Bridge.

Here are a few links to articles from the Springfield Republican reporting the church's disheartening saga:

Historic Old First Church could close within months
Posted by The Republican Newsroom June 23, 2007 14:00PM

Old First Church pleads for help
Posted by The Republican Newsroom June 28, 2007 11:52AM

Church in Springfield votes to disband
Saturday, September 15, 2007

4 WMass sites among 10 most endangered
Monday, October 01, 2007

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1 comment:

sojourner said...

The disbanding of First Church is one of the saddest events in the history of the city. Not only is the building a beautiful edifice in traditional New England style, but the people of First Church have contributed tremendously to the well-being of the community.