Built when the congregation of the South (Unitarian) Church of Portsmouth abandoned its 1731 meetinghouse, and serving as a Unitarian-Universalist church since the merger of two formerly independent congregations in 1946, this is one of the earliest granite buildings in New Hampshire and one that presaged the flowering of the Greek Revival style in the years after 1830. The design of the building was probably suggested by two new plates added by Asher Benjamin to the fourth (1820) edition of his American Builder’s Companion; these show a close prototype, but with a full-width portico and an elaborated steeple above the belfry. A newspaper critic of 1826, already familiar with the Grecian style and probably thinking of St. Paul’s Church (1819) in Boston, objected to the Portsmouth building’s granite belfry as its “only defect . . . added in obedience to popular prejudice, and which alone prevents us from calling this church a perfect model of classic architecture.” The structure is built of Rockport granite, quarried near the sea at Cape Ann in Massachusetts and transported to Portsmouth by water. The large stone blocks of the walls are laid as quarry-faced coursed ashlar except in a few places, notably the basement walls, where the stone was hammered to a smooth surface. The most dramatic feature is the portico, supported by four columns, each composed of three turned drums of stone that taper uniformly from simplified bases to unmolded capitals and suggest the Tuscan order. Like some granite buildings in Boston from the same period, the exterior displays no curved moldings; rather, elements such as the cornices are composed of heavy granite corbels. The side elevations were originally marked by four arched windows recessed within hammered stone frames and filled with clear crown glass; a rear extension dating from 1858 provided a fifth, slightly smaller window on each side. As completed, the interior of the church was reportedly “plain,” but the auditorium was spanned by a segmental barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by massive timber scissors trusses in the attic. Like the Asher Benjamin prototype design of 1820, the gallery extends, in Benjamin’s words in his fourth edition of the American Builder’s Companion,“across the front only, and not . . . along the sides of the house, as is common in churches in this country.” Jonathan Folsom (1785–1825), the architect and contractor for the building, had risen to local prominence as the last designer of Federal-style architecture in Portsmouth, but had also grown increasingly familiar with the new technology of granite construction. He built a stone wharf at the Portsmouth Navy Yard and a massive granite seawall between Smuttynose and Cedar Islands at the Isles of Shoals in 1822, and his unlighted granite “beacon” of 1821–1822 still warns vessels of the Sunken Rocks in the river channel north of Peirce Island in Portsmouth. In 1858, after years of overcrowding, the rear wall of the church was dismantled and reerected seventeen feet to the south. The enlarged auditorium was transformed in appearance by a plethora of molded plaster details, including pilasters and an entablature in the Corinthian order, and by new curved “slip” pews, under the superintendence of architect Shepard S. Woodcock of Boston.
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South Unitarian Church
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