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Mount Vernon Christian Church (Mount Vernon Baptist Church, Friends Meeting House)

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Mount Vernon Baptist Church, Friends Meeting House
1795, 1887. 210 Plainfield Pk. (at Howard Hill Rd.)

Merely by looking at this simple carpentered structure, how might one know that it began as a Quaker meeting house? Its exterior format suggests a school. If blown up, it clearly becomes a church or some secular meeting place like a meeting hall or a grange (although both of these building types are more likely to have contained a single door). To reinforce the churchly image, in the mind's eye add an inflated cupola, similar to those of Foster's most ambitious Greek Revival churches. But presented as here with the typical identifying features, diminutive scale, and plainness of a typical nineteenth-century one-room schoolhouse of the most modest sort (lacking even a bell cupola), how might one possibly construe this as a church, even if its original Quaker congregation might have been content with the ambiguity?

First, a negative observation favoring church over school: no privies. Then two positive hints, too slight to shake the impression of “school” in this instance, but revealing as to how this image might more certainly be viewed as that of a church. The building confronts a Tjunction. Two other Foster churches described here do so as well ( FO26 and FO34) in situations which magnify their authority. Schools rarely do, although there are exceptions (most memorably in Rhode Island, the Woody Hill School in Exeter [ EX2]). Schools usually occupy wayside sites (as perforce do most churches) because sites at intersections are limited. Or they are also frequently found at the corner of a secondary intersection with a major highway, which, in effect, is also a wayside location. If at a major junction, they occur more often in a crossroads cluster than at a T, but usually in a deferential position. They are not so much “at” the crossroads as “near” it, leaving the more conspicuous places for uses which benefit most from traffic: to churches first and foremost, then to a community hall, the country store, the tavern or inn, with perhaps room from a few houses of the village elite at a time when the elite enjoyed showing themselves off to the traffic more than is customary today. Not that these observations on church and school location are surely right, but mulling the probable outcome of some reasonable sampling at least provides a key to one way in which even the simplest sort of building may begin to accrue to itself a modicum of meaning sufficient to elevate its position above mere utility.

A second hint of churchliness here is more intrinsic. The window head is barely lighted above the heights of the flanking doors. In schoolhouses, the heights of all three elements are typically aligned. Occasionally, but rarely in the authoritarian aura of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse, the window may drop a little below the height of the doors in acknowledgment of the lesser stature of its pupils. When the window is elevated even as slightly as this one (let alone as extravagantly as those in the North Foster Free Baptist Church [ FO34] or the Chepachet Union Church in Glocester [ GL14]), this most dematerialized of architectural elements encourages an aspirant frame of mind against the earthly function of the doors. Here one witnesses no more than the stirrings of such symbolic possibility, as though the loosening of geometric bonds between doors and window were more an intuitive act than a conscious decision.

As if these were not puzzles enough to lay on such an unpretentious building, here is another. What style is it? Having a rough date for its erection, late eighteenth-century vernacular is the easy response, and one hard to fault. Yet the broad, simple door frames suggest a Greek Revival resonance, as in the schoolhouse at Foster Center ( FO8). This could reflect later replacement or remodeling, perhaps sometime close to 1843, just before the original congregation abandoned Foster for want of members and merged with the Coventry meeting. Not likely, however, when they were in such dire financial straits; and perhaps not likely anyway for Friends, who were notably immune to changes of fashion in their meeting houses (if not always in their homes). The building then stood empty for a period before being sold as a barn, which use it served from 1850 to 1887. The religious revivalism of the 1880s encouraged the Christian Church to purchase this by then run-down building and extensively remodel it (before lack of funds to pay the minister encouraged Baptists to take over in 1895). Is what one now sees, therefore, a mix of vernacular building from the time of the c. 1887 renovation that combines (or eclectically draws upon) a compendium of vernacular practice derived partly from the late colonial period, partly from the Greek Revival, and partly from practice at the end of the nineteenth century (or later)? Blank simplicity can be perplexing.

By now the architectural pilgrim has most likely overstayed his or her patience with such a minor building, and willingly leaves to others the probing of this structure and its comparison to nearby buildings from the 1890s in carpentered styles. Still another puzzle, however, exists inside. As in a few other churches in Foster and Scituate ( FO9, FO34, and SC1), the pulpit is exceptionally located against the entrance wall in a niche made by separated entrance vestibules. This placement must result from the final remodeling or later because it is difficult to imagine it as the original Quaker solution.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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