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South Ferry Congregational Church (Narragansett Congregational Church)
Of all the wooden Gothic country churches from the mid-nineteenth century in Rhode Island, this and Richard Upjohn's Church of the Holy Cross in Middletown ( MI1) are probably the finest. As in all Thomas Tefft's work, this is characterized by compelling shape, austere detailing, and rightness of placement and scale. Consider merely the shaping of the three-story tower, where the door level is a cube, but the corners of the second story above are inset so that the cube below becomes four planes, from which the third story slides like an object past the open flaps of a cardboard box. Note, too, the straightforward but graceful manner in which the flared hipped roof at the eaves accommodates the octagon steeple, with tall, arched, louvered windows mediating the transition. Here Tefft employs his favorite round-arched “Lombard” style, which he was one of the first American architects to adapt from progressive German theory of the time. In fact, the steeple shape derives from German precedent. Moldings around the arched windows are utterly simple and broad. They project from the plane of the wall, contrasting with the texture of hexagonal shingling, which decorates without “decoration.” This is a spectacle for an early morning or a late evening visit, when raking light enhances the hexagonal patterning. A charming watercolor rendering from Tefft's office at Brown University shows penciled experimentation in the margin as Tefft weighed pointed shingles as an alternate to the pattern which he finally selected. It also shows a dovecote on the ridge of the gable at the pulpit end of the church and indicates that his color preference was probably soft gray rather than white, a tint more in keeping with mid-nineteenth-century preferences.
The original congregation left the church for nearby Saunderstown in 1908, taking the Victorian pulpit furniture with it. The building was finally sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which planned to move it; a group of former members of the congregation purchased it with plans to preserve it, but it remained vacant until the late 1920s, when a successor organization realized restoration of the then deteriorated building. Its simple plaster interior with board wainscoting retains the original pews, with re-created fittings in front. Now owned by the University of Rhode Island, which has located its campus for oceanography a little farther along the road, the church now houses occasional meetings and weddings.
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