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Pawtucket Congregational Church

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1867–1868, John Stevens (Boston). 1915, interior remodeled. 1938, steeple replaced. 1980s, pulpit area altered. 40 Walcott St. (at the fork of Broadway)

The most commanding building in downtown Pawtucket is also among the most important Victorian churches in the state, not only for its design, but for the reasons it looks as it does. This, the earlier Newport Congregational Church ( NE61), and the still earlier first Central Congregational Church in Providence ( PR83.6) are the most ambitious extant examples in the state of the Congregational round-arched style (see the discussion under Central Congregational Church).

Of the three this is the most assertive. While the Newport and Providence examples are masonry, this is wood. In the heft of its buttressing and molding, however, it means to evoke stone. The viewer will be struck by the wall-like width of the tower, which tapers slightly with each of the four steps of its simulated corner buttresses. They measure off the tower's four levels, up to a cornice with centered round arches facing in each of four directions. The arching of the cornice at this point echoes the arching of doors and upper-story windows and prepares for more curves in the belfry above. Tall, curved corner brackets meld into more arches to shape the belfry and its four clock faces. Viewed head-on, each face appears as a giant Victorian mantel clock, but architectural in character and exceptionally well integrated to the tower. In this clock-faced cupola and the molding below from which it emerges, as well as in the ogee swell of the second-story roofing which flanks the tower, one senses a flamboyant, bloated quality suggesting influence from the current mansarded Second Empire style. That style affects the ornamental treatment throughout, and gives to this church an exuberance of aspect, setting this church apart from other, more severe Romanesque contemporaries. The loss of a steeple in the 1938 hurricane diminished what was surely the most exciting Victorian tower on any extant church in the state. The repair of the tower as a cupola-on-cupola might have been a fair compromise were it not in the namby-pamby Neo-Federal style toward which New England Congregationalism all too readily gravitates.

All corner buttressing, window frames, and cornice moldings mean to be weighty in their evocation of masonry. Pendant molding elements hang like heavy Victorian tassels and fringes from the arched capping of the windows, from moldings beneath the eaves and, most extravagantly, at the fourth stage of the tower. Their source is the sort of corbeling, natural to brick construction, found in Pawtucket's brick mills, but here specifically derived from round-arched brick medieval churches in Italy and Germany. For this reason the painting of the church (and of many other mid-nineteenth-century churches like it) in “Congregational white” during most of the twentieth century was historically, and even aesthetically, wrong. Its bulky, masonry-inspired detailing needs the weight of its original stony colors, recommended in the Congregationalist Book of Plans, to which it was returned in the late 1970s, albeit possibly in too timid a shade.

Inside, the generous vestibule offers a double flight of stairs on either side to a platform which opens to the church interior. Although mildly “colonialized” to the Federal period in 1915, when the Victorian pews were replaced, the interior remains basically intact, with balconies on three sides. What is remarkable, however, is access to the balconies on either side of the pulpit by curved flights of stairs from the preaching platform. Choir processions came down the aisles, flanking the pulpit in their ascent to the balcony. If the stairs sweep in concave curves away from the congregation, the pulpit curves toward the congregation as a prow. So the round-arched monumentality of the exterior reverberates in the curves inside. The interior is now cream and white, but its original colors seem to have been the ochre and deep browns recommended in A Book of Plans. The windows are stained glass of a later period than the church, although the original geometric treatment in pale yellow and clear glass exists in windows in the vestibule. Among the charming Colonial Revival additions are handsome stained glass windows in the opalescent pictorial treatment popular around 1915, showing a Puritan couple (John Alden and Priscilla perhaps) standing on the shore of the New World, perturbed and thoughtful, watching the vessel that brought them disappear over the horizon; then, in the pendant window, the same couple resolutely on their way to church.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "Pawtucket Congregational Church", [Pawtucket, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-PA22.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 147-148.

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