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St. Thomas Episcopal Church

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1851, Thomas A. Tefft. 1891, tower. 1950, partial interior renovation. 578 Putnam Pk. (at Smith Ave.)

This is the only church in the Gothic Revival mode which Thomas Tefft certainly executed, although another in nearby Georgiaville (now demolished, but illustrated in Henry-Russell Hitchcock's Rhode Island Architecture) is attributed to him by some writers. It is comparable to Richard Upjohn's little masonry Calvary Church in Stonington, Connecticut, erected 1847–1849, just before St. Thomas. Like Calvary, this originally had a bellcote instead of its present steeple. We know that Tefft admired Upjohn; in an essay, “The Cultivation of True Taste” (1851), he praised Upjohn's Grace Church in Providence. Furthermore, St. Thomas had close ties with the other Upjohn church in Providence, St. Stephen's. The Reverend Henry Waterman, pastor of St. Stephen's, was among the early and ardent converts to the Oxford Movement, which called for a revitalization of the Anglican Church through a return to the high ritual and architecture of the medieval past. The pastor of St. Thomas at the time of its building, the Reverend James Eames, was also close to this movement. So had Tefft been unaware of Calvary in Stonington, these clerics could have pointed it out. Though Tefft himself was a Baptist and pioneered in the Romanesque as the medieval revival style for church building, his library contained The Ecclesiologist and books by A. W. N. Pugin, both of which were key sources for the design of buildings and ritualistic objects proper to the High Church convictions of the Oxford Movement.

The church Tefft built—with its diminutive and austerely simple buttresses, its tiny pointed windows, and its handsome coursed-rubble masonry, partly smooth and partly rough surfaced—gives the sense of a civilized style developing from rude beginnings. It was an appropriate image for a country church. Whoever later designed the tower respected Tefft's metaphor of architecture emergent from primitive sources. It rises from a brute block at the base, through minimal transitional shaping, to the specific Neo-Gothic detail at the top, although Tefft might have been a little bolder and less literal had he designed it. Inside, the little box of space (as partially renovated in 1950) is simply plastered, including the gabled ceiling, with its black-brown linear roof structure of rafters, wall brackets, and cross spans its only embellishment aside from the pews and the slots of stained glass (although the walls were probably originally darker, with perhaps stenciled ornament). Off the rear wall is a small chancel, that preeminent symbol of ecclesiology, which banished the old-fashioned reading desk in the clear light of the meeting house for shadowy choirs in which, at some remove from the congregation, the mysteries of the mass were properly respected. So the two churches at the center of the village embrace opposed views of the religious experience (although most village worshippers would have been oblivious to the disputation which brought such diametrically opposed buildings to this place). One embodies the Word delivered from the pulpit, luminous in the transcendence of clear light and geometry (even in an altered interior); the other, the mass received through sacred ritual as reinforced by appeals to nature, the primitive, and the romance of remote historical styles and institutions.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.
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Citation

William H. Jordy et al., "St. Thomas Episcopal Church", [Smithfield, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/RI-01-SM13.

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 254-255.

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