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Area Churches Reflect Centuries Of Changing Sensibilities


December 20, 2009

There are many reasons to visit places of worship in the holiday season, not the least of which is the pure enjoyment of the buildings.

There is a veritable feast of architectural beauty and diversity in the sacred places of Greater Hartford, a pleasing consequence of two centuries of religious freedom. These structures are works of art that can be appreciated by the churched or the un-churched, by regular or holiday worshipers.

And because the styles of religious buildings change over time in response to evolving theological convictions, liturgical practices or even popular cultures, our neighboring houses of worship offer a distinctive glimpse at our common history of ideas and aesthetics.

Let's start with the Congregationalists, who ran the civil government of this colony and state until 1818. Public taxes helped pay for the church meeting houses, which also served as the seats of government.

The early Congregational Pilgrims appear not to have had a distinctive architectural style; their main concern was that their buildings bore no similarity to the structures of the popish Romans or the Church of England. They wanted an architecture that reflected God's immanence and the centrality of scripture. Consequently, their buildings were flat, unadorned and purely functional. Not surprisingly, few of them remain. One very beautiful survivor, however, is the Farmington Congregational Church, which was built in 1772.

Getting Architectural Religion

After the Congregational Church was "disestablished" in 1818, however, its architects developed a sense of style. Their buildings reflected their democratic ideals in both government and church polity. The Federal, or neo-classical style, flourished in Connecticut through 1830. The Killingworth Congregational Church, built in 1820, is an excellent example of this style. With its Greek columns, Palladian window, square tower and two-stage belfry, it reflected the invigorated values of the new republic and the newly independent church.

The classical virtues were also reflected in at least six nearly identical Greek Revival churches built in Connecticut between 1818 and 1830: Southington, Cheshire, Old Lyme, Milford, Litchfield and Guilford. Although these buildings have been modernized to varying degrees, they have maintained the integrity of this design. Commanding their town greens, they add graceful steeples and spires to the landscape and have come to symbolize Connecticut's towns.

Going Gothic

Later in the 19th century, the Hartford-area Victorians sought to reinforce the transcendence of God through the order, majesty and mystery evoked by Gothic designs. They believed that beautiful buildings, like life itself, should be filled with shadows, illuminated through evocative stained glass windows.

The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on Wyllys Street, which was consecrated in 1869 as a memorial to Samuel Colt, is a small but elegant example of this style. Special attention should be paid to the uniquely colorful floor tiles and the great west window (where Joseph's face is said to resemble Sam's).

The only Congregational Church to adopt the Gothic style was the Asylum Hill Church. Built in 1866, it revives the form of 15th-century English churches, with a bow to the great English cathedrals. It also has magnificent stained glass windows, graceful interior arches over columns and distinctive blue doors.

Nearby are two splendid examples of the Byzantine Revival style that flourished from the late 1800s until the 1940s.

Temple Beth Israel on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford was built in 1936 as the home for the state's oldest and one of its largest Jewish congregations. Surrounding its central dome are 24 windows, which are not only artistically significant but also edifying. Twelve of the windows represent the 12 tribes of Israel, while the other 12 windows depict specific biblical quotations.

Down the avenue in Hartford is Immanuel Congregational Church, which was designed by Ernest Flagg, one of American's foremost architects at the turn of the 20th century. Its Byzantine dome, resting on four principal arches, eliminates the need for interior columns, thereby emphasizing congregational assembly and worship. A focal point is the stunning mosaic, containing some 50,000 pieces of Tiffany glass, depicting the Parable of the Sower.

A More Modern Approach

Four sacred places that have become architectural landmarks were built in the Hartford area between 1961 and 1981. The strikingly modern Unitarian Church on Bloomfield Avenue was designed by Victor Lundy to symbolize the belief that all religious paths lead to a single divine Reality. The 12 piers supporting the uniquely angled roof differ in height and form to emphasize the equality of beliefs. Similarly, the central sanctuary may be reached from all points on the circular ambulatory.

The postmodern Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph on Farmington Avenue was dedicated in 1962 and recalls the weightlessness of Sainte-Chapelle, the gothic Holy Chapel in Paris, with its walls of stained glass windows. Its ceramic tile mural behind the altar is reputedly the largest of its kind in the world.

There is also a hidden gem tucked away in a residential neighborhood in East Hartford. The Church of the Blessed Sacrament, built in 1973, is the logical but extreme extension of the Modern or International Style. It is a single story in height, with a simple square shape. Small rectangular windows run in a band all around the white building, providing natural illumination. The altar, font, ambo and seating are movable, creating a completely flexible worship space.

In 1981, Richard Meier's magnificent Hartford Seminary was built on Sherman Street. Its luminescence, clean simple lines and bold white surfaces are intended to be emblematic of the institution's commitment to diversity and ecumenical dialogue.

At The Turn Of The Century

More recent sacred buildings reflect the community's demographic and religious changes. In 1998, the First Cathedral was constructed in Bloomfield under the guidance of Bishop LeRoy Bailey Jr. Designed in the shape of a dove, it seeks to emphasize the immanence of God in everyday life by integrating the secular with the religious in one building, and includes a wellness center and commercial kitchen operation. With a 56,000-square-foot sanctuary and seating for 4,500, the cathedral is used sometimes controversially by several towns in the area for graduation exercises and other public events.

The mosque of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford was built in 2007 along the Berlin Turnpike. Under the watchful eye of physicist Ali Antar, the prayer mihrab was precisely positioned to face Mecca, and the chimney of the adjacent Victorian home was converted to a minaret. (Out of respect for their neighbors, the muezzin do not publicly issue the call to prayer.) There are no stained glass windows or human (or divine) images. Under the dome, there is a comfortable prayer hall with a mezzanine for female worshipers, advanced amplification and ablution facilities.

Great sacred places embody much of what is best and most enduring in the human spirit. They comfort, intrigue and inspire. The Hartford area is blessed with their abundance.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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