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design new england

Maine’s gothic grace

Modesty meets exquisite detail in a transcendent 1883 church in coastal Maine.

Editor’s note: This article is from the July/August 2014 issue of Design New England. Read the full edition. For regular updates from editors and contributors visit Design New England’s blog.

 Young english architect Henry Vaughan mounted a scaffold to paint the interior of his first church. The ceiling has a repeating pattern of five-petal Tudor roses. The wallpaper of William Morris inspired the two-dimensional floral painting on the altar wall.

SCOTT DORRANCE

Young English architect Henry Vaughan mounted a scaffold to paint the interior of his first church. The ceiling has a repeating pattern of five-petal Tudor roses. The wallpaper of William Morris inspired the two-dimensional floral painting on the altar wall.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church challenges the stereotypical idea of the New England house of worship. Hidden on a side street in the coastal Maine village of Newcastle, this is no starkly white Protestant temple with a town-dominating steeple. Overlooking the Damariscotta River, St. Andrew’s appears to be a medieval parish church transported beam by beam from some rural backwater in England. And therein lies an unusual tale of a little-known ecclesiastical gem.

The 63-foot-long wooden church was not imported from England, but its architect was. Henry Vaughan came to Boston in 1881 to design a convent chapel on Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square for an order of English nuns. As coincidence would have it, he sailed on a packet ship owned by Newcastle native William Glidden, a successful merchant and financier.

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We don’t know whether the young architect and Glidden met shipboard, but within two years, Vaughan had built both St. Andrew’s and a substantial Georgian revival home, also in Newcastle, for Glidden. The architect stayed with the Gliddens while overseeing both projects, including the summer of 1883, when he was detailing the interior of the church.

Despite telling a prospective client that he could design in “Elizabethan, Palladian, Italian, Renaissance, Medieval, Baronial, Romanesque, or Colonial styles,” Vaughan’s forte was English Gothic. Like many 19th-century architects, he believed certain styles were appropriate only to certain uses, and, as a devout Anglo-Catholic, he believed that churches ought to be Gothic. A city church, such as his Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut, could be a substantial stone edifice, but a small country church should be more modest. Instead of a battlemented tower, St. Andrew’s has a stubby spire that is no fancier than a Maine barn cupola.

In the December 1883 issue of the diocesan newspaper North East, Vaughan gave this description: “The style of architecture for the Newcastle church is Gothic, of the fifteenth century, constructed in what is called ‘Half-timber work,’ a mode of building that was prevalent during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.” In half-timbering, framing members are left exposed and the interstices filled with bricks or stucco. While the style became popular for countless suburban Tudor houses of the early 20th century, St. Andrew’s is among the earliest examples of a half-timbered church. (Vaughan built versions of St. Andrew’s in the Massachusetts communities of Swampscott, Beverly Farms, and Methuen.)

This self-deprecating architect referred to St. Andrew’s as “quiet and simple,” and it is certainly not a building that shouts for attention. Timbers, painted a soft green, frame tan pebbledash walls, so the church’s presence almost fades into the sloping riverside. When revealed, this surprising treasure brings to mind English poet Rupert Brooke’s immortal line: “That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.”

The interior of St. Andrew’s is even more unexpected. An example of the Arts and Crafts movement, it is a re-creation of what William Morris and his followers believed a Gothic church of 1500 would have looked like. In fact, Vaughan’s decoration is probably warmer and more romantic than would have been found in those earlier churches.

Recently, Leland Jackson, a retired University of Rhode Island professor, and his wife, Diana Norton-Jackson, a church musician, serendipitously discovered St. Andrew’s. “We were stunned by the richness of the architecture and decor when we entered this intimate space,” says Jackson. “Our eyes were immediately drawn to the ceiling by the beautiful stenciling and the rich colors.” The exposed beams reminded him “of a ship’s hull turned upside down.”

In England, Vaughan had worked for the leading late-19th-century Gothic revival architect, George Bodley, who had collaborated with Morris designing wallpaper. He believed in Morris’s assertion that ideally Arts and Crafts artists should create everything that went into a church: paneling, wall treatments, all the carvings, and even the garments of the clergy and the Communion service vessels. When the vestry of St. Andrew’s balked at the cost of more and more decorative flourishes, Vaughan himself painted the floral patterns and religious monograms that cover much of the church’s walls and ceilings.

The transformation of this simple barn-like structure by painted patterns culminates in a gilded reredos behind the altar made in a now-unknown London studio. Modeled on a 14th-century Florentine triptych, the three panels feature a Madonna and child with flanking angels inspired by similar scenes by Renaissance painters Pietro Perugino and Andrea del Verrocchio.

Music was essential to the Arts and Crafts idea of the “total work of art,” and an exquisitely carved — in 15th-century flamboyant Gothic style — case holds a superb tracker-action Hutchings organ. “It is always fun to play an original instrument in the space for which it was designed,” says Norton-Jackson, who is also a concert organist, “as the building is actually an integral part of the organ. The Hutchings has some lovely stops for solo and quiet pieces and also enough breadth to support hymn singing.”

Over the next three decades, Henry Vaughan designed numerous churches throughout New England, the chapels for St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, and the initial designs for Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. But his first church in Maine has a completeness and grace that make it among his most satisfying works. As the current rector, the Rev. Lu-Anne Conner, says of St. Andrew’s: “People tend to fall in love with the interior when they first see it. Longtime members and relative newcomers have both remarked that the beauty of the interior has a spiritual dimension to it, an intangible quality that gives shape to the spiritual expression.”

A PROLIFIC LEGACY

Henry Vaughan (1845–1917) brought a scholarly English Gothic style to New England. After the visual excesses of Victorian architecture, not to mention the powerful Romanesque of Henry Hobson Richardson, Vaughan’s parish churches, such as St. Andrew’s or the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, contrasted to the steepled meetinghouses of Puritan New England. His school chapels and city churches — not to mention the first designs for the national cathedral — created a strong identity for the Episcopal Church. Vaughan also built country houses, libraries, and even the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His eccentric and plutocratic patron Edward Searles commissioned the versatile Vaughan to build almost every public building in Methuen, Massachusetts, including three churches, the railroad station, an organ hall, a castle, and Searles’s mausoleum.

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