The type of building commonly associated with a place reveals something important about that place: not just its history, but also its identity and ethos. Think of the South and Tara-style plantation houses, Pittsburgh and steel mills, New York and skyscrapers. It hardly matters if those buildings still stand or function, as the plantations and mills don’t. Myth carries a weight of meaning far beyond that of utility.
For New England, the association would surely be with white clapboard churches. It seems funny not to add “classic” to the description, it’s such a regional archetype. They are houses of belief that have come to seem almost like civic monuments — making them a different kind of house of belief. These churches are at once throwbacks to a distant past (no religion, no settlement of New England) and structures very much in present-day use. Utility isn’t an issue.
The interplay of past and present very much informs “White on White: Churches of Rural New England, Photographs by Steve Rosenthal.” Rosenthal makes a point of noting not just when a church was built but also when it was renovated. That concern with these structures as buildings that people still use rather than as architectural museum pieces makes the Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space a very suitable venue for the show, which runs through Jan. 31.
The BSA’s location, across Congress Street from the Federal Reserve building, adds another element. God, meet mammon. Mammon, meet God.
“Collectively,” Rosenthal writes of these churches, “they are as important to the cultural and architectural history of these villages as are the great cathedrals to the cities of Europe. Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, one cannot help but be moved by their presence. They are a part of all of us.”
Rosenthal used 4x5 film, which gives the very handsome photographs in the show — there are 40 — an almost luscious richness of detailing. They’re in black and white, which befits their visually austere subjects.
The archetypal New England church is Protestant. Not to get too Counter-Reformation about this, but a distinctly Protestant aesthetic informs these structures. Call it gorgeous severity.
The Puritans had that name for a reason. Salvation aside, they prized nothing so much as purity, and that sensibility can be seen with subsequent denominations. Ornament and decoration appear, yes, but they’re invariably simple, subtle, or both. Form rather than color dominates. The upthrust of a steeple (only a few of Rosenthal’s churches lack one) renders color subsidiary, if not irrelevant. In one photograph, rectangular black shutters combine with white façade to create a look of quasi-Minimalist abstraction.
There are churches from all six states (Rhode Island and Connecticut slip in with just one each), and Rosenthal presents them quite variously: interiors, exteriors, details (doors, windows, pews — or, in the case of Rocky Hill Meetinghouse, in Amesbury, pew doors).
A columnar shadow covers a door of the First Parish Meeting House, Unitarian Universalist, in Groton. It’s a playful touch, a sign of how imaginatively Rosenthal can approach his subject. The Stannard-Greensboro Bend Church, in Vermont, could be one of the High Plains houses of worship that Wright Morris or Robert Adams photographed. The First Congregational Church, in Newfane, Vt., peeks out from behind the Windham County Courthouse.
Rosenthal shows two New Hampshire churches from afar, reminding us that even as these structures dominate their surroundings they remain part of a larger social fabric and landscape. He also shows these buildings in time as well as space. A soffit board of the First Parish Church, Hamilton, looks pristine beneath its white paint. Look closer, you find a fair amount of banged-up wood. Rosenthal has done a lot of looking closer.
WHITE ON WHITE: Churches of Rural New England, Photographs by Steve Rosenthal
At BSA Space, 290 Congress St., through Jan. 31. 617-391-4000, www.architects.org/bsaspaceMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.