Old New England churches have a special resonance — as much as any other kind of building, they speak to the region’s rough-hewn past and original religious purpose.
A new exhibition at BSA Space, which opened Nov. 9, looks at those churches as a part of the New England landscape. It’s called “White on White: Churches of Rural New England,” and it brings together 40 photographs taken over the past 50 years by noted architectural photographer Steve Rosenthal. The curator of the exhibition, Lorna Condon of Historic New England, hopes that the images will make it easier to imagine the people who built these churches, at a time when many of the buildings are becoming relics.
“You’re talking about the power of religion in New England,” she says. “These buildings weren’t created in a vacuum by their builders or housewrights. They’re a reflection of communities that wanted them.”
Rosenthal started photographing churches in the 1960s, on long drives around New England with his wife. He shot on 4x5” film and would sometimes wait hours for the light to come around.
“It’s a slow and meditative process that makes you think about how you’re composing the picture,” he says. “Every time you click the shutter, it’s a few bucks.”
He chose to photograph the churches in black and white, to emphasize their architecture, rather than the blue sky or fall foliage that might be surrounding them. In particular, he was drawn to the details of craftsmanship. These rural churches were simple structures, usually built by local craftsman with no formal training in architecture. The images show hand-wrought nails, original brass finishes, layers of paint applied over the years.
“These are all rural churches, not ornate Anglican churches,” he says. “They are mostly Congregational. [I like] their classic simplicity, their rightness of proportion.”
The churches featured in “White on White” were built between the 18th century and early 20th century. At the beginning of that period, churches were built in the very practical meetinghouse style, like the Rocky Hill Meeting House, built in 1785 in Amesbury. In Rocky Hill, like other meetinghouses, the entrance is on the long, south side of the building, with the pulpit opposite and a gallery on three sides. This design emphasized the importance of the preacher’s words. “The pulpit was really as centrally located as it could be for being able to preach the word of God from the Bible,” Rosenthal says.
That changed in 1797, which was the year that American architect Asher Benjamin released “The Country Builder’s Assistant.” It was a pattern book that showed amateur builders how to incorporate elements of sophisticated architectural styles — Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Federal style — into their buildings. After Benjamin’s book, most churches were built in the basilica style, where parishioners enter on the short side to a long aisle that leads to the pulpit. This is the style that was used for the Old First Church, built in 1805 in Old Bennington, Vt. Rosenthal considers that to be the most beautiful of all the churches he’s photographed. Unlike the Rocky Hill Meeting House, which is composed largely of straight lines, the Old First Church swoops and arches.
“The columns were made from trees that were reserved for the King’s Navy,” he says. “They were too long for a lathe, so the columns themselves were hand-carved. It took one person a year.”
Many older New England churches have fallen into disuse. As they recede into the landscape or, even worse are covered over in vinyl siding, it’s easy to view the churches as all the same — bygone structures whose time has passed in more ways than one. Yet even if they’ve all arrived at something of the same place, “White on White” is a reminder of the particular places they started out.
“White on White: Churches of Rural New England” runs at BSA Space, 290 Congress St., through Jan. 31, 2016.Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.