New England is known for its long tradition of independence and self-governance, and an historic emblem of these traits are the New England Meeting Houses. The austere style and practical usage of these buildings remains a perfect reflection of the religion and temperament of the early Puritan settlers who built them. Towns generally financed the meeting houses through public funds, but they traditionally served both religious and civic purposes and this is consistent with the 2 defining characteristic of a New England Meeting House :
- Construction Support by tax-payer funds
- Combined religious worship and government business
I have a few favorite meeting houses in my corner of New England, selected primarily for their beauty and adherence to the traditional style, but a quick check of the internet can yield information on meeting houses throughout the northeast. One of the best resources is Paul Wainwright’s project studying and photographing New England’s Meeting House. His web site and beautifully illustrated book are great source of information about these majestic and uniquely New England structures.
As Wainwright describes, to gain the most light through the large and expensive multi-pained windows, the meeting houses were most often built with one of the long walls facing south,. The door on this side was called the “door of honor” and was usually used by the minister and special guests. The doors on each end provided separate entrances for men and women. Originally the pew boxes were arrayed facing a tall pulpit centered on the north wall and a separate window was placed lower on this wall to illuminate the text. A balcony was usually placed around East, South and West walls. Over the years many buildings were modified to place the pews facing along the long axis, either toward the east or west end, but the lower pulpit window is often still visible, recalling the original design. Meeting houses often built toward the later part of the 1700s and originally had little ornament, but spires and bells were often added in the early to mid 19th century.
Many of the meeting houses retain their external appearance, but New Englanders are practical folk and not reluctant to modify their buildings as required. Many meeting houses have been moved, rotated, expanded and internally modified. One common change was to remove the balcony and split the glorious hall into two floors, one for government and the upper floor for more lofty religious uses. Happily at least a few meeting houses retain at least a part of their original grandeur.
Here are just a few of my favorite meeting houses from around the Monadnock region. For more pictures check out my “Getting it Right in the Digital Camera” Blog article:
The Jaffrey Meeting House
Just a short distance north of the modern center of Jaffrey New Hampshire, on Route 124, is Jaffrey Center, a small village which retains the picturesque beauty of a quintessential New England town. Among the well preserved white houses and a brick church is the classic Jaffrey Meeting House. It was built in the traditional style in 1775. Legend reports that the building was raised on June 17, 1775, the day of the battle of Bunker Hill, and that the workers could hear the sounds of distant canon fire. The beautiful spire was added in 1822 and contained a bell cast at the Paul Revere Foundry. Happily the interior was never divided into two floors, but was modified to accommodate a small theater that every summer hosts the Amos Fortune Series of lectures.
The Jaffrey Meeting House is a photographic treasure offering interesting views from all directions and a recent trimming of trees has opened a dramatic vista to Mount Monadnock.
Hancock Meeting House
The second Meeting House in Hancock New Hampshire was constructed in 1820, a year after the first building was lost to fire. During its life it was moved across the street to its current location overlooking the town green, and split into two floors to provide physical separation between the church and town offices. Despite the modifications, the building retains a classic exterior, and the Revere bell in its steeple.
Bells produced by the Paul Revere’s North End foundry were a common addition to New England meeting houses. Revere bells were famous for their durability and purity of tone and some, such as in the Hancock Meeting House, continue to ring out the hours.
Listen to the Hancock Meeting House’s Paul Revere Bell
Photographically the view of the meeting house as been improved by the burying of the wires that had run in front of the facade.
Park Hill Meeting House
Park Hill is a small village in Westmoreland New Hampshire, lying along Route 63, a couple of miles north of the town center. Its classic houses are arrayed around one of the most beautiful meeting houses in the state. As was common for the time, the 1764 building was constructed without a steeple, and, since then, it has been move several times, expanded, remodeled in the Greek Revival style and, in 1824, the spire was added.
Because the post and beam construction of the ends of meeting houses was especially expensive, it was usual for the buildings to be expanded by cutting them and adding a segment in the middle. The seams from such an expansion can be seen on at least one side of the Park Hill Meeting House.
The building now sits on a small hill above the village as if placed on a pedestal for photographers to capture. Since almost all angles on the building require looking up, a little post-processing perspective adjustment is often helpful.
The Rindge Meeting House is a prominent part of the town center. It is actually the second Meeting House situated on the same site. Constructed in 1797 it replaced the first building that was built in 1764.
Washington Meeting House
The Town of Washington New Hampshire was incorporated in December 1776 and was named for General George Washington. It was the first town named after our future first President. The collection of classic white public buildings in the town center sit at an elevation of 1532 feet making it the highest town center in New Hampshire. The Washington Meeting House, which is now called the Town Hall was erected in 1787. Like many meeting houses its main chamber has been divided into two floors and the bottom is still used for town business. The bell tower was added in 1825.
The building remains a classic example of both the origins and the evolution of the New England Meeting House, but for me, its greatest photographic attraction is its setting among the other brilliant white buildings of the town center. Being high on a hill, the evening light is especially attractive, but the trick is to catch the scene when the police car and other vehicles are not visible.
The Lempster Meeting House
A new discover for me is the meeting-house in the town of Lempster New Hampshire. The small Sullivan County town of Lempster is probably most known for being the location of New Hampshire’s first wind farm. Since 2008 12 large turbines have been generating clean energy and scaring the birds from the top of Bean Mountain and are prominently seen from around the town. I won’t discuss the aesthetics of turbines on the ridge line, but I am happy that they are fairly easy to clone away to oblivion in Photoshop.
Less famous and certainly less controversial is the 1794 Lempster Meeting House. The building was originally placed near the Charlestown Turnpike but was move to its present location 1822. At that time the bell tower was added, and included a Revere Bell. In 1835 the balconies were removed and the interior split into two floors. Despite the changes, the exterior has remained largely unchanged and the townspeople are working to keep this historic building.
This is only a sampling of some of my favorite nearby historic colonial meeting houses. They are all worth a visit as are the meeting houses throughout New England. Sadly, many have been lost to neglect or “progress”, but the remaining few represent an important link to our New England traditions of independence, community and faith. They are highly worthy of careful preservation.
Check out more images in my New England Meeting House Album Blog