An Enduring Gathering Place
The First Church’s History
The design is by the pre-eminent American architect of the early nineteenth century—Charles Bulfinch. Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) was educated at Harvard University and traveled in Europe, where he was influenced by the classical architecture in Italy and the neoclassical buildings of Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Adam, and others in England. From the classical buildings he saw, Bulfinch evolved the distinctive Federal style, with its classical domes, columns, and precise ornament that dominated early 19th-century American architecture. In 1818 he succeeded Benjamin Henry Latrobe as architect of the U.S. Capitol, completing it in 1830.
The reason such a magnificent edifice is found in Lancaster is due to First Church’s pastor, Dr. Nathaniel Thayer, a graduate of Harvard University, and friend of Charles Bulfinch and many other prominent Bostonians at that time. The church is a living reminder of a period prior to separation of church and state when public funds built and supported the town church.
In 1816, prior to enactment of laws requiring separation of church and state, the church and minister were funded by the town. This building was not only the congregation’s gathering place but the Town’s as well. Bulfinch’s design was constructed by the master builder Thomas Hersey of Harvard, Massachusetts during the memorable year of 1816—the “year of no summer” when there was frost in July, ice on the lakes, and summer temperatures were too cold to grow the crops. From when the cornerstone was laid on July 9, 1816 until its dedication on January 1, 1817, the construction was completed in 157 days by Lancaster workmen with primarily Lancaster materials. The bricks were made in Lancaster in the kiln of the father of Luther Burbank—the famed horticulturist.
The church is widely recognized, in books and publications, as having national historic significance. Harold Kirker in his book The Architecture of Charles Bulfinch describes First Church as one of the last remaining Bulfinch churches and one of his finest. (pp. 94-103). Bryn Mawr’s Survey of American Architecture lists First Church as one of the sixteen key national monuments for the period 1785 to 1830. G.E. Kidder Smith in The Beacon Guide to New England Houses of Worship observes, “Presiding with patrician aplomb over the lovely Town Common, the Federal Style First Church also delights with some of the most elegant proportions in religious architecture” (p 82). Architect and author Robert Mutrux in Great New England Churches notes the architecture of First Church “is nothing short of perfection,” and he quotes William Pierson in calling First Church “an American Masterpiece” (p 60). With so many of Bulfinch’s other building having been compromised by alterations or demolition, First Church of Church, the Fifth Meetinghouse remains one of the most architecturally significant and intact examples of Bulfinch’s work.
Bulfinch’s First Church of Christ is one of the few remaining meetinghouses of the many that he designed, and is celebrated as one of the finest and most untouched of Bulfinch’s religious structures. Many churches have been substantially altered in comparison to First Church which remains essentially unchanged from the day of its dedication. In fact, only recently has any form of artificial lighting been introduced and central heating only served the 1881 rear wing. Indeed, through the nearly two hundred years since its construction, First Church has stood the test of time. The beauty and rigorous logic of its architectural design have withstood changing tastes with the original plan of the Sanctuary, its pews and fittings – even the early engrain carpeting – have survived. The locally-made brick and Lancaster-quarried slate have aged with grace. Even the heating of the sanctuary by way of two wood stoves which was introduced only a decade after the building was constructed continues to be used.
In 2002 the Church added a separate building known as the Community Hall providing a spacious gathering place for the church and community. Until recently there was no recorded deed of ownership. Two acres of land were given to the church to build the Fifth Meeting House, but no record of the transfer survives. To clarify who owned what so that the Church could proceed with building the community hall, a written agreement of property boundaries was signed by the town selectmen and the church Standing Committee members in 2002. The building has been continuously used by the church for congregational purposes and is still actively used as a Unitarian church.
The First Church of Christ and its Unitarian congregation are deeply rooted in the history of the Town of Lancaster serving as an anchor on the town green. The descendants of some of the original congregation still sit in the pews purchased by their ancestors in order to fund the construction of the building in 1816. It is bordered by Neoclassical-style civic buildings, forming an ensemble of great quality and presence. In 1970 the significance of the Church was formally declared when the church was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest form of historic recognition in the United States. The Church was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places at that time and is also a Massachusetts Historic Site.
In 2006 the First Church received a Preservation Planning Grant from the Getty Foundation. The Church engaged Menders, Torrey and Spencer, Inc., an architectural and planning firm specializing in the design and preservation of civic buildings, historic properties, religious structures and residences. MTS conducted a thorough conditions assessment survey of the building. The survey highlighted all the areas in the building that were in need of restoration/preservation and made recommendations. The survey and additional analysis formed the basis of the Historic Structures Report. This report is the roadmap that the First Church and The Bulfinch Fund are using to set goals for this very important preservation project – the restoration of Lancaster’s very own National Historic Landmark!