Bulfinch Bits

  • Charles Bulfinch, considered to be America’s first professional architect, designed The Fifth Meeting House in Lancaster.
  • Captain John Hersey, formerly of Boston, was the Master Builder.
  • Construction began in July 1816, the building was complete in 157 days!
  • A remarkable feat as this was the year without a summer – snow on July 4th, ice covering the lakes & ponds
  • A major issue in the building was where to put the entrance – facing south or to the west.
  • To the south would have allowed the wealthiest gentleman, a Capt. Cleveland could approach the entrance directly
  • A Lancaster eccentric, Mr. Willard also known as Old Beeswax offered a solution. Why not put the church on a circular “lazy Susan” with a lever and as you approached the church you simply pulled the level and the church toward your direction.
  • Another hot bed issue was that our entrance opened on a wide central aisle that faced a high pulpit – some felt this was far too similar to Anglican and Catholic churches, the residents’ Puritanical genes were most definitely unsettled. So much in one case that a Capt. Ward said he would never enter the church again and he didn’t!
  • Reverend Nathaniel Thayer was the pastor at the time and his name is duly noted on the silver plate that was laid under the cornerstone of the building.
  • The church’s bell which is still rung by hand today was cast by none other than the Revere’s in Boston (yes as in Paul Revere) and was placed in the tower in September, 1816. It cracked and was recast, again by the Reveres in 1822.
  • The bricks were made in Lancaster by the Burbanks. Luther Burbank an American botanist, horticulturist and a pioneer in agricultural science developed the Shasta daisy, Concord grape, freestone peach and much more.
  • The slates on the roof come from the Flagg Quarry in Lancaster (in what is now Fort Devens), the first slate quarry in the nation which supplied many fine homes and state buildings such as the State House
  • The building was paid for by auctioning of the pews. We still have families 3 and 4 generations later sitting in the pews their ancestors bought almost 200 years ago
  • It was voted by the townspeople (church & state were one & the same back then) that the pews to the right of the pulpit would be reserved for the minister’s family. Descendants of Rev. Nathaniel Thayer still sit there today.
  • The original cost of the building was $20,429; the land $633; the clock $416; the brick $1,366; Master Builder $500 – we don’t know what Charles Bulfinch was paid as its architect.
  • The church was officially opened in January 1817.
  • In May 1827 a furnace was added to provide heat, it is still under the porch. It didn’t work well and was replaced by the Franklin wood stoves.
  • Church and State were separated in 1836 and the Town to comply gives up all rights to building and land to the First Church.

Architectural Notes

  • Due to the quality of the Burbank bricks, the church’s brick was not painted which was the norm at that time.
  • In 1869 for some reason the exterior of the church was painted brown, including the trim – it became known as the Drab Church. In 1900 John E. Thayer told the church he would renovate the interior of the church if and only if they would bring the exterior back to its original unpainted state – and they did.
  • Also in 1869 the congregation wanted to install a second floor in the sanctuary, Reverend Bartol threatened to resign so they the congregation thankfully gave up this idea.
  • Chapel was added in 1881. This addition necessitated the addition of the two doors between the sanctuary and chapel and replacing the window in the pulpit with a door for the minster’s entrance.
  • 1970 the Massachusetts Historical Commission gave the Bulfinch Church “Landmark” status.
  • In 1971 the Fifth Meeting House was named a National Historic Landmark
  • As a historic landmark it is protected by preservation restrictions to ensure its nearly pristine state remains.
  • Cupola is encircled by 12 Ionic fluted pillars and is 120 ft. from the ground.
  • The pulpit rests on eight Ionic fluted columns and 4 pilasters.
  • Pulpit originally had draperies of rich green satin which were based upon a Parisian design.
  • Bulfinch’s design broker with several New England traditions:
  • Not a tapered spire but a tower and cupola.
  • Portico is not constructed with columns but with arches
  • The Accent is on mass vs. surface so things are simple, elegant but grand which reflects Bulfinch’s leadership in the burgeoning neoclassical movement.

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