First Unitarian Society in Newton

About Us / History and Building / Building History

How FUSN Got Its Neo-Gothic Physical Home


FUSN's Early Home

With the construction of the Boston and Worcester Railroad in the 1830s, West Newton had a direct link to downtown Boston. This precipitated rapid development in the area and the population grew. Nearby West Newton Hill and the surrounding area saw the construction of new homes, many owned by wealthy business people working in Boston, who now had a means to commute.

Among these new citizens were some “vigorous liberals” (including educator Horace Mann and abolitionist  Nathaniel Allen) who organized the First Unitarian Society in November 1848. Unitarian services had been held sporadically in the Davis Tavern (the building still stands not far from the present church in West Newton Square) since 1844 and then regularly in the Village Hall since 1847. During the next 12 years several ministers served briefly. The parish must not have been very attractive to ambitious ministers, for it had neither church building nor parsonage. Finally, in 1860, a small house of worship was erected on Washington Street (on the site now occupied by the West Newton Cinema). Historian Lawrence Shaw Mayo described this structure as “an unpretentious affair without spire or tower—a small, severe-looking chapel, with the light from the yellow glass windows casting a distinctly odd hue on the congregation.”

The parish thrived and the congregation soon outgrew its meetinghouse. In 1868, the building was enlarged to hold more pews and in 1879, a church parlor and a modest tower were added.

In 1885, the young Julian Clifford Jaynes arrived and served at FUSN in his only ministry for 37 years (until 1922). Jaynes’s preaching drew so many new members that the church needed to be enlarged again in 1887, and by the turn of the century it was necessary to erect a new building.

The grounds of the Allen School, formerly Horace Mann’s Normal School on the corner of Washington and Highland streets, were acquired, the buildings were removed, and the cornerstone of the new building was laid on September 17, 1905.

Julian Jaynes had a tremendous influence on the building that houses this congregation. Very much taken with the ecclesiastical architecture he saw in England, Reverend Jaynes asserted,

“I regard flat walls, white glass, and starved simplicity as the last resort for a house of religion. On the contrary, I want to preserve the best features of Gothic art—to keep all traditions and symbols that do not positively outrage our fundamental beliefs…I want the poetic, the imaginative, the beautiful, the devotional elements of religion expressed unmistakably in form and composition…which one finds so painfully lacking in the village churches of New England.”

Indeed, Jaynes succeeded so well in differentiating his church from other Unitarian structures that virtually the first question visitors to the church ask is some variation of, “What denomination was this church when it was built?”

Ralph Adams Cram designed the building and Frederick Law Olmstead’s firm, designers of Boston’s Emerald Necklace and New York’s Central Park, laid out the grounds. Cram was one of the most prolific and influential architects in Boston in the early years of this century. He was the driving force behind a revival of Gothic motifs used both in religious structures and collegiate buildings. New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote: “Cram was a leader of that small, erudite group of medievalists who built in the Gothic and Romanesque styles from 1900 to 1930, all of whom were summarily assigned to oblivion by the modernists in their period of ascendancy. But it is hard to bury over 70 cathedrals and churches in thirty-five states, and collegiate buildings that set the character of more than a dozen universities.”

Many features of the building were gifts, as noted in this local account of the dedication of the building. “The carving of the twelve stone [angel] corbels which add so much to the interior was the gift of individuals and various societies connected with our church in memory of former members of the parish. The pulpits in the church and Sunday school room also the font were given by the Sunday school. The furnishings of the church and parish house were contributed by the women of the society. A memorial window already in place, was given in memory of one [Lucius G. Pratt] who was not only a generous giver, but an earnest worker in promoting the welfare of this society. Three other windows are already promised.” The Newton Graphic, Friday October 19, 1906. The angel corbels are the work of noted British architectural carver John Evans, one of the most prolific architectural sculptors of late 19th-century America who was also known as H.H. Richardson’s sculptor.

The Graphic went on to report, “The new building is constructed of Weymouth seam face granite with trimmings of Indiana limestone. It is built in the form of a quadrangle with the nave of the church forming one side. In the centre is a courtyard, to which there is a carriage entrance passing under the tower. On the north, south and west sides are the kitchens, banquet rooms, ladies’ parlor, Sunday school rooms, committee rooms and the pastor’s study. The interior finish of all these rooms is black cypress, with hard pine floors. In the ladies’ parlor the walls are covered with burlap… The pews are cushioned in imperial velour of a dark red shade, which is matched by the carpet in the aisles... All the furniture of the church is of the mission type, and was the gift of the ladies of the congregation. The church is lighted throughout with electricity, and the chandeliers are of wrought iron… The heating plant consists of two No. 3 Mercer boilers, and a gravity system of steam radiators has been installed.” 

The ‘50s and Beyond

Under the ministry of John Ogden Fisher (1950-1961) FUSN experienced a fresh wave of growth during the post-war baby boom era. In fact, the pressing need for Sunday School space in 1952 precipitated the filling in of the courtyard space between the sanctuary and the parish hall. As Fisher put it, “We had to get the [Sunday School] class out of the men’s room and there wasn’t any place to go.” This bowdlerization of Cram’s design sparked some controversy, but this plan was ultimately selected as the most economical and practical.

In 1954, the Graphic faithfully reported another FUSN building dedication. It was for the new structure in the former courtyard space designed by member architect A. Bela Sziklas. “The one-story building housed… the Cora E. Richards [children’s] Chapel, church school classrooms —including large nursery and kindergarten rooms—a new parish kitchen and special children’s washroom facilities.”

FUSN’s neo-Gothic style is a prominent feature of West Newton Square. The building, especially the tower, is considered a particularly distinguished example of Cram’s work. With its imposing style and elaborately decorated sanctuary—”English Perpendicular Gothic”—FUSN reflects the architectural fashion of its time. The building is listed in the National Historic Register. To this day, the massive building engenders ambivalent feelings in its members. Seen both as a classic archetype of sacred space as well as an architectural albatross with heavily Christian iconography, it is anything but a simple New England Unitarian edifice.

In an effort to render some of the religious elements more accessible, an Architectural Symbols committee was formed several years ago. A bronze flaming chalice symbol (which also serves as the society’s logo), designed by member Vernon Ellis, and hand-crafted by member Cushing Giesey, was placed on the south wall of the chancel. Labels to explain the stained glass windows (which were all given in memory of former members) were placed under each window after substantial research by FUSN historian Gayle Smalley.

The aging structure has required enormous expenditures of capital over the years to make up for those years when a vastly reduced congregation could afford nothing but emergency repairs. Members of Boards of Trustees in those days struggled to balance building repair and maintenance with the other needs of the congregation. Fortunately for the community, FUSN member Laurel Farnsworth took on the role of Buildings and Grounds chair and, with a small but dedicated committee and professional expertise, has guided the congregation through several major repair and maintenance projects with the income from a number of successful capital campaigns.

In addition to the changes listed above, major portions of the slate roof have been replaced; piece by piece, the entire HVAC system has been replaced and the gigantic oil tanks were removed from under the rear lawn. First the church offices, then the sanctuary, and then the Parish Hall and other rooms were air conditioned. The nearly 100-year-old floor in the Parish Hall was replaced. A handicapped-accessible bathroom was added, and new folding tables and chairs were purchased for use in the Parish Hall.

Over the last several decades, members of this congregation have taken their responsibility for saving and restoring this historic building seriously, giving generously to well-planned and professionally managed capital campaigns that occur roughly every ten years—the frequency recommended by preservationists for most houses of worship. FUSN has also been fortunate to have received some state grant assistance in the preservation efforts. Long-range plans for steady maintenance and repair of the building are in place and the congregation has reason to be proud of its responsible stewardship.

Much has been said and written about FUSN’s gothic revival building and the congregation’s level of comfort/discomfort with it. Fortunately, after a brief period of surprise, new members begin by adjusting and end by loving the building. A former FUSN ministerial intern, the Rev. Christopher Thomas Bell, now minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Rosa, Calif., in speaking of FUSN, gave a thoughtful account of his feeling regarding the building in a sermon he delivered to his congregation in April of 2006.

"…Earlier this year I was sitting up in the chancel at the Newton church in one of the two seats that we call ‘the thrones,’ and they look like thrones. You’ll have to visit there some day. I was looking up at the carved angels, the gothic architecture, the stained glass, the hand-carved wooden pulpit and lectern that has Luther and Channing on it. I was reflecting on the cost and the craft that went into that building. It really is grand. And I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude for the people who had given it to the current generation of the congregation—who had given it to me. There I was looking across at James Ford, [and we were] a couple of hippie Buddhists in our Protestant robes—and I found myself thinking about how different our Unitarian ancestors were from us. And I was wondering how they would feel if they could see what had become of their congregation. What would the other ministers who had once occupied those chairs, these thrones, have to say? I’m sure that what was going on wouldn’t please everybody from the old days, what with the gay rights, and the clapping, and the shorts in the summer time, and everything. But overall, I think if our ancestors had a chance to see what happened in the world around us, I’d like to think that they would be pleased. Maybe not even surprised by what we have become, by what their tradition has grown and transformed into." source: “The Empty Chair,” a sermon by Rev. Chris Bell, 4/9/06; posted on UUSR website at http://uusantarosa.org/sermon/2006-04-09-The-Empty-Chair.html

Major Changes, Post-1906:

Stained-glass windows, 1906 to 1959: The first three windows were made by Bertram Goodhue’s brother, Harry Goodhue, who operated a stained-glass business in nearby Cambridge. For the following six windows, the congregation turned to the London firm Heaton, Butler & Bayne. The final two were made by Connick Associates of Boston. Information about the maker, the subject, the donor, and, where known, the person memorialized, is posted beneath each window in the sanctuary.

Installation of organ, 1911: The 50-stop Hook & Hastings organ was installed into the two chambers that flank the chancel. Although the architects provided ample space, it is thought that they had not anticipated the organ’s Echo division, which is located at the eastern end of the balcony. During the 80s and 90s, the congregation recognized that the organ was in poor repair and a team of dedicated members, acting on advice and information from the Organ Historical Society, taught themselves organ repair and restoration. They used business trips to buy difficult-to-find organ parts in Europe, they held concerts to raise funds, they offered tours through the organ and got the congregation involved in removing all the pipes and washing them. Christian Haudenschild, John Weddig, and David Hawkins (who stayed on for many years) showed imagination, generosity, and dedication in keeping FUSN’s organ playing.

Installation of bells, 1916: The McShane Bell Foundry made the Westminster peal, consisting of eleven bells. The smallest bell, the “E” bell, weighs just 575 pounds, while the largest, the “D” first tenor bell weighs in at 3,050 pounds.

Remodeling of chancel 1925: Principal changes included removal of the gallery screen and relocation of the organ console; dropping of the rear wall oak paneling, except in the center recess; installation of a heavy pinnacled canopy under the chancel window. Floor levels of the chancel were changed; a Communion Table was installed, and the original lamps were relocated to each side of the new table.

Building addition, 1952: Faced with baby-boom growth and scant classroom space, the congregation sacrificed the courtyard to build an addition. The single-story addition and basement was designed so that it could not be seen from surrounding streets. (see text below)

Bell tower reconstructed, 1995: The tower above the bell chamber was restored (see text below). All the stonework at the base of the tower was taken down and rebuilt. The clock hands and faces were restored with the associated turning mechanism.

North end wall reconstructed, 1999-2000: All the protruding (buttress) stonework on the north face of the sanctuary including the corner around the east side entrance was removed, cleaned, and rebuilt with some small limestone pieces replaced as needed with the aid of a grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The Allen window was removed and rebuilt and its cast stone frame repaired after suffering serious water damage. The slate roof over the Highland St. (east side) entrance door was replaced.

Sanctuary restoration, 2006: The original pendant lighting was restored with new mica and a variety of compact fluorescent and incandescent lamps, additional spot lights were tucked in the arches and in the chancel area, a new sound system was installed, the hard pine floor was refinished, and the oak paneled double exterior door was replaced on the east end of the Narthex. The Lovett window over the chancel was taken out and rebuilt. The Narthex floor may not be original, as it doesn’t match the pine of the sanctuary.

Other renovations: Various exterior and interior spaces have been substantially renovated to accommodate modern usage. The new small rear porch at the back of the Parish Hall allows safe egress for the stage and the small room carved out of crawl space beneath. A new set of stairs from the office corridor eliminated one original rest room, which had been located off the room now used as the Administrator’s office.

The current restrooms on the first and second floor in the entry to the Parish Hall occupy the space of the original circular stair, which climbed from the basement to the original kitchen on the second floor.

What is now known as the Alliance Room was originally divided into nursery and classroom space, separated by folding French doors. Today the room is used as a parlor/meeting room.

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October 26, 2014 - 10:15am
Lay led service

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