Congregational Church Cornerstone

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Litchfield’s Congregational Church has been called “the most photographed church in New England.” It’s Greek Revival design and the simplicity of its black shutters and white paint seemingly epitomize colonial architecture. Its style is a perfect match to its setting.

Except that this is both Litchfield’s third and fifth Congregational Church, a story partly illuminated by this cornerstone.

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The first Congregational Church was erected between 1723 and 1726 in the intersection of the town’s major north/south and east/west roads, where today we would find the green. A largely square structure, it was sold in 1761 and the larger second Congregational Church was erected the following year.  By 1828, the church building had deteriorated so badly that one anonymous writer to the Litchfield County Post commented, “the shabby building pains the eye of every stranger.” The structure’s dilapidated condition – coupled with their era’s surge in desire to separate church and state, as manifested in Connecticut’s 1818 constitution – led to a decision to build a new Congregational Church off the green.

It is the construction of this church that is commemorated by the “1829” on the cornerstone. For its popularity and the rave architectural reviews the structure draws today, its design fell out of favor in the post-Civil War era. Of the building, Henry Ward Beecher, who had grown up in Litchfield, remarked “There is not a single line or feature in the old building suggesting taste or beauty.” With the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture, the third church was moved down the Torrington Road in 1873 and replaced by a wooden structure with dark stained glass windows and dark paneling and furniture, representative of the Victorian era.

The third church served as a gym, a roller skating rink, concert and dance hall, and movie theater, until the Colonial Revival swept the nation in the 1920s. At that time, Edgar Van Winkle, chairman of the Congregational Church’s building committee, termed the fourth church a “monstrosity” and, in 1929, hired noted architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr., to develop plans to move the third church back to a site opposite the green and restore it to its Greek Revival splendor (if not to its exact appearance, as several details were changed). This restoration is commemorated by the “1929” on the cornerstone.

The Congregational Church is an iconic symbol of Litchfield, but its foundation highlights the fact that this was not always the case.

For more on the architectural history of Litchfield’s Congregational Church, see Rachel Carley’s excellent book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town (2011).

 

 

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Photos from Litchfield’s Court House

The Litchfield Court House ceased operations in August 2017 after operating in town since the 1750s and in the same building since it was constructed after the fire of 1886. The Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust, which recently purchased the building, held an open house for a glimpse inside the historic structure.

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View of the town green from the second floor

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A fireplace in one of the offices.

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Entrance to the large law library on the second floor.

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Entrance to one of the judge’s chambers

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Witness stand in one of the courtrooms

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Second floor courtroom

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Seth Thomas clock in one of the courtrooms

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A holding cell in the basement

 

Hidden Nearby: North Goshen Methodist Episcopal Church Marker

 

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The Methodist Episcopal Church was an outgrowth of the Great Awakening, a colonial American religious movement within the Church of England that emphasized being born again and attaining Christian perfection. Additionally, the Methodist Episcopal ministers and congregants tended to be both anti-elitist and anti-slavery.

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John Wesley

John Wesley, who along with George Whitefield founded Methodism, ordained the first American Methodist Episcopal ministers in 1784. Methodists in most Litchfield County towns continued to attend Congregational services until they could build a church of their own. This was the case in the community of North Goshen; however, when – in 1840 –  the Methodists in that area expressed a desire to build their own church, the Congregationalists contributed to their cause.

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That church stood at what is now the intersection of East Street North and North Goshen Road. As towns were often created when a significant number of people no longer wanted to travel far for religious services (Morris was carved out of Litchfield and Washington out of New Milford, Litchfield and Woodbury for this reason), the presence of this church suggests that while this area is now quite remote, it was once a vibrant community. In fact, the “History of the Town of Goshen” states that the church “flourished and at the congregation at times filled the church to overflowing.”

That 1897 history, however, also states that in later years the church’s numbers and finances were “greatly reduced,” leading the congregation to accept attendees from other churches and to be “very liberal to all sects, and Adventists, Unitarians, Baptists, and Congregationalists have preached to us but we like the ‘good Old Methodists’ the best.” The North Goshen Church closed 1920, less than two decades before the 1939 merger between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Protestant Church, which formed the United Methodist Church.

 

 

 

Hidden Nearby: An Autumn Walk to Steep Rock’s Quartz Mine

As with many of our other protected lands (Lover’s Leap State Park, Burr Pond State Park, the White Memorial Foundation), the Hidden Valley Preserve of Washington’s Steep Rock Association was once the site of industrial operations. The Hidden Valley, quiet today except for the sound of the rushing Shepaug River, once echoed with the sounds of quartz mining and locomotives. The glories of a New England Fall presents the perfect time to visit this piece of Litchfield County’s industrial heritage.

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A short walk along the northwestern bank of the river brings the hiker to the spectacular Thoreau Bridge, erected in 2015.

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Quotes from Thoreau are emblazoned on the bridge.

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On the eastern bank of the Shepaug River is this monument and bridged dedicated in honor of Washington native and West Point graduate Stephen Reich, killed in Afghanistan in 2005. 

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The trail passes old footpaths, cart paths, and the bed of the railroad used to haul the quartz out of the area, often to the Hudson River.

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Stone retaining walls in the woods mark the old road beds used to get wagons and carts to the mine.

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Fragments of quartz line the trail approaching the mine.

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The quartz itself, a surface mine in operation from the 1800s to 1905.

 

Quartz, the most common mineral on the earth’s surface, was an important industrial product in American history. Initially quartz was used for knives, scrapers, and arrowheads. With the coming of the industrial revolution, the uses of quartz changed. It was pulverized and used as a filler in paints. (The Bridgeport Wood Finishing Company, a major paint-making operation, was located just a few miles away along the Housatonic in New Milford.) Another use of quartz was as an abrasive, like sandpaper. The primary use of quartz, however, was for glass, which is essentially melted quartz.

 

The hiker needs no excuse to travel to the beautiful woods of the Hidden Valley, but keeping one’s eyes open reveals a rich part of the county’s history.

 

 

 

Wild Garden Monument

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What might appear to be Litchfield’s newest monument is simply an older one, once again back in sight.

In 1922, the White Memorial Foundation leased 150 acres east of Little Pond to the Litchfield Garden Club for the “creation and maintenance of a wild garden containing trees, shrubs and flowers native to Connecticut and to Litchfield County.”  (The Garden Club paid $1.00 to lease the land for ten years.) Trails were opened allowing visitors to access the gardens and Little Pond, and the Sutton Bridge was built to cross the Bantam River.

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A 1932 map showing the Litchfield Wild Garden. The Sutton Bridge appears at the bottom. “Map of the Litchfield Wild Garden” Litchfield Historical Society, Helga J. Ingraham Memorial Library. Thanks to Linda Hocking at the Litchfield Historical Society for providing the digital image.

One trail began at the intersection of Old South Road and Gallows Lane, and there the Garden Club placed a monument to greet visitors. It read:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,                                                                                                     The song of the birds for mirth,                                                                                                           One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden                                                                                       Than anywhere else on earth.

The lines are from the poem “God’s Garden” by English poet Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858-1932), and are commonly found on plaques in gardens.

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In 1975, the Wild Gardens reverted back to White Memorial, and the small plot of trees at the intersection of Old South and Gallows soon engulfed the monument. Recently, however, it has been been brought back into view, and while several words are missing from the poem, it remains a tribute to the splendor of the natural world that surrounds Litchfield.

The Residence of Charles D. Wheeler

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Charles D. Wheeler (1817-1895) was a Litchfield farmer who built this home on what is now Hutchinson Parkway (named for Isaac Hutchinson, Wheeler’s son-in-law) around 1840. With its gables emulating pediments and its pilasters, it is representative of the Greek Revival style of architecture. The home still stands, and its barns are cataloged in Historic Barns of Connecticut.

This illustration appeared J.W. Lewis’s 1881 History of Litchfield County, Connecticut. Those with a careful eye might notice the hitching posts and carriage steps along the white picket fence. Such vestiges of a bygone era of transportation still dot Litchfield’s landscape, including these on North Street:

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Hidden Nearby: The U.S.S. Pittsburgh Bell in New Milford

The monument in Honor of Admiral Henry Shepard Knapp on the New Milford green.

A granite shaft with a bell adorning it stands at the center of the New Milford green. It honors an American naval officer with deep family ties to the town.

Henry Shepard Knapp was born in New Britain in 1856, and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1878. He served in the navy for the next 42 years. Gaining combat experience in the Spanish-American War, in 1908 he was given command of his own ship, the cruiser U.S.S. Charleston. In 1915, Knapp was named to command the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and in 1916 he proclaimed the American occupation of the Dominican Republic, of which he would be named the military governor in 1917. He was promoted to rear admiral a week before World War I broke out.

During the war, Knapp was commanded American efforts to protect shipping from German U-Boats and was awarded the Navy Cross for this “meritorious service.” After the armistice Knapp served as naval attache in London, then commander of all American naval forces in European waters. During this time the U.S.S. Pittsburgh served as his flagship. He retired in 1920 but was so highly esteemed that he was kept on as a consultant and unofficial diplomat in handling crises in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and taught summer courses at the United States Naval Institute until his death in Hartford in 1923.

The bell of the U.S.S. Pittsburgh. It is interesting to note from the inscription that the bell had been used on a ship before, the Steamer Pensacola, which was commissioned in 1859 and decommissioned at Mare Island Navy Yard in California (visible on the bell) in 1911, a year before the Pittsburgh was commissioned. 

In 1951, New Milford’s Ezra Woods Post 31 of the American Legion erected the monument to Knapp on the town green. (Woods was New Milford’s first resident killed in World War I.) Knapp had owned property in town – including a commercial building on Bank Street – and spent summers in  New Milford at the family’s ancestral home.

In 1956, the Knapp house was donated to the New Milford Historical Society by Mary Clissold Knapp in 1956. This was the house of cobbler Levi Knapp who purchased it from Royal Davis in 1838. Parts of the house date to 1770, while much was of it was built in 1815. The house stands at the northern end of the green on the historical’s society’s property.

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Knapp’s flagship, the U.S.S. Pittsburgh. Not that the caption states the name as the Pennsylvania. The ship’s name was changed in 1912 so that Pennsylvania could be used for a new battleship.

Knapp’s flagship, the Pittsburgh – on which the bell once rang – was a 504 foot long cruiser, armed with 54 guns and when fully manned had a crew of nearly 900 men.  The New Milford monument is not the only memorial to Knapp’s service to the U.S. Navy. In 1943, the WWII destroyer USS Knapp was named for him