Past Times: Stories from the Sheldon's Past

Church Steeple Boasts 200 Years of History

By Jan Albers

This article appeared in the Addison Independent in May 2009 and is published here with permission.

Congregational Church steeple

In this 1978 photo, a man works on restoring the Middlebury Congregational Church steeple

One of the great privileges of driving through downtown Middlebury is the chance for a quick glimpse of the perfect wedding cake steeple of the Congregational Church. In addition to its beauty, it provides a lot of opportunities for idle musing. How did some man in rural Vermont manage to design something so stunning? How did this little village afford to build it? Is that clock on a battery now? Is there any original glass in those high oval windows? What would happen to that beautiful structure if a strong wind blew through here?

If you were a young man of the town (or a young women, in our day), your first thought might be, “How can I get up there?” Unfortunately, the powers that be are unlikely to allow you to go all the way up. But you come from a long line of young people with the same idea, many of whom lived in simpler times, when church doors were left open. Right now, in the Sheldon Museum, one of the steeple’s original oval windows hangs on display. Its fragile wood is covered with a hundred years of signatures of boys who climbed two flights of stairs–and then more ladders–to gain the top steeple platform. After a look around, it was customary to pull a pencil out of a coat pocket and write your name and the date. The autographs run from 1815 to 1915 and include many well-known locals, like Silas Wright, C.D. Bingham, J.L. Buttolph and W.H. Sheldon.

The steeple has been beckoning passersby for exactly 200 years this month. On May 31, 1809, a frontier congregation in a Vermont village came together to consecrate their amazing new church. It was the crowning glory of a civic church building project that had taken four years and the then-phenomenal sum of $9000. If Gamaliel Painter hadn’t been so good at twisting arms to get people to ante up the money and barter to buy pews, it might never have been finished. He also picked the site and hired the architect who had recently done such an impressive job of designing the new meeting house in Bennington, Lavius Fillmore. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between two visionaries, the town maker and the church builder.

The building that resulted was unexpectedly sophisticated. Middlebury College art historian, Glenn Andres, has traced the steeple’s architectural antecedents back to the English architect, James Gibbs, whose most famous church is St. Martin-in-the-Fields (built 1721-6) on London’s Trafalgar Square. Gibbs drafted three designs for the tower of that church and published them in a book that was circulated among builders in America. Joseph Brown chose one of the Gibbs designs and had it built in wood for the First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island (1774-5).

Lavius Fillmore took the Providence steeple for his model when he designed the church in Middlebury. He was not only impressed with its beauty, but also with its unique structure. Andres describes how each stage of the tower was fitted a full story into the one below it, so that it could withstand the heartiest gale. Fillmore understood what he was doing, for when a severe hurricane struck Addison County in 1950 this was the only large steeple in the region to escape damage.

We think of the large black clock faces on the steeple as inherent to the design, but they were a later addition. By 1852, the discipline of working to the clock was becoming more important, and the Town of Middlebury decided its citizens needed a public timepiece to consult. They installed the clock on the most prominent spot in town, the Congregational Church steeple. It is still maintained by the Town and has never been mechanized. All year round, winter and summer, Town Planner Fred Dunnington makes his way up to the clock level once a week and winds the mechanism. If you ever notice that the clock is not accurate, talk to Fred.

The steeple has had a number of major repairs over the years. The oval window that is currently on display at the Sheldon Museum still contains traces of old bluish green glass. There has been speculation that this glass came from the famous Vermont Glass Factory at Lake Dunmore, but that operation didn’t start up until 1813, four years after the steeple was built. The steeple may not have been glazed before that, or may have been reglazed subsequently, but a connection cannot be proven.

A major restoration of the steeple took place in 1949, undertaken by a company from New Hampshire. A short letter from one of the workmen, Ralph Welch, later described the work. He and another man would come from New Hampshire each Monday and stay for the week. They took down the old steeple roof, replaced it with lead coated copper, painted the weather vane and cut new numbers for the clock freehand out of the same copper. They used only original methods—no machinery. He wrote that, “All materials were either hand carried up the ladder or pulled up with ropes.” They scurried around up there, risking life and limb, for $1.50-$2.00 an hour. Much of the exterior woodwork and the clock faces had deteriorated to the point of having to be replaced in another restoration in 1988.

The Sheldon Museum is currently featuring an exhibit, “Middlebury Meeting House: 200 Years of the Congregational Church,” curated by Nancy Rucker and Barbara Wells. It includes many early photographs of the building, the autographed window, the hand cut clock numerals of 1949, a poster announcing the “Funeral of Presid’t Lincoln,” April 19, 1865, to be held at the Congregational Church at the same time as his official state funeral, and many other items of interest. All will be on display until June 27.

The Congregational Church will be celebrating its Bicentennial with a special program featuring Glenn Andres and Barbara Rucker discussing the architecture and building of the Church on Saturday, May 30 at 7:30pm, followed by a Service of Celebration on May 31 at 10am.

And if you want a chance to get part-way up the steeple, the Congregational Church will be holding open houses on two Saturdays, May 23 and 30, from 2-5pm, with tea at the Community House and optional visits to the steeple. The less adventurous can continue to enjoy the warm glow of lights shining through the wooden filigree when you pass beneath the steeple at night. Take a minute to wish a happy 200th birthday to what just might be the most beautiful building in Vermont.