For for over 175 years, the Center Meeting House has been an architectural gem, standing at the crossroads of Newbury, New Hampshire, serving the needs of both lakeside area residents and summer visitors.
The Origins of Newbury’s Meeting Houses
In the language of today, a building of this type is often referred to as a church. But two hundred years ago, a distinction existed between a church and a meeting house. Where a church was a group of people who came together to worship in a common belief, a meeting house, on the other hand, was the place where all churches could meet. Over its lifetime, the Center Meeting House has hosted Methodist, Free Will Baptist, and Universalist services.
The first meeting house in Newbury was built on Bly Hill in 1791. At that time, the town’s population was 331 and both civil and religious focus was on Bly Hill. The decision to build was made at town meeting, with management of the project placed in the hands of the selectmen. Financing was accomplished through the sale of pews rather than taxes.
By 1830 the town’s population had grown to 797, and focus shifted to the southern end of the lake. As a result, a second meeting house was built in South Newbury village in 1831. A group sold pews to raise money and, by that act, became proprietors of the South Meeting House.
The Center Meeting House is Built
The third meeting house in town, our Center Meeting House, was built at its present location in 1832. The record books have been lost, but we have a few scraps of evidence that shows it is likely that the financing followed the model of the South Meeting House. The proprietors, called the First Toleration Society, asked the town for land on which to build the meeting house. This fact is documented in the minutes of the town meeting on October 22, 1831, which state, “Voted that the Selectmen lease a part of the common land lying at the South End of Sunnepy Lake in Fishersfield to the Religious Toleration Society so called.”
These men of the First Toleration Society were apparently prosperous, having chosen a design for the meeting house by the well known architect, Asher Benjamin. In addition, they hired experienced craftsmen to erect the structure and craft the finish details. James L. Garvin, State Architectural Historian, studied the Center Meeting House in May 2006. In his report he wrote, “Despite its architectural conservatism, the Newbury building displays excellent workmanship. [The interior architectural features] display virtuosity in design and execution. The pulpit exhibits especially fine craftsmanship and detailing. …the Newbury Center Meeting House is a skillfully designed and built but conservative example of a rural church building.”
The Reversed Pulpit
One aspect of this meeting house that makes it rare is its reversed pulpit. While the typical plan of a meeting house has the congregation facing away from the entrance doors and toward a pulpit located in the rear of the building, the congregation in the Center Meeting House faced the entrance doors and pulpit. In his report, Mr. Garvin quoted extensively from the Ph.D. thesis of Philip D. Zimmerman, who apparently was the only one to study this phenomenon.
In explaining the possible origins of the reversed-pulpit plan, Zimmerman refutes popular interpretations (to discourage latecomers to service or to permit the minister to note the comings and goings of the congregation), and suggests the idea that this plan furthered the Protestant insistence that no part of the meeting house should be regarded as sanctified. As a result, the inside arrangement was rotated to undermine any sense of progressively more sacred space as you entered the building, since everyone had to walk past the pulpit and essentially ignore it as they went to their seats. Zimmerman searched throughout New England for examples of this reversed plan and found that Newbury had the only example in a federal-style meeting house.
The Center Meeting House is one of the last country meeting houses built in the pure federal style, and one of the few to survive intact to this day, and is thought to be one of three identical meeting houses built in a three-year period. Built in 1833, the South Sunapee Meeting House was demolished, but a photograph of it survives and shows an identical structure. Another photo shows its interior, which has an identical reverse pulpit. The other meeting house, built in 1831, is located in Unity, but has been extensively modified for use as the town hall. However, a photo from 1892 shows this meeting house to be much the same.
The downfall of the building was the town’s declining population. As the building aged by fifty years, the town’s population decreased by 200 people. With fewer resources, the building was not maintained and decay set in.
From The Granite Monthly of July 1880 we read this description of the town: “The steamer lands you at old Newbury, a sleepy, decayed hamlet at the foot of Sunapee lake. Some way it reminds you of Sleepy Hollow, which the pen of an Irving has celebrated in his matchless prose. Life is stagnant here. Enterprise has long since taken its flight elsewhere. There is an old tumble down church, where there has been no preaching for many a day, I will be sworn…”
Initial Restoration: John Hay
In 1892, a famous summer resident of Newbury, John Milton Hay, came to the rescue and paid for much need repairs and improvements. John M. Hay was an Assistant Secretary to President Lincoln, an American writer, diplomat (Ambassador to Great Britain), and Secretary of State (1898-1905) who served Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. It was his wish, fortunately, that none of the building’s original features be changed during this restoration. Hay’s motivation for this restoration was to provide a place of worship for the town’s expanding summer population. Indeed as time went on, special steamers ran on Sundays to the Pond Meeting House.
At the turn of the twentieth century, decline began again. The financial responsibility was still in the hands of the proprietors, who had little money for upkeep and were dwindling in number owing to age and leaving town. In addition, the town’s summer population was focusing more on leisure than religion. Left no other choice, the remaining proprietors voted in 1932, just one hundred years after the Center Meeting House was built, to transfer their title to a Board of Trustees. Unfortunately, the Trustees had even fewer resources. But from time to time they attempted to raise money for paint or a roof and tried in small ways to prevent the collapse of the building. Again there was no pressure to remodel or modernize.
Recent Restoration: 2005
On March 20, 2005, a group of concerned citizens, along with five members of the Board of Trustees, met to discuss the current condition and the future of the Center Meeting House. This group agreed that deterioration had gone on long enough and that action needed to be immediately taken. The first decision was to restore the building as an historical artifact with no modern improvements. The Board of Trustees were reformed into a Board of Directors for a general-membership organization that anyone could join and support. The Board filed for and received tax-exempt status from the IRS, and the Center Meeting House, Inc. was formed.
To read more about the restoration work that resulted, click HERE.