As a white jewel upon a field of green, the current First Church of Christ occupies the central position on the New Haven Green. The church in its history, mirrors the development of New Haven life, especially of upper class values. Its architectural style reflects the economic and social conditions from which it developed. The church clearly exhibits the spirit of that time which tended to be expansive, visionary and proud.
In November, 1812, the church members decided that the old “Brick Meeting House” was too small and that it no longer served their needs. A committee of seven members took the responsibility for building a new meeting house that would stand where its three predecessors also stood since the colony was settled. The committee signed a contract with Isaac Damon and his associate Itniel Town in February, 1813 to build a structure for $26,000 plus the value of the materials of the old one which was to be torn down. From Asher Benjamin, the Boston architect and builder, under whom Town had studies, the committee purchased a design. Benjamin possibly based his design on that of St. Martin’s in the Fields, a London church built by James Gibbs in 1726. At the beginning of the 19th Century? the design of meeting houses changed because, after the Revolution in America, the secular role of the meeting house decreased and the unity of Church and state declined. Architects began to emphasize the religious character in keeping with its essential purpose. Ithiel Town’s task was to execute the design and construct the framing.
Foundation changes were made and extra costs were added to the construction as well as complications due to the War of 1812. Getting tall enough timbers past the British blockade of New Haven harbor posed one problem. Erecting the tall steeple was another problem but Town’s engineering skills showed forth as he raised the spire, built within the tower, by windlass and tackle. In the fall of 1814, the church was ready for use at a total cost of $34,323.46. This “New Brick Meeting House” was not referred to as a ‘church’ until 1818 when the new state constitution separated church and state.
Center Church belongs to the third period, 1800-1825, of New England architecture. The church designers of that period got their ideas from the English Georgian style and were largely influenced by Sir Christopher Wren. Both James Gibbs and Asher Benjamin published books of designs that took much from Wren. His churches were built of masonry as was Center Church, because unlike other New England communities which used wood, New Haven had the resources to use masonry.
An outstanding feature of Center Church is its wide portico with the pillars standing out from the front wall. The pediment contains carved leaves as decoration. In the frieze below are a carved series of ox skulls and garlands that were often used in Roman classical architecture. The animal needs are an interesting pagan addition to this Christian church. A wooden balustrade runs along the sides of the roof; carved urns set atop the balustrade which are repeated at various stages of the steeple. The columns of the various stages actually tip inward a little to give the—effect of greater height. Reaching skyward is the well proportioned spire that sits as a monument to the architect’s design.
Beside and behind the Church are the buried remains of over 4000 persons who died between the colony’s start and 1797 when Grove Street Cemetery was first used. Only a single tablet at the rear wall of the Church recalls their presence as most of the stones were removed to the new cemetery. When the latest church was built, it was constructed farther back than the old one and higher so that part of the old burial ground would be under the Church. The Crypt contains 135 stones upon which are found the names of the early pastors, Theophilus Eaton, the wife of Benedict Arnold and James Hillhouse.
Today the viewpoint of the Church’s membership is that Center Church should continue to serve as a meeting house. Due to its location in the center of the city, it should serve a wider parish and reach out into the community. It should be a place where citizens can gather to discuss or celebrate as well as to worship. Certainly the church and its majestic spire make it a visual centerpiece for New Haven.