Friday, 23 July 2010
This blog has been a work in progress long before there was such a thing as a “blog”.
All my life I have had a passion for churches and church buildings in and around the Boston area.
Some of my earliest memories are of driving round the Boston-Brookline area in our white 1962 Comet and church spotting from the large backseat. I had my favorites and always was ready to locate these treasures when passing anywhere close to them. Even at less than five years of age, I noted the windows, bell towers and if able to go inside...the organs always got my heart racing.
A rather unique passion for a child, but that was part of who I was and still am today!
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw churches in the metro-Boston area changing dramatically.
Dropping attendance caused mainly by the lure of suburbia…this changed Boston demographics forever and also huge social shifts starting in the 1950’s onward saw the downsizing, merger and closure of many old Boston area churches. Those drives in the old family car had me asking my mom and dad questions like, “Why is that church all boarded up?” and “Why did all the people leave?”
My mother tried to explain all that was going on back then in terms a young child might understand.
She told me that people move, old folks die and many just don’t go to church anymore so that some churches are closed and even torn down. I found that a shocking truth. Not torn down! My five year old mind could not imagine these buildings I loved being torn down. I had seen buildings torn down, normal buildings...not churches!
My young mind was blown wide open in early 1973 when my dad took me in the car to sit in a Coolidge Corner parking lot on Beacon Street and watch the outer walls of my beloved Baptist Church of Brookline come tumbling down.
I asked my dad so many questions that day. I was 8 and this church…a church I had never even stepped foot in, but always admired from infancy was becoming a pile of rubble. Dad told me about the new apartment building that would be built there and I kept asking why...why this old church?
Our landlady, really more like a grandmother to me, told me stories about how she was once a Baptist and had been baptized there in the tank by immersion. I was mesmerized…your whole body pushed down in a tank in the front of the church….Wow! She explained that Brookline once had many Baptists and the church on Beacon Street was built at their peak in the early 1900’s. But times change and people die and...I knew what would come next all too well. She and my parents all sung the same hymn about why churches close. My landlady had left the Baptist Church in the early 1950’s to join her second husband’s church in Brookline Village...the Presbyterian Church. Things change, people change...some churches come and go. I began to catch on to this sad reality of life.
The other church I was passionate about was The Mount Vernon Church on Beacon Street. Riding down Beacon Street into Boston or passing along the Charles River on Storrow Drive, Mount Vernon Church quietly stood and always caught my focus. I loved the way the building loomed up as you passed by on the Charles River side and the view from Beacon Street, seeing that wonderful, soaring tower…well; I was taken in...completely!
Mount Vernon Church closed its doors in 1970 and (unknown to me at the time)began an affiliation style merger with Old South Church in Copley Square. The trend of church decline had been effecting this dear institution on the corner of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Ave. for nearly twenty years. It was slow, just like the Brookline church situation that saw three churches unite to form one, but the numerous attendees of the 1940’s would never be seen again. The church decline took its toll on a city full of large, ornate church buildings...buildings that were now in need of serious maintenance and the energy crunch of the mid-1970’s meant heating bills that were crippling to any shrinking budget.
Mount Vernon Church on Beacon Street began to look very lonely as the 1970’s unfolded. To a child, the word lonely was all I could come up with to describe the feeling I got as I gazed at the once proud structure beginning to succumb to neglect. I found myself finding excuses to visit this building.
Any walk along the Charles River always included a jog up the steps onto the Harvard Bridge and a few moments gazing up the building, wanting to bring it to life once more. It still stood tall and proud, but the hands on the tower clock faces were all frozen on different times now…some of the windows were covered over in wooden boards and weeds were growing in the uncollected autumn leaves of years gone by filling the once grand doorways.
I look back now and can only imagine the sorrow of the few last members who passed by on their way to Old South Church. Now I know the struggle they faced to find a way to save their beloved building and find a new use for it in the secular climate of 1970’s Boston.
The sorrow I felt that summer morning in 1978 when the kitchen radio, tuned to WEEI, announced that a huge blaze had gutted an old, abandoned church on Beacon Street.
My hear stopped. I was 13 and still just as crazy about churches as ever. The announcer said, “The church once was the home of the Mount Vernon Congregational Church until 1970. The building is a total loss”!
I cried. 13….a boy and on summer break from school….life was great….but I sat in front of my breakfast crying for a church building. In my mind….nobody cared about it! I did and I had to see it.
That day, with the help of a neighbor, I got a ride down from Brookline and saw my lonely church.
The sight, like the sight I saw of my own church in Brookline in 1976, was too horrific
for words. Seeing the gaping roof, charred and mostly collapsed and all the windows gone left me speechless. The once graceful parish house section of the building that stood facing the Charles River was hollow...just stone walls and charred timbers within. The bell tower was all that seemed untouched by the flames.
So many similarities to the Brookline St. Paul’s Church fire of 1976, a devastating fire that was quickly stopped before moving on to the parish house and church hall. Mount Vernon Church was not so lucky, the fire was able to spread and consume the building because of the way it was built, handsomely compact and using all that lovely timber roofing...sadly, totally interconnected and highly flammable.
I learned that day another sad life truth, empty churches often go up in flames. Nothing could be said to comfort me. There was no one to ask questions of, to reminisce. I did not even know at that point about the Old South merger...it just seemed like the end for this dear 1892 building and I was alone in my mourning.
I carried on my vigil. I watched the building sit, boarded up and roofless for the next few years.
I was in my last year of high school when the Graham Gund project was in the early planning stages and it seemed like some of the building would be saved. I had always feared the complete demolition of the Mount Vernon building and this was a way to save at least part of the historic structure for the future.
The demolition of the rear parish house section of the building was a great loss! I had hoped they could incorporate it into the new development but the scope of the new structure was larger than the original walls would have allowed. Seeing the tower and two outer sanctuary walls preserved along with the parish house entrance was very comforting and made me renew my faith in the whole early- 1980’s project.
The Church Green project was hailed a major success for Boston. The handsome Mount Vernon Church stood on the corner with a new condominium building bursting skyward from her depths. Ample open spaces with much needed greenery added a wonderful touch to this classic corner of Beacon Street.
I was pleased to see the remains of the building looking brighter and crisper that it had in decades. Careful restoration of the stone work of the remaining façade brought out the truly magnificent color tones which were first viewed when the building was brand new almost one hundred years before.
Life moved on and I left Boston to pursue my teaching career in New Hampshire. I was living in Concord in the early 1990’s and just happened to stumble upon a signed copy of Pauline Holmes’, One Hundred Years of Mount Vernon Church, 1842-1942. The book published for the one hundredth anniversary of the church in 1942 was in perfect shape and filled with a few snapshots that the original owner had tucked inside. I felt this was destiny calling. I had put Mount Vernon Church behind me when I left Boston but finding this book out of the blue made it all come flooding back again...I just had to do some research into this fascinating place. I bought the book and also a copy of one of Carl Heath Kopf’s little gems as well and began to slowly start my journey.
The journey began with phone calls to the Congregational Library and the church historian of Old South Church. Some information was gathered but more questions seemed to arise as I began my investigation. The internet came along in the later 90’s and emails began to help add more to my file on the church but it was still slow going and years went by.
By 2008, I had gathered a great deal of information and had a much better feel for the history of this historic place and was ready to launch a website or blog to house my findings. A FLICKR group was set up first as a way to open communications with anyone on the internet who wanted to contribute memorabilia or add memories of their own about the church. Attempts were made to work with Old South Church on the project since they hold the key to answering many questions raised by people who have contacted me since I began my work but nothing so far has come of it. So my blog will focus on the Mount Vernon Church of Boston from 1842 to 1970, the data after 1970 is contained in files maintained at Old South Church and unavailable to me at this present time. Maybe things will change and I do hope they will! Presenting Mount Vernon Church from 1970 until today would be of great value to me and my blog readers I am sure. I shall always maintain a welcome place for additions post 1970 if any come my way.
I always wondered back then and do to this very day, what became of all the treasures once held inside this building. Did the fire destroy all? No. I know that. I know that items were sold off over the period from 1970 to 1978. Several windows by famous stained glass artist, John La Farge were sold and relocated in the mid-1970’s.
Old South Church has the brass baptismal font as well as a grand piano from the building. But as for any other memorial gifts…the mystery remains. I would gather that more is in storage, somewhere.
The records of Mount Vernon Church from 1842 to 1970 are now part of the archives at the Congregational Library in Boston. They are a great source of information and worth their weight in gold.
The updates on the blog will always fall into two types. The Early Years from 1842 to 1892 and The Beacon Street Years from 1892 until 1970. A Mount Vernon Church from 1970 Onward section will be added if the need arises...and I hope it will.
I am looking forward to sharing the many bits of memorabilia I have located or been sent over time. The history of the church will also be told from a variety of sources and will contain many snapshots taken over the years by a variety of people.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions, requests, personal memories...as many of you know I have tried to help answer questions when possible and will always do my best to continue this as part of my blog work.