Historic Structures

Southport Congregational Church, Southport Connecticut

Date added: March 24, 2011 Categories: Connecticut Church

In 1871, parish members recognized the need for a new church. Raising the necessary funds and acquiring the building materials took three years. The Southport "Chronicle" reported on July 12, 1871, "The members of the Southport Congregational Society held a special meeting, on the 4th of July and reconsidered the action taken at a previous meeting with a view to remodel the old church and erect a new lecture-room. They determined to give up the plan of remodelling, and voted unanimously to build a new church at a cost of $30,000. We believe that the whole amount, with the exception of a small sum, has already been pledged, and we hear that the work of building will proceed as soon as possible."

By May 23, 1874 the work had begun. The "Chronicle" noted that "the church was started from its foundation Tuesday of this week, and seemed to move with the 'greatest of ease.' Mr. Gould, the veteran builder-mover has charge of the job." The new stone church was dedicated on February 2, 1876.

Henry A. Lambert and Rufus B. Bunnell were a Bridgeport architectural firm who designed several buildings in Southport during the 1860s and 70s. Their work here included the Moses Bulkley House, 176 Main Street, the Mrs. Benjamin Pomeroy House, 658 Pequot Road, the Mrs. Zalmon Wakeman House, 418 Harbor Road, and the Southport Congregational Church. For a considerable period during the latter part of the nineteenth century, according to Bunnell, he and Lambert were the only architects practicing in the Bridgeport area. By 1881 the firm had dissolved; two items in the "Bridgeport Standards" newspaper listed Lambert as practicing alone.

The Southport Congregational Society purchased the land upon which the present structure stands in February, 1835. The Society has owned this land since that time. They erected the first church on this site, a wooden edifice, in 1841-42. The congregation was officially organized and the building dedicated on March 7, 1843.

The church edifice, as constructed in 1874, was nearly rectangular in plan. While the exterior design emphasizes asymmetry and variegated massing, a sense of balance is achieved. The auditorium section functions as the central axis with the flanking tower and its tall spire to the east and the porte cochere crowned by a slender decorative bell-cote as the balancing element in the composition to the west. It is constructed of granite ashlar masonry laid in regular six inch courses and trimmed with a lighter cut stone around openings and at the gable ends. This contrast in building materials has the effect of accenting sections and details. The arrangement of the central block's front facade is symmetrical. Dominating the order of the facade is an expansive Perpendicular window filled with triplelancet and multifoil tracery and outlined by a thick-set lancet arch of cut stone. Penetrating the base of this large window is the pointed arch of the tabernacle doorway. A pair of lancet-arched multi-paneled oak doors is set four thicknesses deep into this surround. At either side of the doorway, thick vail buttresses support the thrust of the central Perpendicular window at its base. A matching pair of tall, narrow lancet windows set deeply into their frames complete the symmetrical design.

A steep-pitched gable roof of slate shingle covers the church nave. Piercing each side of the roof's surface, five gable dormers with jigsaw aprons and quatrefoil tracery counter-balance five double-lancet multifoil Perpendicular windows on each principal side elevation. A simple parapet, following the slope of the roof surface conceals gable ends, The climax of the main block's symmetrical design is a decorative granite pinnacle which sits atop the peak of the central ridge. As the fulcrum of balance in the total composition, the main block's smooth, rectilinear surfaces and the sharp, clean outlines of each detail establish a strong point of departure from which the subordinate architectural members radiate.

The square three-and-a-half story granite tower with a polygonal wooden spire and corner buttresses seems rather simply appointed in comparison to the central section. As the most obvious vertical member of the composition, verticality - the telling feature of Gothic design - is stressed, becoming more attenuated with the rising altitude. A deeply recessed lancet-arched doorway leads to the interior gallery's stairway, lighted by the multifoil stained-glass window at the second story. Ventilated double-lancet openings with thick granite surrounds punctuate the four sides of the tower's upper surface and are framed on either side by the steep pinnacle heads of the corner buttresses. Steeply-pitched gablets spring from the lower stage of the tower, pointing upward to the slender finial which tops the tower. By contrast, the porte cochere, on the opposing side of the central block, is of smaller proportions and height. Rising one-and-a-half stories, this granite structure with lancet-arched openings is distinguished by its slender decorative square bell-cote with wooden spire and crowning finial, sitting at an angle upon the ridge of the roof parapet.

Inside the church, the rectangular main block of the exterior becomes one large open auditorium. Conventional early Gothic ecclesiastical design dictated that the interior be separated into three spaces: a narrow nave and two side aisles, having an approximate relation to one another of one to two to one. Here, the nave fills the entire rectangular mass, with sold rows of pews to either side of a center aisle. The chancel, at the northern end of the building, is merely a simple raised platform which serves as the piilpit's pedestal and has seating to accommodate a small choir. The organ and choir gallery are at the front, over the main entrance. As unfamiliar as the Gothic mode is for Congregational Churches, so too the Congregational interior arrangement with an open auditorium-like space is uncommon in an otherwise Episcopalian church design. This is reflected in the roof's structural framing.

Rather than a complex skeletal system supporting the aisel roofs and the main roof of the nave, the Southport Church's roof is supported "by a simple open hammer beam truss construction. The structural system is basic and straightforward - the members are bracketed directly from the wall, receiving supportive thrust from the wall itself - and less interesting than the detailing of the hammer beam members. Deeply cut quatrefoil and stylized Gothic motifs in the roof trusses give the church a rich, unspoiled appearance. Smooth white plaster walls and ceiling are accented by oak board-and-batten wainscoting in the auditorium section and carved wooden paneling around the chancel area. The narrow stained-glass windows with double-lancet and multifoil tracery to each side and carved oak beams above create a strikingly handsome space.

In 1884 a chapel was added at a right angle to the rear of the original structure.