An Architectural History
Written in 1974 by Earle G. Shettleworth, Director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Prior to the founding of The Chocolate Church Arts Center.
Bath possesses two major Gothic Revival Churches, of the 1840’s which each interpret the medieval style in a distinctive manner. In 1843 the local master builder, Anthony C. Raymond, Created a powerful Gothic statement through the use of the traditional New England church form for the Winter Street Church. Three years later a young Boston architect, Arthur Gilman, designed Central Church, an impressive and sophisticated expression of medieval English architecture.
The Winter Street Church was successfully preserved in 1971 through the efforts of Sagadahoc Preservation Inc. and has become part of the Bath Marine Museum. However, the fate of the Central Church has remained unresolved, and the building is now in serious danger of being destroyed. Thus, it seems imperative at this point to examine the importance of Central Church before a final decision is made on its disposition.
The history of the Central Church predates the structure by more than four decades. In 1802 several members of the Bat’s Old North Congregational Church established a new parish which became known as Old South. In 1835, this society was organized as the Third Parish. At a meeting of the Third Parish on March 7, 1846, a vote was taken “to proceed to build a new house of worship for the said parish.” William M. Rogers, John Patten, Jeremiah Robinson, Otti Kimball, and C.S. Jenks were chosen as a committee to carry the vote into effect by selecting a lot and erecting “said house as soon as practicable.”
The building committee immediately commissioned Arthur Gilman of Boston to design a church in the Gothic Revival manner, which was then beginning to gain wide acceptance as a style for New England Houses of worship. Exactly how Gilman was chosen as the architect remains unknown but the fact that he designed the structure attaches a special importance to it.
Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1821, Arthur Gilman was educated at Dummer Academy in Byfield and at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Although he first studied to become a lawyer, his interests turned to architecture and the arts, and he devoted himself to architecture. At the age of 22, he wrote a brilliant essay for the North American Review on the state of American architecture. Published in the April, 1844, issue of the magazine, the article excited considerable interest in both America and Europe and was reprinted in several foreign journals. Advocating the Gothic Revival as most appropriate style for church architecture, Gilman wrote. “It is evident, that a rapid advance has been made in an acquaintance with the true principals of the Gothic style. We are satisfied of this, when we see such edifices as Christ Church in Brooklyn, and the new Trinity Church in New York, rising, in almost medieval grandeur upon our western shores. It is truly gratifying to perceive such substantial evidences of the wealth, the taste, and the piety of a people. We trust that, before many years have elapsed, we shall see among us more churches like these which are, indeed, truly worthy of the name. We gladly take the present opportunity to confess, as we have done on a previous occasion, the strongest predilection for this glorious style.”
In 1845, Arthur Gilman established and architectural practice in Boston and began to carry out his ideas about the Gothic Revival. His mention of New York Trinity Church reflects his admiration for the work of Richard Upjohn, then the nation’s leading Gothic Revivalist. When Gilman planned Bath’s Central Church in April of 1846, he designed a modified wooden version of Upjohn’s Trinity Central Church was one of Gilman’s first commissions and the only one of his career in Maine. For it, he provided the church’s building committee with a set of 29 detailed architectural drawings ranging from framing plans to cornice profiles.
The building committee accepted Gilman’s ideas for a Gothic Revival church and contracted with the local master builder, Isiah Coombs, to erect the structure. The contact was signed on June 8, 1846, with the construction cost set at $10,000for all the work above the foundation. Coombs was the logical choice as builder, for he had just completed erecting the similar First Parish Church in Brunswick from Richard Upjohn’s designs Construction on the Central Church continued well into 1847. At a parish meeting on November 3 of that year, the parish voted to “accept the house of worship recently erected” and to officially name it Central Church.
Central Church has experienced few changes in its more than a century and a quarter history. The one major change came in 1861 when the octagonal wooden spire which completed the steeple was lost, interestingly, a similar spire was lost on the First Parish Church in Brunswick five years later.
The Central Church ranks as one of the most high style examples of wooden ecclesiastical architecture in Maine. It enjoys national significance as well for being a well preserved representative example of its building type and as an early work of Arthur Gilman. Gilman continued to make significant contributions to American architecture, designing such Boston landmarks as the Arlington Street Church and the Old City Hall. In addition, he played a major role in the development of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.
Gilman created a church which stands on a Granite foundation and measures 47 feet wide by 88 feet long with a tower 18 feet square. This stately square tower forms the main entrance to a two and a half story wooden church with a large gable roofed sanctuary. The exterior is sheathed with board and batten and displays such Gothic features as buttressing, pointed arch windows and pinnacles. Perhaps the most pleasing exterior element is a small vestibule which projects from the north wall of the church. Its gable roof is ornamented with intricately carved bargeboards, and its door has large medieval hinges.
The Gothic interior of the Central Church matches the impressive qualities of its exterior. The following turn of the century interior description captures its medieval atmosphere. “In the writer’s boyhood he was impressed with the beauty of the interior, in the Gothic grandeur of the great columns and architraves and girders and the arch effects of the whole. To his youthful mind the interior was of solid oak, the big stained glass windows suggested cathedrals of the old world, of which he had read. Today he knows that the finish is not of oak, he sees all the windows are of cathedral lights and the columns are not so big but there is yet to him a wonderful beauty in the architect’s dream made real. Central still suggest cathedrals to the mind. It is a wonderful interior and church.”
The Central Church is a 19th century monument in the midst of one of Maine’s most well preserved cities. The church’s individual merit was established in 1971 when it was recorded by the Historic American Building Survey for the Library of Congress. Its significance as part of Bath’s city-scape was further recognized when it was included in 1973 Washington Street National Register Historic District. Thus, the Central Church emerged in recent years as an irreplaceable local landmark which has meaning to the heritage of the state and nation.