Here to return to
PARK STREET CHURCH
THE lot whereon the Granary stood, measuring one hundred and eighteen feet along Park Street, was sold by the Town agents, November 10, 1795, for the sum of $8366 to Major-General Henry Jackson, who commanded the Massachusetts Militia at the time of the sale. He had served with distinction during the Revolution, and was the owner of considerable real estate in the town. From him the Granary lot passed to the control of Mrs. Hepsibah Swan, the widow of James Swan. Thereafter it became the property of her daughters, who sold the premises, April 13, 1809, to Caleb Bingham, book-seller and publisher; Andrew Calhoun, merchant; and William Thurston, Esq., Trustees of the Church. The price paid for this land was twenty thousand dollars.
A subsequent deed to Samuel H. Walley, January 17, 1810, recites that “a Church of Christ, called Park Street Church, had been gathered in the Town of Boston; and a brick meeting-house lately erected on a street formerly called Centry Street, and now called Park Place.” The Trustees “do permit and suffer the said house and land to be used, occupied and enjoyed as and for a meeting-house or place for the public, Protestant worship and service of God.”
The Granary was removed in 1809, and the Church was built immediately afterward from designs prepared by Peter Banner, an English architect and builder, of whom little is known. The wooden capitals of the steeple are the handiwork of Solomon Willard, the architect of Bunker Hill Monument. The mason-work was under the supervision of Benajah Brigham. It was the intention of the Building Committee to use common bricks; but better counsels prevailed, and face bricks were employed. The building, now seen in its original red-brick dress, was newly painted in 1906. At that time, to quote from a recent writer, “the sympathetically toned gray of the body of the Church, with its white trimmings, combined to give a pearly effect, which could not but convey to the coarsest apprehension the fact that this Church was a pearl of great price for Boston.”
Henry James, the American novelist, described its style of architecture as “perfectly felicitous.” “Its spire,” he said, “recalls Wren’s bold London examples, like the comparatively thin echo of a far-away song; playing its part, however, for harmonious effect as perfectly as possible.” Mr. James regarded this Church building as “the most interesting mass of brick and mortar in America.” The weather-vane, which crowns the spire, is two hundred and seventeen feet above the street level. Many will recall the thrilling sight of a steeple-jack, engaged in regilding this vane a few years ago. It was not originally intended that the edifice should have a spire. But the Building Committee yielded to the prevailing sentiment that a Church occupying such a prominent site should be thus ornamented. And for more than a century the graceful spire has remained intact, defying the fury of winter storms; although it was observed to sway considerably during the great gale which destroyed Minot’s Ledge Light House in the middle of the last century.1
The Park Street Church Society was organized at the mansion of William Thurston, a well-known attorney, on Bowdoin Street, February 27, 1809; and in that house the first religious exercises of the new Society were held. The Corner-Stone of the Church building was laid May 1, 1809; and the total cost of the latter was somewhat over seventy thousand dollars. The Dedication Sermon was preached by the Reverend Doctor Edward Dorr Griffin, January 10, 1810; and he was installed as Pastor, July 31, 1811.
Mr. Lindsay Swift, in his “Literary Landmarks of Boston,” wrote that Park Street Church is an important strategic point; and that “all roads lead to Rome, except in Boston, where they lead to, or certainly from this convenient centre of the City’s life.” For many years the corner of Tremont and Park Streets has been a rendezvous, and a point of departure, especially for strangers.
The origin of the name” Brimstone Corner,” sometimes applied to this locality, has been attributed to the fervid doctrines preached within the walls of the Church. The true source of that name appears to be the historic fact that brimstone, for use in making gunpowder, was stored in the building during the War of 1812. There is also a tradition that in the early days of this Church, sulphur was sprinkled on the sidewalk near by, to attract the attention of wayfarers. In this building were founded the American Education Society (1815), the Prison Reform Society, and the American Temperance Society (1826).
On the Fourth of July, 1832, the song “America” was heard in public for the first time, at a children’s celebration in Park Street Church. The author, Samuel Francis Smith, then a theological student at Andover, Massachusetts, had composed poetry from his childhood. Inspired by the words of a patriotic German hymn, he determined to produce an anthem which should manifest the love felt by him for his own country. “Seizing a scrap of paper, he began to write, and in half an hour the words stood upon it substantially as they are sung to-day.”2
On Sunday forenoon, November 24, 1895, one of the workmen engaged in excavating for the Tremont Street Subway, almost under the front wall of Park Street Church, probably struck his pickaxe into a main water-pipe, which burst; and the water shot up with such force that it broke the window glass in the minister’s study, ruining its furnishings, and covering with mud its carpet and luxurious upholstery. Fears were entertained that the foundations of the building had been weakened. At the following evening service the minister told the members of his congregation that it was an outrage to permit the carrying on of such work at the very portals of the Church on a Sunday. And with natural righteous indignation he referred to the Subway as “an infernal hole,” in more than one sense. “And who is the Boss in charge of this work?” he demanded. Then after a pause, he added, “It is the Devil!”
In 1809, when Park Street Church was built, Boston still preserved the appearance of an old English market-town. No curbstones separated the streets from the sidewalks. The cows still browsed on the Common, and the Town Crier made his proclamations. There were then but two houses of more than one story on the present Tremont Street. “Colonnade Row had not been built, and Boston was a city of gardens. There were only a few residences on Beacon Hill: its western slope was a series of terraces. The business section of to-day still retained its residential character, with its old-fashioned gardens, trees and churches.”3
In 1902 Park Street Church and its site were sold for one and a quarter million dollars to a syndicate of business men, who proposed to erect in its stead a sky-scraper office building. Thereupon a committee of influential persons was formed, whose object was the preservation of the Church property. It was justly claimed that the whole aspect of the Common and of the Granary Burial-Ground would be irretrievably marred by the destruction of this impressive landmark. The committee doubtless reflected the prevailing sentiment of the community, in their plea that the preservation of the Church would avert a severe blow to the architectural beauty of the City. And they maintained with reason that the building could be made to serve as an important centre for educational and civic work. Influenced, it may be, by the trend of public opinion, the members of the syndicate failed to meet a condition of the transfer; namely, that they should pay three hundred thousand dollars of the purchase money within a specified time. Therefore it was announced in April, 1903, that the preservation of the Church was assured. The published account of the Semi-Centennial Celebration of the founding of Park Street Church, held in 1859, contains these eloquent words: “For nearly half a century this majestic spire has withstood the burning heat of the summer’s sun, and the freezing cold of inclement winters. The storms have raged and northwest winds have roared around it; gales which have uprooted the massive elms of our magnificent Common, have passed it unheeded; even the earthquake’s shock, and the lightning’s fiery blast have shaken, yet spared it. And Time, old Time, which subdues all things, has laid a gentle hand upon its head. What time and the elements have suffered to endure, let man preserve!”
“I love to stop before the beautiful Park Street Church spire,” said the Reverend J. Edgar Park, in an Artillery Election Sermon, delivered in the New Old South Church, June 7, 1920, “almost the last hold that the ancient town of Boston has upon the cosmopolitan city; a spire that speaks still of the old residential Beacon Street, and of the days when its bell called across the Common to its congregation to gather in their meeting-house, to worship the God of the Pilgrim Fathers. Here I feel that I am standing on one of the most historic and beautiful spots, not only in this country, but in the whole world.”
All the old meeting-houses of Boston, if we agree with an opinion expressed by former Mayor J. V. C. Smith, M.D., in the year 1853, such as Park Street Church, the Old South, and a few others with spires, were superior in architectural beauty to the more modern edifices of higher cost. For, says our critic, “the genius that is among us, ready to be exercised in the Metropolis of New England, seems fated to be smothered by the overruling determination of old women and Deacons!”
When a Church was to be built in Boston, it was customary to have a committee appointed. And oftentimes no two of any such a committee “had a rational notion of what should, or should not be adopted in a plan. However classical, beautiful , or grand the artist may have been in his projection, each one of the sapient conservators on the committee must have a whim gratified, even if it is at the expense of the artist’s reputation. Botch after botch follows, and when the building is fairly completed, they are all laughed at for their stupidity, and condemned for their vulgarity!”
If the learned gentleman could have seen some of Boston’s Church edifices of comparatively recent years, he might well have modified his above-quoted naïve utterances.
1 April 21, 1851.
2 C. A. Browne, The Story of Our National Ballads.
3 The Preservation of Park Street Church. Boston, 1903.