The Little Building That Could
By Janet Schoeler
Photos by Laura Jean Whitcomb

In the geographical center of Bradford, there’s a small, inviting 19th century building that over the years has survived a lightening strike, abandonment and decades of weathering. And much like the little engine that could, it just keeps it going, powered by the community.

“We’ve kept the spirit of the town green alive through this church,” says Edythe Craig of the Union Congregational Society, a group of Bradford residents committed to the building’s preservation.

Preserving History
A core group of about a dozen Union Congregational Society members is working to keep the church, dedicated in 1838 as a church called Center Meeting House, intact. They say it contains both its architectural and community history, and is well worth preserving as one of the older buildings in Bradford.

“The whole little center with the church, old school house, town pound and burial grounds is a delightful, beautiful and historic spot,” says Mildred Kittredge of the Bradford Historical Society. “It’s the only town green in Bradford.”

Craig says the Union Congregational Society’s purpose is to “maintain a place for divine worship as well as for meetings and other events.” The building is used for meetings, weddings, church services on occasion, hymn sings, picnics, pig roasts and annual summer concerts. But the church was not aging gracefully. Interior paint flecked off its walls and its stenciling was long gone.

George Cilley, head of the Union Congregational Society, led the group’s efforts to fix up the building. With donations from more than 130 families, the society raised $22,000 over 20 years to finance the work. An annual two-night summer chamber music concert is the prime fundraiser. The concerts are organized by Bradford resident Joan Letvin in her husband Theodore’s memory and performed by his former students.

With the restoration funded, building restorer Leonard Spencer of Cabot, Vt., was hired as chief designer and coordinator. Spencer — who has degrees in art and education and restored churches in Calais and Post Mills, Vt. — created a stencil pattern for the walls, selected wall and decorative ceiling colors to match the design period and repaired one of the trusses.

Spencer describes the wood structure with its Gothic spires and Gothic details, such as pointed finials and belfries, as typical of the period. The building has fairly square proportions; an interior room with a balcony and pulpit; and a singers’ gallery because “at that point in history, music was more important to the church than it had been earlier,” he says.

Over the years, the open balcony was closed and the pulpit area was expanded.

Originally, the walls were wallpapered, as that was common in the 19th century, Spencer says. (Some remaining wallpaper bits were found in the balcony stairwell and a closet in front of the balcony.) Stenciling was also common, and the church had southern New Hampshire styles of intricate patterns with “s” curves and borders. Spencer created 19th-style stencils with four basic patterns in four areas — the balcony front wall, around the sanctuary chair rail, under the balcony and in the front hallway.

“All in all, the building is in pretty good shape for its age. It’s basically more or less as it has been,” says Spencer. “It’s worth preserving; it is an architectural antique.”

Church Life
Like many other 19th century New England churches, there were regular church services. Religious denominations shared the church’s use in proportion to their membership. There were Baptists, Methodists and Campbellites, also called Christians, according to the town’s bicentennial history in 1976.

Church life in its early years was a place where “after tying their horses, the men loitered around the church door while the women exchanged bits of gossiping at the entry until the bell tolled, then all took their seats.” (Bradford resident Mary August Lull recorded this moment in the town’s centennial book.) But the sound of change was in the distance — in this case the sound of new roads being built, mills opening and a locomotive engine whistle in the distance. By the mid-19th century, the railroad came to Bradford, but through the village and not its geographical center.

“This spelled the demise of the center. Farm families moved away and old folks died off. There just wasn’t anything left,” says Cilley.

As a result, Center Meeting House’s importance started to fade. In 1863, the town hall on the green was dismantled and relocated in the village. By 1865, there was no regular pastor, just acting pastors to conduct services. But the people of Bradford held on and, as the building’s 100th anniversary approached, they rose to the occasion. In 1881, the building was spruced up with the gallery remodeled into a vestry for meetings and church suppers, and the choir’s “singing seats” moved.

By 1894, the Center Meeting House officially became the Congregational Church of Christ. Formal “Standing Rules” were adopted for the church, with a disciplinary policy where “offences subject to discipline are unchristian conduct, neglect of acknowledged religious duty and avowed disbelief in the vital principals of the Gospel.” Church members were expected to abstain from drinking and “the practice of public and promiscuous dancing, of attendance at the theatre and card playing, and of traveling on the Sabbath for business or pleasure….”

Apparently, the rules of the times didn’t diminish community interest in the building. Townspeople celebrated the church’s anniversary on Sept. 16, 1903, with day-long festivities — among these, church services and more than 300 people sharing dinner in the vestry and in a nearby town building. Town history records the celebration as “a complete success” on a perfect autumn day.

In Good Repair
The building continued to enjoy renewed community interest at the start of the 20th century. Town history notes the church was renovated and the walls “frescoed” with stencils in July 1917. The structure remained in good repair until 1931 or 1932 when lightening struck the building’s chimney, knocking plaster from a wall behind the pulpit. Some of the plaster entered church organ reeds and left some keys soundless.

It appears the church sat damaged for almost a decade. It was repaired on Oct. 5, 1939, when the church was officially reorganized and renamed as the Union Congregational Society of Bradford Center, New Hampshire. Since the building was not heated, services took place on July and August afternoons from 1940 to 1956.

By November of 1953, the Union Congregational Society adopted the Bradford-South Newbury Parish Agreement — a move seen by many as strengthening the church’s presence. It became one of three churches in the parish of Bradford Baptist Church, Center Church in Bradford and South Newbury Union Church, according to Craig.

But with one minister serving three churches, the agreement dissolved about 15 years ago. The minister left and, Craig says, some parishioners wanted their own parish. This began another era where the church was on its own.

The little building that could will continue to survive, say those involved with it now. The Union Congregational Society is looking ahead to the Center Meeting House’s needs. Cilley says they plan to keep fundraising for church repairs, as well as using the building for events as it has been the last few years.

“We’ve got to paint the exterior and then a new roof is needed in five years. We need to keep the money coming,” says Cilley.
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