Out & About: Windsor church gets designation ‘of significance’

Dusk falls over the Old South Church and Mount Ascutney, in Windsor, Vt., Nov. 29, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Dusk falls over the Old South Church and Mount Ascutney, in Windsor, Vt., Nov. 29, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photo — James M. Patterson

Henry Compton,5, of Windsor moves to the beat while his mother Laura Compton directs the choir at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on Aug. 26, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Henry Compton,5, of Windsor moves to the beat while his mother Laura Compton directs the choir at the Old South Church in Windsor, Vt., on Aug. 26, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jennifer Hauck

Old South Church, located in downtown Windsor, was renovated in 1922. The church was built in 1798 by Asher Benjamin, who went on to become a famed architect in the United States. The church was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places at the National Level of Significance. (Courtesy Old South Church)

Old South Church, located in downtown Windsor, was renovated in 1922. The church was built in 1798 by Asher Benjamin, who went on to become a famed architect in the United States. The church was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places at the National Level of Significance. (Courtesy Old South Church) Courtesy photograph

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 6:01 PM

WINDSOR — Around the turn of the 19th century, a young architect and builder arrived in Windsor to oversee the construction of Old South Church.

More than 200 years later, the few years that Asher Benjamin, who later became a famous architect, spent in town is paying dividends for the church’s congregation who this year learned the beloved meetinghouse in downtown Windsor has been named to the National Register of Historic Places at the National Level of Significance. The designation can open more funding opportunities to help pay for much-needed repairs.

“The church needs a lot of work,” Thomas McGraw said in a recent interview with fellow congregant Joe Palatucci at the church in downtown Windsor.

The church’s balustrade — a railing that supports the bell deck — needs to be rebuilt and the cupola needs to be restored, among other repairs. There also are plans to make the building more accessible to people with disabilities, including installing an elevator that could take them to the sanctuary on the second floor, where services and concerts are regularly held.

“What happens next for us is we have to start figuring out what it’s going to cost to fix the things that need to be fixed,” Palatucci said.

Old South Church has around 120 congregants. They regularly host community dinners and rummage sales; this spring they held a “Prom Pop-Up Shop” where students could get formal wear for free. Old South is the spot of classical music concerts and social justice gatherings. McGraw, Palatucci and others hope that the new designation will allow the congregation to make repairs so that work can continue — and grow.

They’re hoping that the designation — and a renewed emphasis on the building’s connection to Benjamin and early American architecture — will help. From 6 to 8:30 p.m. Monday (June 17), the church will host a celebration for the listing where people can learn more about the history of the building. Architectural historian Lyssa Papazian and timber framer Jan Lewandoski, who studied Old South Church as part of the National Register process, will give a talk from 7 to 8 p.m. The program can also be streamed via oldsouthchurch.com. Those who are attending in person are asked to RSVP by emailing AsherBenjaminOldSouthChurchVT@gmail.com or calling 802-909-2741.

“Part of the fun of this is you put this in front of a whole bunch of people, you scatter the seeds and see what grows,” McGraw said.

Early American connection

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In 1798 — around seven years after Vermont became a state — Benjamin, then in his 20s, had submitted a design for the meetinghouse, based on his newly published book, “The Country Builder’s Assistant.” The book provided a framework for builders and Old South Church would become one of the first structures based on those designs.

“Benjamin didn’t invent the design … but his pattern book is the first book by an American author published in this very young country at the time for builders working in the Americas, the fledgling states,” said Judy Hayward, executive director of Historic Windsor, a nonprofit organization that promotes and supports Windsor’s history. “He became synonymous with what we call Federal period architecture today.”

Benjamin would go on to be one of the country’s most famed early American architects and buildings based on his designs can be seen as far west as the Ohio River Valley and as far south as Louisiana. While Benjamin’s connection to Windsor was always known, it wasn’t necessarily widely celebrated. That’s changed, now that Old South Church has been named to the National Register of Historic Places at the National Level of Significance.

“In the world of architectural history, it’s a big deal,” Hayward said. “For those of us working in historic preservation, this is a big deal.”

Old South Church was previously listed as part of the Windsor Village Historic District, which has been listed in National Register since 1975. Ordinarily, if a building is already part of a historic district, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation doesn’t encourage a separate listing, said Devin Colman, state architectural historian with the division.

“This was one where it was really a no-brainer because we knew there was so much more information to uncover about the history of this building, its association with Asher Benjamin, the various alterations that have been made,” Colman said, citing the way the building has changed over the years to meet the needs of the congregation, including the installation of a floor in 1844 to create a second story in the church.

While there had been talk over the years about trying to get Old South its own listing on the National Register, nothing had truly come to fruition. The congregants became inspired after Hayward gave a talk about Benjamin and his connection to Windsor.

“Some of us were sitting there and saying, ‘Why don’t we use that as a calling card?’” McGraw said.

It took the congregation around two years to put together the proposal and get through the process.

In order to get on the National Register, organizations must work with their state’s historic preservation offices, which reviews the application and signs off on it before it reaches the National Park Service for review. The National Park Service oversees the National Register of Historic Places. 

Congregants got in touch with state officials and raised money through donations and grants to hire Papazian and Lewandowski. Lewandowski discovered that the church’s truss work matched Benjamin’s designs in “The Country Builder’s Assistant,” which Palatucci described as “really a golden moment for us. It’s like a treasure trove for scholars or wannabe timber framers if they want to study this stuff.”

Community spaces

When the National Park Service approved Old South’s listing earlier this year, it was exciting for Hayward and staff at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. 

“They're pretty few and far between,” said Colman. “You’re talking about properties that reflect the history of the nation as a whole. That's a pretty high standard to meet.”

There are more than 900 individual properties and historic districts in Vermont are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, according to Colman. Of those, only 46 have a “National Level of Significance” ranking.

With this new ranking, Old South Church has joined the ranks of the Vermont State House, the Rockingham Meeting House, and the Richmond Round Church for national-level architectural significance, Colman said. 

“Best case scenario we have these really important historic buildings that are being actively used because that means they will be maintained. Not everything can become a historic house museum nor should it,” Colman said. “That’s really the value of historic buildings like this is in a community. They are vibrant functioning community spaces.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.