The Upjohn Building and Architecture 1865
In an area of Boston filled with cultural monuments and architectural splendor, Church of the Covenant is an architectural and artistic landmark which has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Designed by prominent New York architect Richard M. Upjohn, the church was built from Roxbury puddingstone. It is a paradigm of the Gothic Revival style. The basic Gothic lines prevail—with pointed arches, flying buttresses, a tripartite door at the main entrance and a lofty spire.
Gothic Revival may seem an odd choice for descendants of Puritans known for their sparse, white New England churches. Gothic was the preferred church style from the late 1840s until the American Civil War and by the 1860s many Protestants, including these evangelical Congregationalists, chose the popular Gothic style. At the least, they expected that an imposing Gothic edifice would make theirs the most important Congregationalist church in New England, just as their former church home in downtown Boston had been the most popular Congregationalist church in the city.
Richard Upjohn’s masterful urban Gothic style of the Church of the Covenant (Central Congregational) is a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Here medieval Gothic architecture was interpreted for a new age using American materials. The local Roxbury pudding stone facade gives the building texture and varied color, with purple, orange and brown highlights. The architecture has Gothic ornamentation, with designs and battlement style spires, but the ornamentation does not overwhelm the building.
Architect and writer Ralph Adams Cram singled out the church as an example of when “the Gothic revival… resulted for a time in serious, dignified, and self-respecting churches, such as the Central Church here in Boston.” According to church records, “the Upjohns insisted that a high Gothic edifice be erected that no dwelling house would over-top.” At 80 ft. high, 80 ft. wide and 121 feet long, the church is the width and height of a Gothic cathedral and half the length—a foreshortened Gothic cathedral commanding a prominent corner in the Back Bay. When it was built, the spire soared above Boston as the highest point in the city. At 237 feet, it was higher than the largest public memorial in America, the Bunker Hill Monument in nearby Charlestown and remained the tallest building in Boston until 1915.
Writer Oliver Wendell Holmes thought the Central Church spire was among the best in the world. In One Hundred Days in Europe (1887) he compared it to the finest he had seen in his travels and concluded that…
“We have one steeple in Boston that to my eyes seems absolutely perfect—that of the Central Church on the corner of Newbury and Berkeley Streets.”
- The building walls are eighty-five feet from the curb-stone to the top of the crosses on each gable.
- The foundation-walls are solid granite blocks that go fourteen feet deep.
- The entire structure rests upon 1100 piles, twenty-nine feet in length.
- Between the piers supporting the clear-story walls there are inverted arches and a system of arches over the whole area of the church, which support the floors and roof.
- The building’s walls vary in thickness from one foot ten inches to four feet. The buttresses are from two to seven feet thick.
- The foundation of the tower is on a granite base, topped with several feet of solid concrete. On top of this, rests an inverted dome which terminates under the four walls of the tower.
- The wall construction is from local Roxbury pudding stone , laid in broken ashlar while the trim red stone is from New Jersey and the white from Ohio.
The plan of the building consists of nave aisles and transepts with a tower on the southeast corner. This, with three porches, makes the body of the church, which in the interior is one hundred and twenty-one feet from rear of the chancel to the Berkeley street entrance and seventy-five feet in width. There was no center aisle and only two side aisles with the pews built right up to the walls
The arches which carry the clear-story walls are supported by brown stone columns with Ohio stone carved capitals. Above the capitals are richly foliaged corbels, which rise to the capitals of stone which carry the arch principals of the open timbered roof.
Church records show that the architects desired to use the whole lot for the church sanctuary vs. the church’s desire to include a chapel and sanctuary on the lot. Ultimately, the church would not purchase additional land, so as a compromise the chancel was cut-down to accommodate a chapel behind.
With the spire uncompleted, it was seriously proposed to leave it unfinished since $250,000 had already been contracted and spent and no contractor would agree to a set price for the spire completion because of the high cost of labor and materials. Ultimately, it was complete by day labor with money raised as construction continued.
The pews and all other interior wood work were in black walnut. The walls were simply covered with a neutral colored paint. The lighting was done by a row of thickly set gas jets entirely around the top of each column.