Looking up the bell tower, you may think you are standing outside some grand European cathedral. Maybe the grey skies call to mind England, Scotland or Ireland (I’ve never been but they’re on the bucket list). Despite outward appearances, this landmark is not across the Atlantic but tucked away on Massachusetts’ South Coast, in the seaside town of Fairhaven.
The beautiful and captivating Gothic Revival structure is the Unitarian Memorial Church, designed by Charles Brigham and completed in 1904 but more notably associated with Henry Huttleston Rogers. Rogers was a native son who became an executive with Standard Oil in the late 19th century. He commissioned and bequeathed a number of incredible local buildings, including the Millicent Library (named for his daughter) and the Fairhaven High School. According to the church’s National Register report, “No small town in Massachusetts has benefited more from one man donating so many major architectural monuments than has Fairhaven.” But perhaps none is so grand, amazing and sparks the imagination like the Unitarian Memorial Church.
My mother grew up in Fairhaven (“the name says it all” she says) and a good chunk of my childhood was spent at my grandmother’s just outside of the town center. She lived in an old farmhouse, let me play with antiques, told me stories of “the olden days” and I’m convinced that’s why I chose this career path.
I grew up looking at this incredibly huge stone building which I decided at one point was a castle and I’d live there some day. Its tower could be seen from all around, even across the river in New Bedford. It had massive doors and gates that made you wonder what was on the other side? What was in the tower? Could you look out some of those windows and see for miles and miles? Before I had the vocabulary and education to know and appreciate the church’s architectural and historic importance, I knew it was something special and important. It captured my imagination and peaked my curiosity. One day I hoped to get inside.
So, I was beyond excited when Jeff Gonyeau invited me to tag along to a Circuit Rider site visit to the church. There was water infiltration damaging some of the interior decorative stone and discussing preservation plans in general for the church were the main reasons for the PM staff visit. Saturday came, and I came into Fairhaven Center and saw the tower, like a beacon, reminding me that this is where it all started.
Stepping through those doors into the church was like going back in time to a new place that yet familiar. I was 8 years old and just giddy with amazement and wonder. It was a blur of carved woodwork, incredible craftsmanship, stained glass that glowed, fan vaults and the most intricate baptismal font cover I have ever seen. I kept repeating “I can’t believe I’m here”, probably sounding foolish but the space was grand yet cozy, intricate yet fitting for Fairhaven and her seafaring history. It certainly is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Massachusetts, as cited in the NR report and pictures truly do not do it justice. The church, dedicated to H.H. Roger’s mother, is truly remarkable and awe inspiring. Even if you’re not a fan of the style, it demands appreciation. Jeff in his fantastic Circuit Rider way gave some great advice, referrals and next steps which are ongoing. I came back to the office on Monday gushing about the site visit and was told that my enthusiasm was palpable. I guess I really geeked out on this church!
Thinking about it, for me this was amazement and appreciation on a level above architecture or history. It was that intangible connection to a place that is special and matters to you. I can take all the pictures I want (and I did take a lot… more to be uploaded soon) but they won’t capture the feeling of being in that space, or seeing all the detail on the organ, the marble floor or fanned ceiling vaults.
One day I’ll get over to Europe and stand outside a cathedral, look up the tower and take similar pictures. It will be exciting, and I’ll be over the moon on the architecture on history, but the feeling won’t be the same. But it’s nice to know I can go back to the center of Fairhaven and see that tower, a beacon, taking me back to where it all began.
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To read the church's National Reigster Nomination, click here
To learn more about historic Fairhaven, click here
Click below to watch a video of some more pictures of the Fairhaven Unitarian Memorial Church