Newport Congregational Church in Newport has received federal recognition for its superb expression of visual arts and architecture. Edward F. Sanderson, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC), announced that the Department of the Interior has designated the United Congregational Church (as the church was originally known) a National Historic Landmark.
The Newport Congregational Church at the corner of Spring and Pelham streets is nationally significant for its artistic interior by American artist John La Farge (1835-1910). The murals and opalescent glass windows of the sanctuary constitute the only surviving, comprehensive interior designed and executed by La Farge, and the most complete demonstration of his artistic mastery of materials and design. The interior also represents an important advance in the technology and craft of American stained glass production. While completing the commission in 1880, La Farge perfected and patented his technique for manufacturing opalescent glass, the popularization of which brought about a revival of American glass artistry in the late 19th century.
According to the RIHPHC’s Edward F. Sanderson, “The Newport Congregational Church interior achieves the highest level of artistic design, and its Historic Landmark designation brings added national recognition for Rhode Island's architectural heritage.” Paul F. Miller of the La Farge Restoration Fund states: “Newport is so renowned for its nineteenth-century residential architecture that the city’s other strengths tend to be overshadowed; this national recognition of the Congregational Church’s La Farge interiors brings the spotlight back to lesser known buildings which just as effectively convey the city’s role as an inter-related trial ground in the evolution of American design.”
The church was among the 26 national historic landmarks and one national natural landmark announced by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on October 17. National Historic page 2 of 6
Landmarks are nationally significant historic places that possess exceptional value in illustrating the heritage of the United States. There are fewer than 2,500 historic places nationwide that share this distinction. In addition to honoring a property for its contribution to local, state, or national history, designation as a National Historic Landmark provides additional benefits. It results in special consideration during the planning of Federal or federally assisted projects and makes properties eligible for Federal tax benefits for historic rehabilitation projects. Owners of private property that have National Historic Landmark status are free to maintain, manage, or dispose of their property as they choose. As the state office for historic preservation, the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission is responsible for reviewing and submitting Rhode Island nominations for National Historic Landmarks consideration.
The La Farge Restoration Fund at Newport Congregational Church initiated the National Landmarks application. The La Farge Restoration Fund is a nonprofit charitable organization established in 1996 to support preservation of the church and its unique artwork and windows. Preservation Consultant Ned Connors prepared the National Historic Landmark nomination, with photographer Aaron Usher, an endeavor supported financially by the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, and the Ocean State Charities Trust.
Said Karen LaFrance, consultant to the La Farge Restoration Fund: “The National Historic Landmark designation is a significant milestone for the restoration. We are extremely grateful to the project’s funders and to the National Park Service team who assisted our historian on this project. And, most important, we are thankful for the perseverance of the Newport Congregational Church members who, for many many years, never faltered in their faith in the uniqueness of their church.”
Newport Congregational Church is open to the public several days of the week and for worship most Sundays. To arrange a visit, contact Andy Long, Moderator, Newport Congregational Church, at 401-849-2238.
Erected in 1857 at the corner of Spring and Pelham streets in Newport, the United Congregational Church (currently known as Newport Congregational Church), was designed in a Lombard Romanesque style by architect Joseph C. Wells of New York. As built, it comprised a rectangular sanctuary on a raised basement with vestibule and an attached, wood-frame, Sunday School building (the latter was replaced with a parish house in 1908). Clad in Connecticut brownstone, the church exterior incorporates a rectangular, gabled meeting house form embellished with two asymmetrical towers flanking the three-door front entrance; a pronounced belt course at the gallery level; cornices with modillions on the main block and towers; and Romanesque hood moldings and engaged columns surrounding the doors and windows.
Inside, the approximately 60’ x 80’ sanctuary has a high, main ceiling and lower, flanking gallery ceilings each divided into five bays. The visual focus of the church sanctuary is a shallow, 18-foot-wide recessed arch that serves as a backdrop to a wide and ornate reading desk. At the rear of the sanctuary, the organ loft contains a Hook and Hastings organ installed in the 1860’s. Paired windows in the side walls emphasize the five arches of the nave. Several original John La Farge glass windows survive on the west elevation. The pews were painted with a faux yellow oak grain.
By the time John La Farge (1835-1910) was hired to complete the decoration for the United Congregational Church in 1880, he was well established as a leading visual artist and decorator. Born to a well-to-do French immigrant family in New York City, La Farge maintained an active interest in art throughout his childhood. After graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in 1853, La Farge chose to study law while continuing to pursue his interest in painting. In 1858 La Farge settled in New York City and likely practiced law for a brief period while renting space in the 10th Street Studio Building. There he formed a friendship with architect Richard Morris Hunt, who encouraged him to relocate to Newport and continue art training with his brother, William Morris Hunt.
In 1876 architect Henry Hobson Richardson engaged La Farge to produce his first large-scale decorative program for Trinity Church in Boston. With the intent to integrate architecture and a decorative program into a unified whole, Trinity was a stunning success, recognized as the most significant building in America in a vote taken by architects in 1885. La Farge’s work with Richardson, completed in a five-month period, included decoration of the 21,500 square feet of interior surfaces. La Farge did the mural work by himself, but had to share duties for glazing with other stained glass artists. He did not like that arrangement; because of this experience at Trinity, he was happy to have the whole decorative program to himself at Newport Congregational.
Henry van Dyke, the pastor of United Congregational Church, was likely familiar with La Farge’s work at Trinity Church and with the artist’s ties to Newport. With a 21-year old church already in need of extensive repair, van Dyke urged the congregation to seek a comprehensive and robust decorative program to coincide with repairs. In February 1880, La Farge won the contract to “paint and glaze the Congregational Church in Newport, R.I.” In the page 4 of 6
same month, he received the patent for a new “Colored-Glass Window” that softened direct light and produced both opalescent and iridescent effects. La Farge would feature this new stained glass-making technique as he commenced work on the first and only comprehensive decorative program for a church interior under his creative direction
At United Congregational, La Farge drew from his familiarity with medieval church architecture to create a decorative program suggestive of the green marble of Lombardy churches combined with Romanesque and Byzantine ornament. Seeking to draw attention away from the furnishings and coloration of the ground floor, he added no wall decoration along the aisles below the galleries. He intended that worshipers' eyes would be drawn upward to richer ornament, culminating in the remarkably detailed design of the main and gallery ceiling panels, and forward to the shallow arch behind the reading desk. This upper-level mural wraps around the church galleries to the front (east) arch where La Farge painted an elaborate, pedimented design with columns suggestive of a temple entrance (see photographs attached). Through the use of advancing and receding colors illuminated by the carefully controlled light of the opalescent glass windows, La Farge transformed the plain, but generous spaces of this Romanesque church into what architectural historian Ron Onorato has called “a highly elaborate ensemble of color and light.”
La Farge’s glass production was confined to the twenty paired windows of the sanctuary. At that time, the church leadership prohibited figurative imagery in decoration, so La Farge drew from geometric patterns of Byzantine, Moorish, and Persian tiles in his designs for a series of windows of opalescent and translucent glass. He painted the window surrounds in a color scheme that mediates between the stark light color of the gallery and aisle walls and the intensity of light entering through the windows. In 1887, La Farge reflected on his transformation of an austere church interior: “It is the result of concessions and compromises. It has accepted all mistakes of structure, all that was unpleasing but permanent, and had endeavored to make it pleasing and permanent. Certainly it has unity, and, I think, an agreeable artistic unity.”
The bulk of La Farge’s original program survives in various states of preservation. Most significant, the highly elaborated mural design of the wall behind the reading desk and the detail applied to ceiling panels, remain essentially unchanged. Original solid olive encaustic paint along the galleries and organ loft lies beneath areas of blue mid-20th-century overpaint and most of La Farge’s windows—important examples of the emergent technique of opalescent architectural glass—survive along the north and south elevations. The building is an imposing presence within the Newport National Historic District, a densely settled, predominantly residential 17th- 18th- and 19th-century neighborhood overlooking Thames Street and Newport Harbor.