In New Haven, A Hidden Church Revealed | Connecticut Public Radio
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In New Haven, A Hidden Church Revealed

Jan 9, 2020

As a bank building at Elm and Orange streets meets its maker, an edificial ghost has appeared: a long-forgotten church.

Passers-by have been doing double takes over the past week at the site of the demolition taking place at 80 Elm St. at the corner of Orange. That’s where a crew hired by Spinnaker Real Estate Partners is dismantling the 1948 Art Deco former Webster Bank building to make way for a new six-story 132-room Hilton Garden Inn hotel.

The removal of the southern end of the building has revealed the exterior of a smaller church building that had existed within the property, out of sight.

The original church

It turns out that that Gothic structure-within-a-structure, built of Portland stone, once housed the original permanent home of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church. The congregation held services there for 85 years, from the mid-19th into the mid-20th centuries, until moving to its current Whitney Avenue home.

This isn’t the first time the property has undergone dramatic change, including demolition and rebuilding for new purposes.

According to this official history, of the church, the congregation bought the property in 1849 from one Rodolphus E. Northrup for $4,300. The church board had authorized paying up to $4,500; Northrup apparently didn’t know that.

The congregation, founded in 1848, originally met in rented quarters on Orange (the “Orange Street Lecture Room”) near Crown. It bought the property to build a permanent new home.

A parsonage already existed on the property. The church had it moved to Ashmun Street.

At first the congregation erected a temporary chapel within five months on the Elm Street portion of the new property. The first service was held there on Aug. 12, 1849.

Meanwhile,the congregation got to work on building a bigger permanent space. It agreed to pay $24,500 for the job to a local contractor named Nicholas Countryman, who had built the Old City Hall.

At one point during construction the staging gave way. Six workers fell 20 feet with “the stones and rubbish falling on them.” One mason died. The official church history blames the workers: “The accident was the result of carelessness on the part of the laborers, gathering in a group on the platform, contrary to orders and tumbling the stones heavily thereon.”

St. Thomas’s consecrated the grand new church on April 19, 1855. Built in the early English style, the church had pews and a pulpit made of chestnut wood and a center tower rising 90 feet high. Virginia F. Townsend composed a poem for the occasion. It read in part:

And the sunshine like a blessing,
On the roof and turrets lay,
Like a double consecration,
Of Saint Thomas’ church that day

Through the Gothic windows softly,
Crept the rays of early dawn,
And they lay within the chancel,
Like the smile of God that morn …

Seventy-five years later, the congregation was ready to move again. Elm Street had become a commercial thoroughfare; the church didn’t quite fit in. It bought the Whitney Avenue property between Ogden and Cliff streets for $77,000, and got to work on the church building it occupies today. It left behind some memorial plaques as well as a three-panel chancel window picturing, in the center, St. Thomas holding a long lance.

Meanwhile a new owner constructed a bank around the church. A series of financial institutions occupied the new Art Deco space, including First Constitution Bank and, ultimately, Webster Bank, which eventually moved out and sold the building to Spinnaker in 2017 for $1.675 million.

Demolition continues Wednesday January 8th.
Credit Paul Bass / New Haven Independent

While passersby are surprised to see the newly revealed church, Spinnaker knew from the start that it was there.

“It was a mishmash of a couple of different buildings,” Spinnaker Director of Development Frank Caico told the Independent. “They had the original church. They removed portions of it in the 1940s. They built the original bank building around it. They built some additions to that. It was a combination of four different buildings.”

Spinnaker decided to remove the newer parts of the building first — in reverse order of how it was constructed. A crew from Milford-based Charter Oak Environmental LLC, which is carrying out the demolition for Spinnaker, started at the southern end of the property by the Hall of Records on Orange. It has been gradually working toward the Elm Street front of the bank building. Then it will turn back toward the Hall of Records on the western portion of the property, dismantling the church building.

There’s no sign of the chancel window left behind in the 1940s.

“The only area where there was some remnants from the original church was up in the attic,” Caico said. “When they built the bank building in the 1940s, they basically turned the attic into mechanical space. It was very challenging to go up there and look around. There were some of the old rafters and things like that.”

The crew did find and salvage “some mill work and some rafters” from the original St. Thomas’s. Caico said Spinnaker hopes “to repurpose those items as part of the new hotel in the common areas. We’re pretty excited about it.”

He predicted the crew will wrap up the demolition “in the next few weeks,” at which point the next iteration of 80 Elm Street will rise from the grave of prayers and cash deposits past.