The Bennington Baptist Church was designed to be a visual exclamation point!
Watch how it appears as you come west down Main Street past the Safford Street intersection. The church is right in front of you. Look again as you come east from the Four Corners: It's visible at School Street, and can't be missed at Silver.
Placed there, in 1878, just where the road curves, the church's tower dominated the view of all who approached. Today leafy trees shield it most of the year so that only its lower levels are visible -- just the bottom dot on that exclamation point. But in winter the leaves are gone. We get to see it all.
Main Street isn't straight. The builders in Bennington took advantage of this. Important buildings, ones to be noticed, were deliberately set where the street bends so those buildings would appear right in front of us. There are other examples, the Old First Church being the most obvious. The records of its construction report that the committee walked the site to find where it would be seen to best advantage.
The Baptist Church has been on this site since 1830, when its first building was dedicated. Destroyed by fire, the church was rebuilt in 1847. ‘Shirkshire' winds blew down the steeple in 1849 and again in 1876. In 1878 the congregation dedicated the new church -- the one we see today -- built of stone and brick. It would not burn. The 100-foot tower had an open belfry -- the winds blew right through it.
When the church was designed, Americans looked to medieval cathedrals in Europe for inspiration. We liked pointed arches, steep roofs, and especially irregular forms. The ideal church would seem to have been built organically, each unit added as it was needed. The photograph, taken from Valentine Street, shows four parts: The sanctuary, a stair tower, the steeple, and a second smaller tower, all with different shapes, roofs and window patterns.
What unifies these pieces? The red brick walls, the gray slate roof, and especially the white stone banding, which here wraps around the church and steeple five times, make the diverse parts into a whole.
The Victorians also loved playing with surface and pattern. The brick is many shades of red. The banding emphasizes the parts of the walls, and is, itself, carved. The slate is both scalloped and square cut. Corbels run in rows at the eaves. And then the steeple: The stone caps on the tower buttresses have two parts. The belfry arches have double stone bands and open tracery. The brick above becomes tapestry ending with more banding and corbels. The roof itself, a simple shape, is divided into three parts by the banded and arched windows. Rosettes lead up to the finial, the cross. Quite an exclamation point!
This isn't all. I haven't mentioned the Main Street façade, or the chapel wing. I've left out the religious aspects of the design. I hope you will pause and enjoy all this Victorian exuberance before next May when the leaves will once again obscure our view.
Jane Radocchia is a Banner columnist.