The Meeting-Houses of Northampton (1654-2018)
Settled in 1654, Northampton, Massachusetts has seen its fair share of layout changes during the past 364 years; however, each iteration of the downtown landscape contained spaces meant to bring the town together in one way or another. At the present, there are three notable buildings that fit this description: the City Hall, the Hampshire County Courthouse, and the First Churches—otherwise known as the fifth meeting-house. This tripartite division of town spaces may be standard now, yet the original 1654 meeting-house served as a space for religious worship, town hall, courthouse, school, and more. So just how did one small, log structure sat atop the aptly named Meeting-House Hill come to be replaced by a flurry of successive meeting-houses and specialized buildings? And how did the community interaction with, and conceptualization of, these spaces change? I hope the following page provides a few answers to these questions.
1654 • First Meeting House
1661 • Second Meeting House
Also known as: The First Church of Christ
1737 • Third Meeting House
Also known as: The Jonathan Edwards Meeting-House
1812 • Fourth Meeting House
Also known as: The Old Church
1878/88 • Fifth Meeting House
Also known as: The First Churches
While meeting-houses have been perpetually present in Northampton since 1654, 1737 saw the building of an official town hall and courthouse. These structures took with them some of the functions of the meeting-house, and they have had their own development over the past 281 years. While this page focuses on the meeting-houses of Northampton, it is perhaps beneficial to include a brief overview of the various town halls and court houses–structures intimately tied to the community in similar ways to the meeting-houses.
1737 Old Courthouse and Town Hall
1767 Court House
1813 (rebuilt 1823) Court House
Fig. 1. On the right may been seen the 1823 Hampshire County Courthouse. It stands next to the 1812 First Congregational Church (fourth meeting-house) on Meeting-House Hill.
1814 Town Hall
Fig. 2. The 1814 Town Hall may been seen on the left, having fallen into disuse some time before the mid-nineteenth century. It was formerly adorned with a balcony on the front and flanked by a stone wall and staircase on its west side.
1850 Town Hall
Fig. 3. A 1993 photograph of the 1850 Town Hall that still stands in downtown Northampton today.
1886 Current Court House
Fig. 4. A pre-1914 photograph of the 1886 Court House that remains standing on the corner of Main St. and King St.
Figure 1. The Hampshire County Courthouse and the First Congregational Church, Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts, circa 1874-1876, Historic Northampton.
Figure 2. Old Town Hall and Entrance to King Street, in Reminiscences of Old Northampton: Sketches of the Town as it Appeared From 1840 to 1850.
Figure 3. City Hall, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1993, Historic Northampton.
Figure 4. First Church, Northampton / Institution for Savings and / Court House, Northampton, Historic Northampton.
History of Northampton, Massachusetts, From its Settlement in 1654 (James Russell Trumbull, 1898): This first volume of Trumbull's extensive history of Northampton explores a wide variety of aspects relating to the town from its foundation in 1654 until around 1722. From amusing anecdotes to detailed descriptions of physical structures and community members, this work covers an incredible amount of material. Chapters are chronological and divided into subheadings listed at the beginning of the work and an index is included in the final pages; consequently, this text proves both easy to navigate and easy to read.
Historic Localities in Northampton (Committee on Historical Localities, 1904): This collection of notes on various buildings in downtown Northampton was compiled in 1904 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Northampton's settlement. Containing brief descriptions of structures (both those extant in 1904 and those long-gone) and their histories and including a number of sketches, this short text gives a nice overview of the physical make-up of Northampton leading up to the early 20th century.
Reminiscences of Old Northampton: Sketches of the Town as it Appeared From 1840 to 1850 (Henry Sherwood Gere, 1902): As Gere puts it in his introduction, the aim of this work "was to bring to view, in a concise form, as much of the old-time aspect of the center of town as could be gathered." Consisting of brief descriptions of Northampton, originally published separately in the Hampshire Gazette, this work achieves its goal of capturing a decade of the town's history in vivid detail. Though there is no table of contents, each chapter begins with a list of its subheadings. Written in a pleasant and almost conversational style, Reminiscences effectively surveys the physical and social aspects of 1840s Northampton.
For Puritan settlers throughout the northeast, the term “meeting-house” held a religious connotation. This was in part due to the development of “meetings” to refer to services not associated with the Anglican church. Consequently, these spaces may be broadly designated as houses of worship, though their construction and use (especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) was not always inherently sacred. The houses themselves were often seen as temporary and would be rebuilt regularly—such is certainly true with the five meeting-houses that have existed in Northampton—and were mostly made of wood. From their construction and furnishings to their use, these structures often reflected an amalgamation of community efforts and served a variety of community needs as places for town meetings, religious services, ceremonies like baptisms, elections, trials, protests, schooling, and more.
In erecting a new meeting-house there was a set procedure which included an official vote on the construction of a new building and a process for selecting a site (which could prove rather difficult). Once a meeting-house was completed it began to host various gatherings and became integrated into the community landscape. This did occurred in a sentimental way but also in a very physical way since they served as centers of information for town members. Meeting-houses were spaces to post public notices, connect with neighbors, and check the time on the clock tower or some sort of sundial out front. Furthermore, one would hear the bell—or a drummer or trumpeter, if the town had not purchased such an expensive item—of the meeting-house ringing out at regular intervals each day. The meeting-house was not just another building in town; it was a vital religious and municipal space.
Being such an integral part of the social and cultural landscapes of towns, community lore rose around these meeting-houses and many of these reminiscences can be found in nineteenth-century writings on townscapes. In the three main sources that I have referenced in the subsequent history of Northampton’s meeting-houses there are an abundance of these entertaining tidbits about interactions with the spaces; however, it is important to recognize that the romanticizing of meeting-houses does not usually reflect the reality of the buildings. Often cold, dirty, crowded during meetings but empty otherwise, and in various states of construction or disrepair, meeting-houses were not always as cared for as many are today.
With this general, and in no way exhaustive, background laid out it is time to look at the progression of Northampton’s meeting-houses; however, further information on the topic of New England meeting-houses may be found in Peter Bene’s Meetinghouses of Early New England.
Fig. 1. This rock and plaque mark the location of the original meeting-house of Northampton on the corner of Main St. and King St.
Upon their arrival to Northampton in 1654, the first settlers set about erecting a structure to serve the new town's needs. Together they felled trees and transformed the logs into sawn timber—thus putting significant effort into this building considering that their own houses were made of unhewn timber. At only 18 by 26 feet, with one door and two windows, no permanent pews, a thatched roof, and costing the settlers £14, the first meeting house was modest in its construction; however, it was likely that the settlers saw this meeting-house as temporary and likely to be replaced as the town began to grow.
Regardless of its basic structure, this building was of vital importance to the operation of Northampton during the first few years of settlement. At once a town hall, religious space, makeshift court house, school, and general gathering place, the first meeting-house stood as the heart of the the town not only metaphorically but also physically. The settlers chose to place this structure on top of a hill in the center of the planned region of settlement—one can almost imagine a sort of motte with the meeting-house as its keep. With regards to its varied uses, the first-meeting house combined religious and secular functions under the same roof. In a way, this was only natural since the settler were a pretty homogenous population of Puritans and religion permeated all aspects of their daily life—there was no need, nor likely any desire, to distinguish between religious and non-religious functions of the building.
While it was an important feature of the original landscape of Northampton, this fist meeting-house only lasted seven years before the town had outgrown the miniscule space. Furthermore, residents wanted a more permanent and formal space for religious services. All of this led to a vote in 1660 regarding the designing of a new meeting-house.
Fig. 2. An artistic rendering of the second meeting-house with its pyramidal roof and a small cupola.
After a final vote approving the construction of a new meeting-house to the west of the original one, the settlers set about building the second meeting-house. Aside from the physical restrictions of the previous structure, there were religious motivations to this decision—in June of 1661 the First Church of Christ was officially formed and a minister was hired, so a more-fitting structure for religious worship was desirable. At 42 feet square and costing £150, the second meeting-house had a satisfactory sixteen windows and was topped with a pyramidal roof and a cupola that eventually (around 1682) housed a bell. Over time the interior developed to include pews and assigned seating, a pulpit, a front gallery, and a broad aisle where the rope of the bell hung down to be used by the ringer. Yet, while this structure was certainly a house of worship, like its predecessor it continued to serve all of the meeting-based needs of Northampton, having never been designated as purely religious space.
During the existence of this second meeting-house Northampton was impacted by a variety of wars, such as King Phillip's War in the late seventeenth century and Queen Anne's War in the early eighteenth century. In response to attacks on the town, in 1677 the residents decided to fortify the meeting-house by encircling it with palisades and assigning a squadron to defend it. That the meeting-house likely held supplies like gunpowder and served as a space for organizing the town's defense meant that there were strategic reasons to take such protective measures; however, its role as a site for religious worship would have also been of importance during this time when one can imagine that the settlers turned towards their faith for support during periods of attack.
This second meeting-house saw the development of a formal church community in Northampton, the standardization of town meetings and implementation of a fining system for absences from said meetings, and the general growth of the town. As the first generation of children born in the region matured throughout the seventeenth century, this structure served as a central space for the emergence of new dynamics within Northampton. From rowdy schoolchildren to military squadrons defending the inhabitants from outside attacks to influential town members voting on a variety of ordinances, the second meeting-house solidified the central role established by the first meeting-house.
Third Meeting-House / The Jonathan Edwards Meeting House
Fig. 3. An artistic rendering of the third meeting-house, also known as the Jonathan Edwards Meeting House.
By 1737 Northampton was ready for an updated meeting-house—after all, it had been almost eighty years since the construction of the second one. Including three entrances, a towering steeple with a belfry to house to bell bought back in the seventeenth century, a plethora of windows, a clock tower, and to top it all off a fine rooster weather vane, this meeting-house continued the established trend of rebuilding the structure to be both bigger, here 70 by 46 feet, and more elaborate. The interior featured a pulpit with a large sounding board, a sizeable gallery, and assigned pews.
All of this was a rather fitting space for the man associated with this iteration of the Northampton meeting-house: Jonathan Edwards. A notable Puritan theologian, preacher, and leader of the Great Awakening, Edwards had showed up in Northampton in 1727. His presence at the third meeting-house greatly increased the size of the congregation and this structure was meant to accommodate this: its prominent steeple and location called worshipers to approach the building. The daily ringing of the bell and the addition of the clock onto the tower must have also given Northampton residents reason to frequently regard the building.
Whereas the second meeting-house—which was torn down shortly after the completion of its succesor—served a variety of (what would now be considered) secular and religious purposes, this structure's use was not so diverse. 1737 saw not only the construction of this third-meeting house but also the construction of a structure to serve as both a town hall and a courthouse; however, this change did not seem to impact the sense that the meeting-house was the center of town. Though important townsfolk might have met to vote on ordinances or pass judgment on individuals, the majority of the Northampton population were to be found in church more often than they were to be found in town meetings or court hearings.
Fourth Meeting-House / The Old Church
Fig. 4. A photograph of the fourth meeting-house, later called the Old Church.
Once the third meeting-house was torn down in 1812, a new building was erected. The fourth meeting-house was designed by Asher Benjamin worked on by one Isaac Damon, who also designed a new courthouse in 1812 and a new town hall in 1814, and came to be a beloved feature of Northampton. Though featuring a similar singular steeple with a clock and belfry as its predecessor, this meeting-house was even more monumental and easily dwarfed the surrounding commercial blocks. Later affectionately called the Old Church it held a pulpit, galleries, choir, old-fashioned pews with doors, and even an organ by 1856 (which many of the older congregation members were not particularly excited about). According to one account, its dedication saw around 1,500 in attendance—it is striking to think that only 150 years earlier the meeting-house was barely big enough to fit 100 people.
The construction of this fourth meeting-house also marked a bit of a change from the previous tradition of regarding meeting-houses as temporary structures. The colossal scale of the building certainly makes it seem as though residents were not thinking about tearing it down any time soon. Furthermore, the hiring of an architect, attention to detail inside the meeting-house, and purchase of an organ demonstrate that a lot of money and effort went into the existence and amelioration of the Old Church. The community of Northampton conceptualized this iteration of the meeting-house as a structure that would withstand the years, thus breaking away from earlier traditions of envisioning the meeting-house as something to continually improve on.
This edifice saw numerous baptisms, funerals, weddings, and was home to a passionate congregation and a robust choir. For years it was, as its earlier incarnations had been, the only house of worship in Northampton and it served multiple generations as a central community space. With its whitewashed exterior, massive interior (one source claims that it was the largest church in the Connecticut Valley at the time of its construction), and central location it continued to improve upon various features of prior meeting-houses. Along this line, it also served primarily religious function like the third meeting-house before it. The construction of the new independent courthouse and town hall reinforced the division of uses that had occurred in 1737 and a variety of other purpose-built structures like schools mean that this space did not have to be adapted to function on so many levels. Yet, the fourth meeting-house continued to serve as the heart of the community by being (at the very least) a weekly meeting place for hundreds of townsfolk to gather and a site for significant events in many residents' lives—such as with the aforementioned baptisms, funerals, and weddings.
All of this, however, was brought crashing down with a massive fire in 1876 that decimated not only this fourth meeting-house but also the Whitney Building next door. Whereas Northampton residents had previously been able to decide upon the new construction of a meeting-house, and subsequent destruction of the old one, this time they had no such luxury. It is perhaps this tragedy that leads to the romantic remembering of the Old Church not only by its congregation members but by later residents of Northampton. For instance, Henry Gere, the author of a history of Northampton during the 1840s, writes of the event that "in the broad sunlight of a midsummer day, June 27, 1876, while thousands of people gazed upon the conflagration, [the fourth meeting-house] fell a victim to the devouring element, and was lost to view. Many who witnessed its destruction did so with heavy hearts and tearful eyes, for an object dear to the, was passing forever away." These sentiments are not limited to Gere and they strengthen the idea that it was the meeting-house, not the town hall or courthouse or taverns or parks or any other structure, that stood at the heart of the community.
Fifth Meeting-House / The First Churches
Fig. 5. A photograph of the fifth meeting-house as it stands today, now referred to as First Churches.
Following the untimely destruction of the fourth meeting-house, a fifth one was designed by the Peabody & Stearns firm and constructed on the same location. No longer whitewashed or classical in style, the Gothic Revival building marked a departure from the aesthetics of the previous meeting-houses. The interior features the standard pews, galleries, and pulpit as well as new elements like spandrels and arches and Tiffany stained glass windows. With the abrupt ruin of the Old Church, it seems as though the community made major readjustments in their conceptions of the meeting-house.
The Gothic style, done up in fire-resistant brownstone, speaks to a desire for this building to last for years to come and stamps out any idea of the meeting-house as a temporary or informal structure. Furthermore, in recent years this fifth meeting-house has undergone various restoration projects, both with regards to the foundational elements of the building as well as with regards to the decorative elements like the stained glass windows. This meeting-house thus endures as a valued feature of downtown Northampton and it is unlikely that it will be torn down any time in the near future.
With regards to use, in an odd way, the fifth meeting-house seems to reconcile secular and religious functions in a manner that the third and fourth meeting-houses had turned away from. First Churches proclaims on their website that, "the current First Churches Meetinghouse has been used for worship and community gathering. These two functions remain the primary focus of First Churches and the Fifth Meetinghouse, a fully handicapped accessible building, has become a unique space used for multi-faith worship, public forums and cultural events, and human service outreach." The distinction made between First Churches, the group that inhabits the building, and the structure itself being the fifth meeting-house is certainly interesting. This consciously opens the space up to other community members not associated with the church and thus reinterprets the role of the meeting-house in the social and cultural landscape of Northampton.
Though the fifth meeting-house reconciles secular and religious functions it does so in a way that is fundamentally different from the first and second meeting-houses. Those iterations combined a plethora of uses under one roof because there was no religious/non-religious distinction between aspects of social life. In other words, the diversity of functions in the original meeting-houses was due to a marked lack of diversity in the population of Northampton. Meanwhile, First Churches is attempting, in a very deliberate way, to use the fifth meeting-house as a space for the bringing together of the currently very diverse population of Northampton. So while it may be said, not incorrectly, that the fifth meeting-house resembles the first two meeting-houses in its inhabitation by numerous community groups, the reasons behind the shift from the precedents of the third and fourth meeting-houses sets this iteration of the space apart from all of its forerunners.
As of 2018, the fifth meeting-house is still going strong and if anything has experienced a renaissance during this early part of the twenty-first century. With numerous restoration efforts and an active community participation with the space, this 140 year old building is giving its predecessor—the much-loved Old Church—a run for its money as the most well thought of meeting-house of Northampton. Adaptations in the structure's use and changes regarding the groups using the space are to be expected, though perhaps after four previous tries Northampton has finally perfected their version of the meeting-house.
Header: Northampton Center as it was in 1838, in Historic Localities in Northampton.
Figure 1. Morgan Dolmatch, Plaque Commemorating the First Meeting House, 2018.
Figure 2. Northampton’s 2nd Meeting House, c. 1661, Historic Northampton.
Figure 3. William F. Pratt, The Jonathan Edwards Meeting House, 1870s, in Historic Localities in Northampton.
Figure 4. 'Old Church' Northampton Mass. Built 1812 Burnt 1876, Historic Northampton.
Figure 5. Morgan Dolmatch, First Churches, 2018.
Benes, Peter. Meetinghouses of Early New England. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk33z.
Committee on Historical Localities, comp. Historical Localities in Northampton. Northampton: Gazette Printing, 1904. July 18, 2008. https://archive.org/details/historicallocali00comm.
Cutts, Emily. "Enduring Beauty: Restoration Work Begins on Tiffany Window at First Churches." Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 20, 2017. http://www.gazettenet.com/First-Churches-renovates-century-old-stained-glass-windows-10193942.
Gere, Henry Sherwood. Reminiscences of Old Northampton: Sketches of the Town as It Appeared from 1840 to 1850. Northampton: Gazette Printing Company, 1902. July 18, 2008. https://archive.org/details/reminiscencesofo00gereh.
"History." First Churches of Northampton. http://www.firstchurches.org/welcome/history/.
Parsons, Bonnie, Helen Searing, C. Dubie. NTH.717 First Church of Christ Congregational Church. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Commission, 2018). http://mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=NTH.717
Trumbull, James Russell. History of Northampton, Massachusetts, from Its Settlement in 1654. Vol. 1. Northampton: Press of Gazette Printing, 1898. September 30, 2008. https://archive.org/details/historyofnortham00trum.