The Building of Trinity Church, Boston53

TRINITY CHURCH was the last in the trinity of Episcopal churches to be built in Boston in Colonial times. King’s Chapel in the central part of town was largely built in 1688, although the first services were probably not held there until June 30, 1689. Christ Church, Salem Street, in the North End had its cornerstone laid on April 15, 1723, and it was opened for worship at the end of that year. Things took longer in the South End. There the cornerstone of Trinity Church was laid on April 15, 1734, six years after land bounded by Summer Street and Bishop’s Alley, later called Hawley Street and now the site of Filene’s basement, was deeded to build a church. It was not for another ten years that we can say that the church was completed. Of these buildings only Christ Church remains standing today as the oldest ecclesiastical building in Boston still in use. The original wooden structure of King’s Chapel was torn down in 1749 when the present fine Palladian stone edifice designed by Peter Harrison was erected on its site. After nearly a hundred years the first Trinity Church was also torn down and replaced by a Gothic stone building on the same spot in 1829. This structure in turn became a victim of the great fire of 1872, almost exactly forty-three years later, but after planning had already begun for the third church edifice in Copley Square, one of the key monuments of American architecture in the Romanesque style designed by H. H. Richardson, where the sixteenth Rector of Trinity was installed by the Bishop on the 6th of October, 1974.

It may be helpful to begin by describing Trinity Church’s first building in a verbal sense, by which is meant the construction of the church as we can follow it in the original records of the Proprietors and the Vestry.54 It will then be appropriate to discuss the building in a substantive sense, in the course of which the reader can ponder some descriptions of the outside as well as the inside of the church taken from the written accounts of people who visited the building, and also pictorial representations by people who presumably saw it.

If one understands how the church was built, he will learn more about a versatile and fascinating but unfortunately obscure Bostonian called William Price. Turning to the Church Records one finds that a majority of the purchasers of the land, bought in order to build the church, selected, at a meeting in Luke Vardy’s tavern in Boston on October 17, 1733, five trustees to be a building committee. This committee consisted of Peter Luce, merchant; Thomas Child, distiller; Thomas Greene, merchant; William Price, cabinetmaker; and Leonard Vassall, a wealthy landowner, who was chosen treasurer. All these men were prominent members of King’s Chapel, and it may be mentioned that William Price, who was born in 1684 in England and died in Boston in 1771, was a particularly ardent churchman who retained pews in all three Episcopal churches, was at various times a Warden and Vestryman in both Christ Church and Trinity, and was a generous contributor to all three churches. In his will he left a sum of money for a lectureship to King’s Chapel, which eventually passed to Trinity, the principal sum of which amounted to $1,309,965 as of December 31, 1973.

The first question one might well ask is: Was there a plan drawn by an architect, or anyone else, for the first Trinity Church? This is a particularly apt question because to William Price has sometimes been ascribed the drawing of the plans for Christ Church, Salem Street, and Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island. Nothing has been found in the Church Records to show that a plan for the church was drawn in advance by anyone, although there is considerable evidence in the same documents showing that various plans for different parts of the building were made as the work proceeded.

On November 6, 1733, the Building Committee noted the following: “We sent for John Indicott and Conversed with him about the most Proper Methods for carrying on the work. Agreed that there be 44 Large Windows and 16 small windows.” On November 8, 1733, it was:

Agreed that there be three doors in front of the church and one door on the East side of the alter to answer to the Eastermost Ile. That there be one small window made in the front over the ceiling. That Mr. John Indicott having received an Account of everything that is to be done, be desired to give in an Account what he will do the Work and find the Stuff for.

So an account or description, not a plan, was apparently given to John Indicott, master carpenter and housewright, and from this description he must have prepared his own plan. It was John Indicott who built the first steeple for Christ Church, Salem Street, in 1740, probably after a draught by William Price. Indicott also built the school in School Street for the Wardens and Vestry of King’s Chapel in 1748 when they were getting ready to build the present King’s Chapel.

Although a contract was signed with John Indicott for the carpentry work the Building Committee made a separate contract containing specific measurements with Mr. John Goldsmith for the masonry work involved in the foundations, and on April 15, 1734, the cornerstone was laid by the Reverend Mr. Roger Price, Bishop’s Commissary and Rector of King’s Chapel.

On April 30, 1734, the Building Committee “Voted that there be one Seller door made in Bishop’s alley . . . and that there be another door made under the Great Window that is over the Alter to go into the Seller.” The word “alter” in the Church Records frequently means that part of the chancel where the wooden altar table was to be placed.

On June 25, 1734, there is recorded a significant change in the original concept of the Building Committee: “Voted that there be air holes left in the wall instead of the Windows we formerly agreed for.” This suggests that a third tier of windows on both sides of the church was omitted at this point from the original plan.

On August 4, 1735, it was:

Voted that Mr. John Indicott be ordered to clear everything out of the Church and to pull down the old House and lime Shed that are before the Church as quick as Possable and that he be desired to erect a Pulpit a Reading desk and a Desk for the Clerk and to make as many Ruff Benches as shall be convenient.

On August 15, 1735, the first religious service was held in the church in the presence of the Royal Governor, Jonathan Belcher, and a dinner was provided afterwards by Mr. Withered, mine host at the Bunch of Grapes, the most popular punch house in town.

Even though the first service had been held the church was still far from finished. Glass didn’t go into the windows until October and the first pews were not built nor was the inside of the church plastered until August of the following year.

On June 12, 1738, we find this interesting entry in the records of the Building Committee:

Voted that the Ceiling of the Alter be done after the Moddle made by William Price. Voted that John Indicott do woodwork for the Arching part, purchase Stuff for the same, and for fluted columns, floor and Rails for the alter as cheap as possible.

And on October 4, 1738, the Building Committee recorded that “We drew the plan on the spot for the steps, floreing and rails at the alter with the pillasters and gave Indicott directions to do work conformable to said plan.”

On February 22, 1738, William Price was desired: “to treat with a carver about the Corinthian Capitols.” A few days later, on February 28, Mr. Price reported that

he had been with Mr. Redding the Carver about the Cappitals, who said he would not Carve them well under Ten Pounds a piece. Therefore voted that Mr. William Price be desired to agree with said Redding for the Corinthian Cappitals and that he be paid £30 for them by a Note on a good Shop. The rest of the trustees desired Thomas Greene to treat with Mr. Robert Kenton about Plaistering the Remaining Part of the Alter and make report as soon as possible.

At a meeting of the trustees at Mr. William Price’s on March 5, 1738,

Thomas Greene reported that he had tawlked with Robert Kenton about his finishing the Plaistering of the Alter. His answer was he could do it as well [as] Any man in Boston. Upon which Thos. Greene was desired by the rest of the Committee to employ said Kenton immediately to do said work with all convenient speed and said Greene is hereby impowered to provide Stuff for said Kenton and likewise to Direct Mr. Indicott to Provide Proper Scaffolds.

On June 1, 1739, the Building Committee “Voted that Mr. John Indicott be desired to make a Table for the Alter of Pine to be five feet long and three feet broad,” and within two weeks’ time, on June 17, 1739, the records of the Vestry, which had been elected in April of that year in order to select a minister for the church, report that

Sunday June 17th being Trinity Sunday the Holy Communion or Sacrement of the Lord’s supper was administered in Trinity Church (being the first time) by the Reverend Addington Davenport, the Revd Mr. Saml Seabury assisted.

Earlier in this same year the Church Wardens had noted in a memorandum to their agent in London, to whom they were writing to seek assistance from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to help pay the salary of the minister they had not as yet chosen to be their Rector, that Trinity Church was far from being finished. “The Church wants,” they wrote, “a Tower spire [and] Bell besides inner work.”

Although the church was not finished, the members of the Building Committee delivered all their papers to the newly elected Vestry on May 8, 1740. There still remained to be built a permanent pulpit, reading desk, clerk’s desk, and a sounding board. In addition there was the vestry room and a gallery around the interior of the church to be supported by fluted columns with carved Corinthian capitals on which additional pews would be built. On September 1, 1740, William Price was desired to give his advice with respect to the gallery. On October 13 “a draft for the galleries, pillars and arches was laid before the Vestry,” and an agreement was made with John Indicott to do the work.55 The work on the gallery, the vestry room, and two extra pillars under the organ loft was completed by May 4, 1742. A successful subscription having been completed that year, the Church Wardens ordered from London in early 1742 a pipe organ to be made for them such as “Dr. Berkely (now Bishop of Cloyne) presented the Church in Rhode Island which has mett with great approbation.” They also sent the following measurements to London for the benefit of the organ builder:

a Church which is of the following dementions viszt. 90 feet in length 60 in width 28 feet high in the Stud besides an Arch 10 feet high and 28 broad which makes the whole hight from the floor to the top of the Arch 38 feet. The Organ Gallery is 12 feet from the floor and from the Gallery floor to the top of the Arch is 25 feet, the front of the Organ Gallery is 15 feet and 12 foot deep.

The organ, made by Abraham Jordan and tested by the great Handel in London, arrived in Boston early in 1742. It was soon set up, and Peter Pelham, Jr., became in that year Trinity’s first organist.

In August of 1742 Governor Shirley delivered the handsome George II church silver he had received from the King’s bounty for the church as well as a “large Royall Bible,” prayer books, altar and pulpit cloths, and “cushons of Crimson Damask.”

By 1744 one can confidently conclude that Trinity Church was substantially complete, just ten years after the cornerstone had been laid and sixteen after the land had been bought. It was calculated by the church authorities that the expense had been £2087 sterling. But still in the minds of the Vestry the church was not complete; and it is appropriate to mention briefly a few important additions and changes to the building that occurred or were contemplated by the Vestry in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

First of all it appears that a change of taste was registered in the vote of the Vestry on July 17, 1753, when it was:

Voted that we proceed on to painting the inside of the Church of Mahogany Collur, the pillars marble, the Capitols guilt and the alter decorated as farr as the Money Subscribed will go at the discretion of the Comitee to be chose.

Previous accounts in the Church Records reveal substantial sums paid for whitewashing the church. No indication is given of any other color being used.

On December 11, 1759, it was:

Voted that a Bell Col. George Williamson of his Majesty’s Regiment of Royal Artillery hath Brought from Quebeck (which he took at the reduction of that place last Summer) that it be purchased and erected on this Church as soon as may be [and] that a Subscription be made for the payment of the bell.

As a substantial bill was paid that year to Mr. William More, partner of John Indicott, for “work and Stuff framing and hanging the same,” it appears certain that, at least for some years, perhaps until the Revolution, Trinity Church had a bell in some sort of a belfry on its roof.

In July 1784 it was voted to recover the outside of the church with new clapboard and to paint it a stone color, and on May 17, 1789, a very handsome clock was presented to the church which was “fixed up in the front of the Organ Gallery.”

In the last decade of the century the Vestry, apparently sensing a certain lack of dignity or grandeur in the exterior of their church, appointed a committee “to get a Plan of a porch or Portico with a colonade for the South End of the Church.” On April 28, 1793, the

Plan for a colonnade for the South End of the Church was laid before the Proprietors and approved. But in answer as the expense of carrying the same into effect is estimated at three thousand dollars which sum appears to be more than can be easily raised.

Voted that the matter subside for the present.

Voted to make suitable returns to Mr. Bullfinch for his elegant and much admired plan.

N.B. Mr. Bullfinch refused to accept any pecuniary reward for his trouble.

Having traced the construction of Trinity Church in its records it is illuminating to read the descriptions left by people who actually saw the building in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century before it was torn down. These descriptions, do not, curiously, tally with some contemporary pictures of the church, which show Trinity as the proud possessor of an elaborate tower and steeple, architectural elements the first Trinity Church probably never possessed.

On the 9th of September, 1750, Francis Goelet of New York, Captain of the “Tarter Galley” put into Boston to repair damage done by a storm to his vessel before proceeding on to London. During his stay of almost three months he kept a diary in which he noted on October 14, 1750:

went to Trinity Church and was introduced by Mr. Coffin into his Piew. The Parson Mr. Hooper Gave us an Excellent Discourse on the following text (the Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom). This build is very Plain without, with Large Sash Windows, But within Verry Neat and Comodius, the Architect Modren, with a Very Neat Little Organ Prettily Embellished. This Church having no steeple looks more like a Prespetarian Meeting House.56

Nor was there a steeple to be seen in 1817 when Charles Shaw described Trinity Church as

a large plain wooden building. . . . The inside has a show of the Corinthian style, but the building has nothing to recomend it but its roominess and convenience for worship. . . . The chancel is ornamented with some handsome paintings, and the choir is furnished with a large, well toned organ. It has three doors in front, without porches, and has no bell nor steeple.57

Finally, turning to the iconography of Boston, we find in the so-called “Price-Burgis View of Boston as revised, 1743” a clearly marked tower and steeple for Trinity Church even taller and more prominent than the tower and steeple of Christ Church, Salem Street (Fig. 21). On an impression in the British Museum of the first state of this plate, now believed to have been made in 1723, there are paper “pasters” altering the skyline as it might have been in 1736. One “paster” shows Trinity with a prominent tower but no spire, suggesting the progress being made in the construction of the church (Fig. 22). On the other hand, two views of Boston by James Turner, which appeared in the same month that William Price first advertised the 1743 view just mentioned, do not show a spire for Trinity Church.58 These views show the spires of the three churches in the South End which it is known did have spires, namely the Old South Meeting House, still standing, the New South Meeting House at the junction of Summer Street and Blind Lane, and the Hollis Street Meeting House toward Boston neck. To deepen the mystery, however, both Paul Revere’s “Prospective View of Boston of 1770” and his “View of the Town of Boston in 1774”59 as well as an engraving from a drawing supposedly done by Governor Thomas Pownall before the Revolution from Castle William60 seem to show four steeples in the South End. Two possible answers to this unsatisfactory iconography are either:

  1. 1) a confused perspective, or
  2. 2) the fourth steeple belongs to the Irish Meeting House located near the corner of Summer Street and Marlborough Street opposite Winter Street.

What seems fairly certain is that in the Price-Burgis view of 1743 the clearly marked pictorial representation of Trinity Church, with its handsome tower and steeple, is only an exuberant expression of the hopes and dreams of Mr. William Price, cabinetmaker, print-maker, musician, and Vestryman of Trinity in 1741 and 1751, and Junior Warden of Trinity from 1745 to 1750.

The early nineteenth-century woodcut of the first Trinity Church by Abel Bowen (Fig. 23) may confirm in some minds the following judgment of the Reverend Phillips Brooks, ninth Rector of Trinity, that “the old pictures of it show us an exterior of such exemplary plainness, as would delight the souls of those who grudge the House of God the touch of beauty.”61

Without venturing further aesthetic judgment one may suppose that William Price, from whatever heavenly cloud he may be looking down upon his beloved Trinity Church, is undoubtedly much gratified by the present church’s great imposing central tower and numerous turrets, almost gleaming today in their original splendor. And, if we listen carefully, we may hear him as he wafts gently by, carefully avoiding the obtrusive John Hancock Tower, plucking the strings of his celestial harp to the tune of “O How amiable are Thy dwellings, Thou Lord of Hosts.”