February 1995

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Treasure Trove in Addison

Upjohn's Church of the Redeemer


Ernestine E. King

With a firm commitment to helping small country congregations build structures appropriate to their pocketbooks, Richard Upjohn in 1852 published Upjohn's Rural Architecture, a slim but over-sized volume that printed "Designs, Working Drawings and Specifications for a Wooden Church and Other Rural Structures." His concern was for small congregations remote from urban centers, eager to construct a suitable church building. With Upjohn's scaled drawings, a modest, well-proportioned Gothic-style structure was affordable.

Episcopal Bishop William H. DeLancey in Geneva appreciated Upjohn's work. No fewer than fourteen Gothic Revival churches were built in the Western New York Diocese during Bishop DeLancey's incumbency 1839-1865. One of the jewels graces Wombaugh Square in Addison, the Church of the Redeemer. Though its board and batten siding is distinctively American, its bell tower and interior design are much like the rural medieval churches of England which Upjohn sought to emulate.

An enterprising Addison businessman, William R. Smith, had been instrumental in the building of an academy in the village in 1848. That school structure served the Episcopal congregation for a decade, too, until the vestry voted to erect a church on a plot of land given by Warden Smith for that purpose. In 1854 Smith had made the arduous journey from Addison to Utica, N. Y. for a diocesan convention, held in Trinity Church. He must have been inspired by that setting and what he learned from fellow-churchmen. Before the 1859 year was out, The Church of the Redeemer had been built, and it has been in continuous use over these 135 years.

Upjohn had claimed in Rural Architecture that any competent mechanic could carry out his designs, and two names are associated with Church of the Redeemer's construction: as builder M. McGrath of Painted Post, and a Thomas Reynolds. The 1850 census for the Town of Erwin lists a Michael H. McGrath, but other work from his hand is not known. These two men should be credited with a plan embodying all the critical features Upjohn defined: an orientation that places the altar on the east with a raised chancel, a well-defined nave, vestry and bell tower. The Gothic style was considered most appropriate to the liturgical revival publicized by the Oxford Movement through ecclesiological publications; pointed arches over windows and doors but especially above the nave are immediately recognizable as the style's striking features. McGrath and Reynolds were particularly ingenious here: each of the five bays is framed inside by hammerbeams on which rest well-engineered groined plaster vaults of a sophistication not ordinarily seen in country churches.

One other feature which adds to the uniqueness of the design is inclusion of small wooden dentil blocks that terminate each exterior batten. It is as though McGrath were stating a lingering affection for aspects of the Greek Revival while espousing the fashionable Gothic. On Maple Avenue and Wombaugh Square, both styles are beautifully expressed in near-by residences.

Inside, the simple wooden reredos above the altar may well have come from the same hand as the choir stalls. But the handsome pulpit, baptismal font and brass lectern testify to an affluent congregation eager to appoint their house of worshinp with fine furnishings appropriate to the Anglican tradition. Of particular interest to all music lovers is the excellent 12-stop tracker organ built for the church in 1869 by John G. Marklove of Utica. The late Curtis Taylor, direct descendant of that early warden William R. Smith, remembered pumping the organ bellows by hand, as a boy. An electric motor now performs that function, but that is the only major change in this century-old instrument so well suited to congregational singing, now with Mrs. Kathy Akerelrea at the controls. The organ was cited in 1987 as a National Landmark.

With documentation to confirm what the eye can guess might be a rare building, Addison's Church of the Redeemer was accepted in 1992 for the National Register of Historic Places. Under the vigorous leadership of its part-time rector, the Reverend Sandra K. Curtis, painting and critical repairs were moved along after a 1993 evaluation by the preservation architect, John Bero of Rochester. An unobtrusive handicap ramp has ben added, along with colorful landscaping. A new gold cross on the bell tower, gift of the Crane family, replaces an original which fell. It provides continuity with that A. G. Crane who subscribed funds in 1866 for the great 1,387-pound bell that still rings from the three-stage Gothic tower.

Steuben County can take pride in an historic building which is both traditional and innovative, a comfort to worshipers within, and a visual treat for the discerning visitor without.

1995, Ernestine B. King
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