Upon the conclusion of negotiations with J.P. Morgan regarding the sale of the first St. John’s Church building and land (Hartford), church leaders began exploring options for the future of the parish. One alternative, rebuilding in Hartford, was ruled out in recognition of the fact that many of the city’s Episcopalians were moving west to the growing suburbs. Combinations with other existing parishes were explored but, as happened with earlier similar efforts, these explorations never achieved any result.
As Gary E. Wait writes in his A History of St. John’s Church, West Hartford, Connecticut, 1841-1995, another possibility “was to jump over the neighboring parishes altogether and relocate St. John’s on the outer edge of the city.” This option won support when a well-timed, generous gift of a parcel of land, located just near the end of the city expanding trolley line, was provided by Dr. Thomas B. and John O. Enders. The parcel of land, which had formerly been the site of an entertainment and educational, but not gambling, venue called “The Casino” (shown left), provided the ideal site for the soon-to-be-homeless parish.
The leaders of the church made a significant statement about their hopes for the future by choosing Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue to be their architect. Goodhue, then aligned with prominent Gothicist Ralph Adams Cram, was already one of the nation’s leading church designers and would later rise to fame as the architect of St. Bartholomew’s in New York, the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C., the campus of the California Institute of Technology, and the Nebraska State Capitol among others. At the time of his design work for St. John’s, Goodhue was also creating plans for the new cadet chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point and for two “English country churches” similar to St. John’s in West Haven, Connecticut, and Mount Kisco, New York.
Mr. Wait writes: “The choice of Bertram G. Goodhue…proved to be a fortunate one. Having abandoned the auditorium model of church design, Goodhue and his partners favored the neo-gothic or tudor parish model characterized by a long, narrow and rather lofty sanctuary that rose to the column-supported clerestory above narrow side aisles…Admired as much for the beauty of his architectural drawings as for their realization in stone, Goodhue was, by the middle of the new century’s first decade, beginning to impose his own modifications on the “textbook” gothic of his earlier works. Aisles were narrowed by still further and low massive stone columns with neither base nor capital supported segmented arches, directing the eye upward to the clerestory windows above.” Bertram Goodhue’s sketch of St. John’s, above right in a colorized version, appeared in a published collection of his favorite accomplishments.
The original design called for a parish house, among other attributes, but the leaders of St. John’s, working with a limited budget, authorized only the building of the church, a sacristy and an office wing to the west. The photo at left shows St. John’s as built , with its main entrance facing Highland Street instead of Farmington Avenue .
As part of the construction, a new organ, to be built by the Austin Organ Company, was made part of the church’s plans. In addition, some features of the old building, notably the communion rail, bell, pulpit, and lectern, were brought from Hartford.
The old church was vacated on Easter Sunday, 1907, and a week later the parish began services at temporary quarters on Prospect Avenue. Construction of the new church building continued for another two years with its consecration occurring on June 9, 1909
Almost immediately the parish began planning modifications to the original edifice and site and Bertram Goodhue was contacted to design an expansion to the church facility in keeping with his original ideas. As a result, a small parish house was completed to the architect’s plans in 1914-15.
In 1923, a splendid reredos depicting the Last Supper was installed adjacent to the High Altar. The reredos, based on Goodhue’s hand drawn design, was crafted by renowned sculptor Lee Lawrie who frequently worked with Goodhue and had already completed the magnificent reredos, to Goodhue’s plans, at St. Thomas’ Church in New York City.
The Goodhue/Lawrie reredos, seen in detail below, is in the distance in the interior view from the late 1920s shown at right.
Work was done in the early 1920s to seal tower leaks which had been present from the very beginning of the structure. At around the same time the rapid growth of the Church’s school program brought Church leaders back into contact with Bertram Goodhue concerning ways to provide space for education classes. Nelson R. Burr, in his A History of St. John’s Church (1941), notes: “Before Mr. Goodhue’s death… he had unfolded to the Rector his vision of a complete, unified group of buildings with all facilities for worship, education and social events.”
To open the west side of the church property, several houses that stood between St. John’s and South Highland Street were acquired in preparation for new construction. Based on Goodhue’s ideas, the cornerstone of a new parish house was laid in 1927. At the same time, the church built its cloister and outdoor pulpit with peace cross (below). To alleviate a crush of parishioners trying to attend services, the construction program concluded in 1928 with the lengthening the nave by two bays towards Farmington Avenue to the north. Regarding the latter improvement, St. John’s also gained a new entrance on its north (Farmington Avenue) end, the previous main entrance having been on the west side of the nave at its northwest corner. At the behest of an athletic Rector, William T. Hooper, the church, which had become home to a billiard table in the early 1920’s, also added two bowling alleys in the basement of the new wing.
Following America’s entry into World War II, the bowling alleys were converted into a children’s chapel to compensate for the loss of the Church’s reception room to the war effort (for the preparation of surgical dressings). By the mid-1950’s this space had outgrown demand and, as part of a general refurbishment of the church’s buildings, a children’s chapel was proposed. This addition, at the southwest corner of the Parish House, was designed by architect Robert H. Schutz and put into service in 1955.
After over 50 years of complaints from the congregation about difficulty hearing the words of preachers, the parish installed an acoustical “board” over the pulpit in 1964 to better distribute sound. Two years later the first formal stained glass clerestory window replaced one of the many with geometrical designs that were installed when the building was new. The last of the early geometrical designs was replaced in 2001 as the result of generous donations from parishioners.
By the mid-1970’s, the church began to show its age. A better ventilation system was installed, work began to restore the tower and roof, handicapped access was improved and the next decade brought a better sound system to the nave. As the 1990’s arrived, St. John’s was in the process of celebrating its 150th anniversary as a congregation. The old building was long gone and the new one had just passed its 90th year of operation. While frequent attempts had been made to keep them current, the building’s electrical and plumbing systems were becoming worn. The organ, which had been updated and expanded through the years, was audibly wheezing with the music director routinely climbing through its interior to make repairs (Note: for more information on the St. John’s Organ, please read the Church Organ History).
It was a mixed blessing, then, when fire, possibly started by spontaneous combustion, roared through the sanctuary and auditorium on Columbus Day weekend, 1992 (left). The church that would re-emerge from this near disaster would be more handsome than ever, would at long last meet current fire, building and handicapped-access codes, would be equipped with a celebrated organ, and would have a sanctuary more in keeping with the church’s interest in welcoming a diversity of people to its services.
Damage amounted to over 5 million dollars but the parish pulled together under its still new Rector, The Reverend Joseph L. Pace, and vowed to rebuild. With the hirings of Ann Beha Associates of Boston, the building committee, co-chaired by parishioners Edward Eaton III, whose photo of the restored sanctuary appears below, and Richard Krissinger, a professional architect, made a commitment to restore as much as possible the nave/sanctuary design of Mr. Goodhue. Relatively minor structural changes allowed the incorporation of the new and much larger organ, the stained glass altar window was successfully rebuilt from photographs and glass bits, the chancel was lengthened with careful attention paid to reconstructing and replicating the original ceramic floor tiles, and other fully researched restorations/alterations were made. With the 1995 reopening of the still unfinished church, which had received additional funding via a capital campaign for further improvements, parishioners discovered new, yet somehow satisfyingly familiar surroundings.