Union Episcopal Church

About the Building


Union Episcopal Church, said to have been built by master carpenter Ebenezer Rice, is the oldest surviving Episcopal church in New Hampshire. As such, the state's oldest structure built specifically for religious purposes. Its only contemporaries among non-domestic structures in New Hampshire are several Congregational meeting houses that date from the same era, but these buildings were used as public structures in their respective towns as well as serving a religious function. Although the tradition that plans for Union Church were provided by Gov. John Wentworth cannot be documented, the building's design was probably based somewhat upon that of Queen's Chapel (1732; burned 1806) in Portsmouth. Union Church therefore not only documents building practices in the upper Connecticut Valley during the late eighteenth century, but also preserves the form of church architecture in New Hampshire during the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The roof framing system of the building is the heaviest that survives in New Hampshire from the pre-Revolutionary era. It therefore reflects structural practices not seen elsewhere in northern New England, the only similar roof systems being lighter and less complex frames in smaller meeting houses.

Union Church is important in preserving traces of its entire architectural evolution, beginning with the original frame and joiner's work and extending through the addition of the tower in 1801, the addition of the two eastern bays in 1820 (which incorporate distinctly different roof trusses and typical Federal detailing), and the alterations of 1850 and 1875. Thus, the building embodies the architectural history of its region from the early years of initial settlement, through the increasing prosperity of the Federal period, to the final vigor of the Victorian era.

Present Appearance

Union Church is a rectangular frame structure with a gable roof, six arched windows on each side, and a square tower which rises on the west end to a point above the ridge. The tower has arched windows at three levels and is surmounted by an octagonal open belfry. The heavy cornice at the belfry level is capped by a latticework balustrade which terminated at elongated pyramidal turrets on each corner. The belfry is covered by an octagonal wooden ogee dome with a tall mast or spire at its apex. Eight solid wooden posts support the dome and are given the appearance of an arcade by a series of curved frieze boards beneath the cornice of the dome. The church is clapboarded and painted white, though tradition states that it was originally unpainted and subsequently was colored gray with a red rear (east) wall.

The interior is a large auditorium lighted by the arched side windows and by a single window of stained glass on the east end above the altar. The pews are of the box type, those in the center of the room raised above the floor by a single step, and those outside the two aisles raised two steps. The plaster ceiling is laid on riven lath and has a deep central barrel vault running nearly its full length. On each side are areas of flat ceiling which curve downward in deep coves at their juncture with the side walls

At the east end of the auditorium is a chancel with a high central arched opening supported on unpainted wooden posts, and flanked by two lower arches that repeat the curves of the coved ceiling. This woodwork was added in 1850, when a vestry was built into the northeast corner of the church, and is decorated with chamfers and lamb's tongue stops. In 1875 the vestry was remodelled into a small library, and an organ, which still remains, was installed in the southeast corner of the building. The lath of the chancel area is sawn on a circular saw.

The woodwork of the auditorium (except that of the chancel area) is painted white. The major decorative features of the room are delicate balustrades that surmount the top of each pew wall. Each baluster is of an attenuated urn form, and the rails above the balusters are relatively heavy and are finished with unpainted moulded caps. Most pew doors have single raised panels and stiles and rails decorated with quarter-round mouldings, although some of the pew panelling in the front of the church is surrounded by the ogee mouldings of the Federal era.

The windows in the side walls contain 30 lights in their lower sash and 48 lights (including the arched portions) in their upper sash. Muntins in the sashes in the four western bays of the church are of heavy pre-Revolutionary profile; those in the two eastern bays (which were added in 1820) are of a more delicate profile, and the windows themselves are noticeably smaller than the earlier ones.

The tower was added to the building in 1801, and is supported by massive quarter-round posts at its corners. Its frame is tied to that of the main building by heavy needle beams that extend from the tower into the trusses over the auditorium. The lath used throughout the tower is of the split-board type. The addition of the tower preserved certain features of the original facade of the church, including the old door and a few of the original clapboards.

Union Church incorporates the largest pre-Revolutionary roof framing system surviving in New Hampshire. The trusses are extraordinary for their massive and complex construction, and show a kinship with such contemporary examples as those in the meeting house at Sandown, New Hampshire. Each framing unit is a king-post truss. The king-posts are framed into a bottom chord which spans the building's width, and each post supports doubled principal rafters which are linked together by short struts at their midpoints. The uppermost principal rafters support purlins which, in turn, support closely-spaced common rafters. The trusses are linked together not only by the purlins which run longitudinally from principal rafter to principal rafter, but also by two longitudinal ties that rest on the bottom chords of the trusses, and by single tie beams that join the king-posts at about mid-height. A complex system of bracing reinforces the entire roof system. Two pairs of braces extend downward from each king-post to the lower chord of each truss. A single pair of braces extend upward from each king-post to each of the lower principal rafters. Additional braces near the eaves rise diagonally from the lower chords of the trusses to the two principal rafters. The longitudinal ties that link the king-posts at mid-height are likewise braced to the king-posts by diagonal members. Wind-bracing in the roof-place is achieved by diagonal members that link the uppermost principal rafters to the purlins.

An additional series of struts projects below the bottom chords of the trusses to support the lath and plaster of the vaults and covings of the auditorium ceiling, while supplementary diagonal braces extend downward to link the bottom chords of each truss with the wall posts. The pride of the original builders in this frame is related in an anecdote which appears in the brief history of the church: "...on one occasion a fierce storm, greater than any hurricane...swept the area while people were assembled for worship. Among them was a Mr. Dodge who had assisted as a carpenter.... Trees began to fall about the building and many rushed to the door in alarm. Mr. Dodge defended the door blocking it completely and is reputed to have shouted: 'I know this frame. No wind can demolish it. Your only safety lies in keeping beneath its shelter.'"  (1)

Original Appearance

When it was first constructed in 1773, Union Church was a relatively small rectangular structure without a tower. Its entrance was in the west end and its pew arrangement, though less extensive than the present one, was evidently much the same. Tradition relates that:

"The building was designed according to a plan furnished by Governor John Wentworth.... Although the Governor had promised to furnish glass and nails when a certain point in construction had been reached... he had to flee before he could fulfill his promise, which also included a bell and an organ. Only the frame was erected and a roof and outer boarding put on, a floor laid, and temporary arrangements made for worship in the summer. So it remained until 1789, when some pews were sold to purchase the nails and glass. The tower and belfry were added in 1801, and further work, including exterior painting, was undertaken."  (2)

Evidence in the form of weathered clapboards still attached to the west elevation of the building and protected by the newer tower suggests that the structure was indeed unpainted, or infrequently painted, during its first thirty years. The building was extended 25 feet to its present length in 1820, with no attempt to make the addition a perfect match to the original work of fifty years earlier. The newer windows are smaller and more delicate than the originals, and the juncture of the old and new clapboards is evident on the exterior. The alterations of 1820 saw the addition not only of some new pews, but also of a reading desk and pulpit; evidently no record remains of the precise character of the original pulpit or altar. The 1820 reading desk and pulpit, in turn, were removed in the alterations of 1850, which resulted in the construction of the present chancel area and the installation of new altar furniture.

(1) William R. Jarvis, Jr., Union Episcopal Church of Claremont , (Claremont, NH: Eagle Printing Dept., 1971), pp. 11-12.
(2) Ibid., pp. 10-11. Religion:
Union Church Parish is the second oldest Episcopal organization in New Hampshire. The parish was organized by the Rev. Samuel Peters of Hebron, Connecticut, about 1771, after a group of local families had petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts for assistance. The parish was first regularly served after 1773 by the Rev. Rana Cossitt, who served as a missionary in the surrounding towns and, though suffering persecution as an Anglican during the Revolution, remained in Claremont until 1785. The building is therefore significant as the earliest headquarters of the Episcopal Church in the upper Connecticut Valley.

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2012 Event Dates

To be annouced soon