First Baptist Church, Burlington, Vermont

Statement of Significance

The First Baptist Church, located at 81 St. Paul Street, has been a landmark in the city of Burlington since it was built in 1864. The architect, John Stevens, designed several Boston area buildings in the Italianate style and the First Baptist Church is one of the earliest examples of the style in Burlington. The Baptist Church itself has been active in Vermont since 1768, which is relatively early in the city's history, when the first congregation was formed in Shaftsbury. The first Baptist service in Burlington occurred in 1823 and the first Baptist organization appeared on January 5, 1830, when the First Baptist Society was formed. Reverend Norris was appointed as the first minister of the congregation in January 1834. The Baptists have maintained an active presence in Burlington since then and have thus been a major contributor to local social history.

The area was first visiting by Europeans when Samuel de Champlain explored Lake Champlain in 1609.It wasn't until 1759, however, that the ownership of the land was decided in favor of the English over the French. The boundaries of the city were drawn on June 7, 1763, and lots were laid out by Ira Allen in 1772. Burlington was abandoned during the Revolutionary War and the economy was crippled by the War of 1812. Following the completion of the Champlain Canal, linking Lake Champlain to the Hudson River in 1823, Burlington's economy and population rebounded and steadily expanded. From a population of 815 in 1800, the city grew to almost 5,000 by the early 1840's. By 1850, Burlington was the third largest lumber center in the world and this resulted in the building of many impressive structures in the city. The First Baptist Church was a direct beneficiary of this economic boom, as lumber tycoon Lawrence Barnes made a significant contribution toward the construction of the new church in 1861.

Before the current structure was built, the Baptists in Burlington built or utilized several other structures in the city. From the time it was formed until 1845, the congregation used a rented building on Colchester Avenue. At that point, a new building was constructed on the southwest corner of Main and Church Streets to house the congregation. They utilized that building until 1864, when space constrictions necessitated the building of the new church. Master builder Thomas Hill of Saco, Maine, was contracted to build the church, but he immediately noted material defects in the style and architecture of the original plans of the Building Committee. They then called in John Stevens, the architect from Boston, to review the plans and make suggestions. He felt that the style of the plans was 25 years behind the current fashion and created new plans to update the style. The completion of the building was delayed several weeks due to the changes in the plans and it was finally dedicated on December 15, 1864, at a cost of $32,550.

Stevens was an active architect in the Boston area during the 1850's, 60's and 70's. He designed several churches in the Italianate style that bear a striking resemblance to the First Baptist Church. These include the First Congregational Church in Woburn, built in 1860, the South Church in Andover, built in 1861, the Trinitarian Congregational Church in North Andover, built in 1865 and the Lynn First Congregational Church, built in 1871. In addition, he designed several Italianate style residences in the Boston area suburbs, such as Reading and Wakefield, as well as city halls for Melrose and Malden.

The Italianate style of architecture was very popular in the United States at the time of construction, and was just beginning to become popular in Vermont. There are several other good examples of Italianate architecture in Burlington, including Bader Hall on South Willard Street, built in 1872, the Allen Agency Building on Main Street, built in 1877, and the Wells-Richardson Commercial Block on College Street, built in 1883. There were not, however, any other churches built in Burlington in the Italianate style. The First Baptist Church employs many Italianate elements and is eligible for the National Register because it is a good and early example of a church in that style in Vermont. Italianate elements found on the church include brackets under the eaves and segmentally arched windows and lintels. The exterior has been altered somewhat several times over the years, but the building retains all the characteristics that make it a good example of the Italianate style.

In addition, the church also retains its original Hook Organ, installed in 1864 and restored in 1996. It was built by Elias and George Greenleaf Hook of Boston, who were recognized as the foremost organ builders in the country at the time.

The building has seen some changes and additions to the interior and exterior since it was built. The major alteration, which was dedicated in 1871 and cost $23,000, expanded the facility by half by adding two bays and was faithful to the Italianate style. Another significant architectural element, the copper covered spire, is one of only a few in Burlington and has been a landmark element of the skyline since it was sheathed in 1910. After the major addition in 1871, the church was renovated in 1903-11, 1951-4, 1961, when it was decided to renovate rather than tear down the building, and 1984. These projects added considerably to the capacity and function of the church, but they did not detract from the architectural or historic significance of the building. The 1984 renovation, which added an elevator shaft to the northern side of the building, had the potential to alter the building's appearance since it was originally slated to go on to the front facade. After review by the Burlington Design Review Board, however, it was built on the northern side where it is less obtrusive and detracts less from the architectural style and integrity of the building.

The Baptist congregation and the building itself has retained a constant presence and influence in the St. Paul Street neighborhood, through all of the changes that have occurred there. A map from 1869 shows only a few other structures on the block where the church is located. Later Sanborn maps and historic photographs show an increase in development and a variety of buildings and businesses, from a carriage shop to private houses, on the block. Although the ighborhood has been in a slight decline since St. Paul Street was blocked by the Burlington Square Mall in the 1970's, the Baptist Church continues to be the most significant contributor. Both the building and the congregation it houses have made significant contributions to the architectural, religious and social patterns that have shaped Burlington and Vermont. The First Baptist Church is architecturally significant on a local and statewide scale and has been an important component to the social and religious community of Burlington for over 130 years.