New Englanders visiting Trafalger Square in London often get a shock when they see the façade of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The famous parish church of the Royal Family looks a lot like a New England meeting house both inside and out.
James Gibbs had some very different ideas when he designed St. Martin-In-The-Fields. He shaped it like a Greek temple, added a portico and columns to the front and put a steeple in the center, just behind the portico.
Gibbs, a Scottish architect, laid the cornerstone in 1722. It was finished in 1726 and then criticized. No matter. Gibbs included the design of St. Martin-in-the Fields in a pattern book he published in 1728. His Book of Architecture traveled across the Atlantic into gentlemen’s libraries and then onto colonial greens.
“In the end it became the model church throughout New England and much of North America,” wrote HRH Prince Charles, in a fundraising letter for the church. Charles, like the rest of his family, rarely attends church services.
Gibbs, a Catholic, designed the church as an Anglican parish. But Puritan New England adapted it for their meeting houses. Then other denominations did, too. From the Church of Saint-Joseph in Madawaska, Maine, to St. Catherine of Siena in Greenwich, Conn., columned portico, rectilinear shape, steeple, weathervane — Even into the 20th century, American country churches had the elements Gibbs introduced in St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
James Gibbs broke the mold when he designed St. Martin-in-the-Fields for Anglican worshippers. Most English churches were Medieval and suited more to the Catholic Mass than the Anglican service.
Inside the church, Gibbs shrunk the Catholic altar and stuck it in a shallow apse. He designed built-in box pews along a central aisle facing the pulpit. He then put side and rear balconies halfway up giant columns. That made it easy for parishioners to see and hear the centerpiece of the ceremony: the sermon.
Outside, he made one big innovation, the one that would define what a church looks like. He put the steeple in the center, just behind the pediment.
He also simplified the exterior and gave it the classical lines of a Greek temple.
Anglicans, like the Puritans, abhorred religious symbolism. So Gibbs put a weathervane, not a cross, on top of the steeple. Instead of statues of saints, Gibbs put a clock on the steeple – useful in a day when people didn’t have wristwatches. The royal coat of arms went onto the pediment rather than more saints.
In England and France, people just hated it, especially the steeple. Americans loved it. St. Martin-in-the-Fields, they thought, was exactly what a church should look like.
“With hundreds of derivatives of Gibbs’s London landmark, Americans became imbued with the idea that a proper church should be vaguely classical and have a portico and steeple no matter how basic,” wrote architectural historian Calder Loth.
Patterning St. Martin-in-the-Fields
The colonies needed new churches in their burgeoning cities and towns. But trained architects were few and far between.
Gibbs’ pattern book told them how to build them. (what is a pattern book. Describe pattern book)
He wrote the book for” gentlemen concerned in building.” He especially targeted toward those in “the remote parts of the Country, where little of no assistance for Designs can be procured.”
The book included “useful and convenient buildings and proper ornaments.” The buildings could be executed “by any Workman who understands Lines, either as here Design’d, or with some Alteration, which may be easily made by a person of Judgment.”
New England colonists ate it up. The book earned Gibbs a 1,900 profit and became a must-have for the colonial gentleman’s library.
Center Church on the Green
New Haven’s Center Church on the Green is one of the most famous offspring of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. It’s also one of the most lavish.
Asher Benjamin, who wrote his own pattern book, designed it. Ithiel Town, who bequeathed to New England the lattice truss covered bridge, supervised construction, which went from 1812 to 1815. It has all the basic elements: a steeple, a portico, a classical (read relictilinear) shape, a clock and a weathervane.
The Congregational Church in Guilford, Conn., borrowed its conical steeple from Benjamin after he’d borrowed from Gibbs. It added an American innovation, clapboard construction, to which the colonies’ abundant forests made a sensible contribution.
North Yarmouth and Freeport Baptist Meetinghouse
Known as the Old Baptist Meeting House, the St. Martin-in-the-Fields-style building has a claim as the oldest Baptist Church in Maine. Built in 1796, it functioned as a Baptist meeting house until 1889, when the congregation moved. It has since served as an antiquarian society, a library, a World War II observation tower, a Town Meeting hall and a wedding venue.
Arlington Street Church
Builders finished the Arlington Street Church in 1861, the first public building erected on the fill that made up Back Bay. It sits on 999 pilings pounded into mud. Its architects, Arthur Gilman and Gridley James Fox Bryant, deliberately modeled the building on St. Martin-in-the-Fields. It’s always been a Unitarian-Universalist Church. In 2004. It held the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States.
The Acworth Congregational Chursh, also known as The-Church-on-the-Hill or Acworth Meetinghouse, was built in 1821. Though modeled on St. Martin-in-the-Fields on the outside, its interior has a decidedly Victorian look and feel.
Built in 1821, its design mimics the Congregational Church of Templeton, Mass., which of course gets its idea from St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
A nonprofit now owns the building.
First Baptist Church
The church that Roger Williams founded met in several plain, boxy meeting houses until 1774. Then, the Baptists wanted to bring respectability to their denomination. What better way to do it than with a steeple, a portico and a bell.
Work began on the building in the summer of 1774, at the time the largest building project in New England. The Port of Boston had closed in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, so workmen flocked from Boston to Providence to find work on the church.
John D. Rockefeller paid to restore it in 1957, but one thing he didn’t restore: a gallery set aside for free and enslaved black parishioners.
Marlboro Meeting House
The people of Marlboro, Vt., liked their St. Martin-in-the-Fields-style Congregational Church so much they replaced it in 1931 after it burned down. The first church was built in 1820, but then moved to the town common. Even before the famous Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields got started (see below), Adolf Busch and his son-in-law, Rudolf Serkin, started the Marlboro Music Festival.
A Little More about St. Martin-in-the-Fields
St. Martin-in-the-Fields got its name during the Middle Ages, when it was located well outside of London — in the fields. It didn’t move; London just grew.
The church holds 20 services a week, runs the award-winning Café in the Crypt and has a brass rubbing, shop. Every year it houses 400 homeless people.
You may also have heard the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the direction of Sir Neville Mariner. It’s a chamber orchestra founded by Mariner and John Churchill, master of music at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. It gave its first concert in the church in 1959. The ensemble, which later included woodwinds, is credited with reviving Baroque music in England.
Yarmouth Meeting House By NewTestLeper79 – Visit, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107297726. Arlington Street Church By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58886179. First Baptist Church By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104511048. St. Martin in the Fields (side view) By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107268575. By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32215421. Center Church on the Green By Farragutful – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79676674. St. Martin-in-the-Fields front view By Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11327834. Arliington Street Church side view By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10003248. Center Church with banners By Smuconlaw. – Own work., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19269291. This story was updated in 2023.