Legacy of 172-year-old Church Building Lives On in Essex
From 1985 to 1996, Frederick and Janet Clarke undertook the adaptive reuse and restoration of the 172-year-old former Methodist church on Prospect Street in Essex. (Photo courtesy of Janet Clarke)
The façade of the circa 1849 church had to be reinvented as its orginal details had been sold to another church. (Photo by Pete DePatie)
The former church atop Prospect Street has remarkable views of Essex Village and the Connecticut River. (Photo by Pete DePatie)
With a significant decline in the number of church goers over the past century, many of the historic church buildings in Essex have been adapted for modern day reuse. This includes a 172-year-old former Methodist church on Prospect Street in Essex, now valued at over $1 million, that was recently sold to new owners by Susan Malan of William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty.
Frederick “Fred” G.E. Clarke, now deceased, and Janet Clarke were responsible for the building’s transformation, with restoration efforts taking place from 1985 to 1996.
“It was all boarded up…It was a derelict property, but my husband always felt the view from the top would be spectacular,” said Clarke.
After convincing the owner to sell the property in 1985, taking in the view from the steeple was one of Fred Clarke’s first priorities.
“One of the first things my husband did was climb up into the steeple, [which was] all boarded up,” said Janet Clarke.
Along with Josh Crowell, the now-former senior pastor of the First Congregational Church in Essex, “they broke through some of the windows to see the views through the slats,” she continued.
Clarke decided to stay on the ground that day.
“You’re talking about a very dangerous climb as far as I was concerned. I didn’t want to go inside. I would not go inside” the abandoned property, she explained.
Although somewhat deterred by the initial condition of the 8,543 square foot building, Clarke understood the importance of its history.
“It had multiple lives,” she said.
Built in 1849, the building was used as a church until 1945. Its many owners over the year since have included the town of Essex and the Essex Fire Engine Company. It was also once used as a warehouse for many years by Verplex Realty Company.
The Clarkes, who purchased the building in 1985, never used the building as a primary dwelling. They didn’t live far, though, owning a home on West Avenue and then right next door during the 11-year period that the building was restored.
Both juggled supervising the restoration work with full-time jobs as corporate executives for the printing company R.R. Donnelley in Old Saybrook.
Clarke says her husband, who was born and raised in the area, was the driving force behind the entire restoration project.
“He loved, loved the whole Connecticut River,” said Clarke. “He just thought it was such an important thing to renovate that property. He thought the location was beautiful. He thought it deserved to get the best of everything and he really felt he was a steward of the property.”
The Clarkes hired an architect, Steven Synakowski, who had studied early ecclesiastical architecture to help rebuild the structure. Synakowski kept certain elements of the church intact, especially as it pertains to a skylight that is visible from the ground floor of the building.
“The steeple had blown off in the Hurricane of ‘38 and he thought the glass on the top would diffuse into the heavens…that was his concept,” said Clarke.
Synakowski also redesigned the altar area and created a pulpit-shaped staircase.
“He had some references to church,” said Clarke. “He took the choir loft area and glassed it in, so that you had the central sense of the church core.”
Another important part of the project was redoing the front façade of the building, a project made necessary by a previous owner.
“To make money, they sold…somebody sold, all of the workmanship of the front to another church on Long Island…They stripped the whole front, all that molding got stripped off and sold,” said Clarke.
Working with original architectural sketches and measurements found by Synakowski, Fred “had it all redone in solid wood,” said Clarke. “He had it all formed and redone…to the original.”
The exposed wooden beams on the third floor are also reminiscent of the time period during which the church was built.
“It was structurally incredible and that was the thing my husband keyed in on was that the ships’ carpenters that built it, they used all kinds of steel straps, and the solid wood, we don’t even have trees that tall anymore,” said Clarke.
A testament to the historical legacy of the church is also a painting, done in the 1920s by William Chadwick, an impressionist painter who was part of Florence Griswold’s Old Lyme Art Colony.
Although Clarke intends to keep that painting with her collection, she leaves behind a painting by Chester artist Leif Nilsson, commissioned by the Clarkes, that will pass to the new owners.
Clarke said that Fred would have been pleased to know that it was sold to individuals with a mindset similar to his own.
“The new owners are amazing, because they’re going to steward the property,” said Clarke. “His [Fred’s] whole thing was about making sure it was going to be stewarded into the future and Susan Malan even said that, she said, ‘It’s amazing. He rescued the place.’”