First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church

Henry Hobson Richardson, 1870–1872

National Register of Historic Places

Originally built for the Brattle Square Unitarian congregation, which had decided to sell its 1772 colonial meetinghouse, this was H. H. Richardson’s earliest use of Romanesque forms.

The new church for the Brattle Square congregation was Richardson’s first important commission. Like many Boston churches of the period, it is built of Roxbury puddingstone laid in random ashlar. Its plan is basically cruciform. The monumental tower, almost freestanding like an Italian campanile, is (as Richardson himself felt) the most innovative and successful part of the building. The square tower, topped by a decorative frieze and corbelled arches that are, in turn, surmounted by a low-peaked overhanging roof, is one of the majestic forms on the Boston skyline. It is best viewed from Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

The frieze is notable, for it was modeled by Bartholdi (the Statue of Liberty sculptor) in Paris. Italian workmen carved the frieze after the stones were set in place. It depicts the sacraments, and the faces are said to be likenesses of noted Bostonians of the time such as Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Sumner. The trumpeting angels on the corners who look down over Back Bay have earned the building its nickname, “Church of the Holy Bean Blowers.” The trumpets were originally gilded.

The Romanesque feeling of the church is conveyed by many round corbels, windows, and arches in the tower and by the portico arches. The theme is further developed in the beautiful windows based on a circle motif. Charles F. McKim, who was nine years younger than Richardson and later to become renowned as designer of the Boston Public Library and numerous other public edifices, worked on this project as a draftsman.

Four years after the new church was completed, the Brattle Square congregation dissolved, unable to bear the heavy costs of the new building. For several years it stood empty, and there was even thought given to tearing it down, perhaps leaving the tower standing alone. But in 1881 the First Baptist Church, fleeing its former quarters in the declining South End, came to the building’s rescue. They solved the acoustical problems of the sanctuary by adding galleries in 1884 to reduce echoes.