Our building, which is Norman Gothic in style, was designed by the distinguished architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Russell Warren. Constructed in 1838 at a cost of about $40,000, it required 7,000 tons of granite, some blocks weighing as much as eight tons. The style of the interior details are Gothic, yet the spaciousness of the well-lighted interior and the simplicity and precision of the decorative elements have much in common with the Greek revival designs of same period. In 1868 a chapel was added behind the church. In 1896 the Parish House was constructed with a style of architecture matching the original church building. In 1955 office space and meeting rooms were constructed in the basement.
The meeting room, or sanctuary, itself has gone through several renovations and stylistic changes. The original stained glass was replaced in the mid- to late-19th C. The organ was first in the front of the church, to right of the pulpit; it was moved to the organ loft in the late 19th C. The original paint scheme used bright borders and decorations; the elaborate plaster ceiling mouldings were added in the late 19th C. The original chancel featured a lower, more open, pulpit; and there was a raised platform in front of the pulpit for the altar table. The original stained glass window behind the pulpit was replaced with a Tiffany glass mosaic. For many years, the pews were covered in bright red brocade; this was replaced in 1967, with the current soft gold fabric.
The mosaic behind the pulpit was given in 1911 as a memorial to Judge and Mrs. Oliver Prescott by their three children, Oliver Prescott, Jr., Mrs. Frederick Stetson and Miss Mary R. Prescott. Frederick Wilson was the artist who made the design for the Tiffany Studios. A Pilgrim ascending a dangerous mountain pass is guided on his way by a Guardian Angel. It is the largest and most intricate work of its kind in America, covering over 300 square feet of wall space, and containing many thousands of pieces of Favrile glass set in cement. Read more about our mosaic.
The three portrait busts at the front of the sanctuary are of William J. Potter (niche front left), Ralph Waldo Emerson (niche front right) and Orville Dewey (pedestal front left). None is a remarkable work of art, but each is of historical significance.
The Prescott-Howland Families
Judge Oliver Prescott (1806-1890), a Harvard Law School graduate, was known for his thorough scholarship, immense learning, scrupulous fairness and his generous spirit. He was an excellent lawyer, called upon often by others who needed careful guidance through the thickets of law from common law to admiralty, courteous and utterly imperturbable. Judge Prescott disliked litigation and full dress court battles so spent most of his career as a lawyer and judge in probate court. Known as “the peacemaker of Water Street’ (where his office was), he infinitely preferred to persuade would be litigants to negotiate instead. Judge Prescott was a devoted member, frequent officer, and deacon of First Unitarian Church.
With his wife, Helen who outlived him by eighteen years, they helped buy the freedom of the wives and children of escaped slaves, contributed generously to the raising of troops for the North in the Civil War, and to the Sanitary Commission to whom often fell the provisioning and medical care of the soldiers. Helen’s family was a prominent one in New Bedford, her father a successful oil merchant.
The first Prescott arrived here in New Bedford in 1828 to practice law before the building of the First Unitarian Church, which they joined, was completed.
THE CARPENTER’S SON – A Unitarian Painting
On March 1, 2007, First Unitarian in New Bedford transferred ownership of “The Carpenter’s Son,” a wonderful late-19th C. painting by Edward Emerson Simmons, to the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum.
There’s a story behind the transfer.
Miss Amelia C. Jones of New Bedford purchased the painting from the artist, and Miss Jones bequeathed the painting to First Unitarian in 1935. Tragically, a vandal broke into the church and seriously damaged the painting in 1996, cutting a large section out of it, making the rest of the painting worthless. But remarkably, the lost section of the painting was recovered in the fall of 2006.
The Women’s Alliance of First Unitarian had purchased a new refrigerator. A worker was moving the old refrigerator out of the church kitchen, when he noticed a piece of canvas had been stuffed behind it. He called over Claudette Blake, our church administrator at the time, who recognized it was the lost section of “The Carpenter’s Son.”
Claudette was interviewed by the New Bedford Standard-Times on February 27, 2007, and told them, “When I looked at it, I saw the face of the child, which I immediately recognized. I remember doing a little dance. I’m happy I was there because it might just have been thrown away.”
The congregation decided to transfer ownership of the damaged painting to the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum just a few blocks away from the church. By transferring ownership to a local museum, the painting will have a much wider audience. With the help of Nancy Crosby, a member of First Unitarian, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House is currently raising money to restore the painting.
The congregation retains great fondness for the painting. Edward Emerson Simmons, the artist, was the son of a Unitarian minister, and his painting presents Jesus as fully human. Simmons was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and was influenced by another Concord resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great Unitarian philosopher and poet. Interestingly, Emerson preached for several months here at First Unitarian in New Bedford in 1833-1834.