Thursday, February 9, 2012

Aftermath and Rebuilding the Congregational Church

Adversity often brings people and communities together. We as a nation witnessed this phenomena after terrorist attacks on 9-11 and hurricane Katrina. After the devastating Congregational Church fire in 1941, one would naturally expect church members to join together in an effort to rebuild their house of worship, but the outpouring from greater East Hampton attests to the nobility and oneness which did and should prevail in a close knit community such as ours. At that point in East Hampton's 200 year history, it was reported to be the Town's Most Disastrous Fire inflicting $70,000 of loss as the Church was totally razed and the adjoining Parish House receiving extensive damage. In today's terms, the loss would be well over a million dollars. At the time, the building carried only $12,500 of insurance. I suspect that was an example of Yankee frugality.

The partition where the flames worked themselves to the attic were only a short distance from where the organist, Sidney McAlpine, sat. He was rehearsing selections for the Sunday service, but unaware of the situation until he heard a commotion outside where the smoke was first seen. The fact that he noticed nothing amiss bore out the painters' early belief that the fire was not of serious nature. The pastor, Rev. Mr. Lair reported and gratefully accepted immediate offers of assistance from members of St. John's Episcopal Chapel, St. Patrick's Church and the Bethlehem Lutheran Church including acceptance of the Lutheran Church as a place for worship for the congregation. The church was build in 1854, succeeding a similar structure constructed in 1748 that burned to the ground in 1852 and considered an outstanding example of fine colonial New England architecture. Described as "a picturesque setting among tall trees on a green overlooking the Belltown's trading center, it was the subject of many canvasses and photographs."

Within days of the 1941 church fire, Fred Gates, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and Church leaders had begun the painstaking and laborious process to build once again. Architect, Arland A. Dirlam of Maiden, MA was engaged by the Building Committee. On November 30th, Dirlam presented preliminary building plans and advised the group that the parish house, constructed in 1905, could be reconstructed within two or three months and the present foundation for the sanctuary could be used for reconstructing the church.

When the Congregational Church was being razed by fired on Nov. 4th, one spectator who was not a member of the church approached the pastor, Rev. J. Edward Lair, and said "Well, there is only one thing to do. We've all got to help put it back." The community did rally in support! Members of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, St. John's Episcopal Church and the Swedish Lutheran Church asked for the privilege of contributing and organizations such as the local Odd Fellows lodge held a dance, donating the proceeds. Mrs. George Leewitz (Alice C. Bevin) East Hampton artist held a tea in her home on Barton Hill donating 2 of her paintings as door prizes.

Had the situation been normal, work would have begun immediately. Although the fund raising campaign jumped into high gear, actual construction and rebuilding would wait until 1948 before seeing completion and re-dedication with its lofty steeple the focal point of the Village Center. You see, Pearl Harbor was attacked just a month later. As every community across this county rallied, people, resources and efforts were dedicated to supplying the war effort. Building materials would not become available until after the end of WW II. In that interim, worship services were held at the Lutheran Church. Originally it was the Union Congregational Church erected in 1855.

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