The Wilder Center has been an iconic landmark in the village of Wilder since its construction in 1890, but until recently we did now know who was responsible for the striking architectural design of the building. The original construction contract from July 1, 1889 (Click here to download as a PDF) holds a number of clues, but it took some additional research to uncover the story of the original design.
On Page 12 of the contract it reads "the entire outside to be finished in the general style of plans and cut shown in Cong'l church Building Quarterly for Dec. 1885, known as the Huron church." The publication it refers to is the Church Building Quarterly, a periodical of the American Congregational Union that documented the growth of congregations throughout the United States. We contacted the Congregational Christian Historical Society at the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts in hopes of tracking down an archived copy of the 1885 issue in question.
Congregational Library Archivist Jessica Steytler was able to track down the book, but it was too delicate to photocopy or scan. Instead, she sent us these photographs of the Huron church plans. The Huron congregation was organized in 1884 and the building was completed in 1885.
Additional research through the later editions of Church Building Quarterly available on GoogleBooks (October 1889. Volume VII, Number 4) uncovered a reprinting of the same design, but this time included the name of the architectural firm: L.B. Valk & Son. At the time Valk & Son were based in Brooklyn, New York, where they had designed a number of churches that still stand today. They would eventually move to California, where they started advertising their "New Church Plan," boasting 30 years of experience in designing churches.
One interesting note is that Lawrence B. Valk had previously worked under Alexander Saeltzer, who is credited with the design of the Astor Library (now the Joseph Papp Public Theatre), and the 1854 Academy of Music which is no longer standing and was panned when it first opened. One New York Times editorial from 1854 wrote, "the shape of the theatre is fatal to anything like perfect vision. A giraffe could not see round some of the corners." Valk's later work displays a better understanding of performance space design, as seen in the "New Church Plan" floorplan that was adopted in the design of the Olcott church (Wilder Center). Valk & Son would go on to design some of the first movie theaters in California in the early 20th century.
The October 1889 edition of Church Building Quarterly gives mention to the church underway in Olcott, Vermont, and identifies Mr. E. Goss as the architect. We assume it was Mr. Edward Goss, who designed and built a number of other buildings in what is now the Wilder Historic District, including 2018 Hartford Avenue and 65 Hawthorn Street. A closer look at the last page of the original contract reveals E. Goss listed under the contractor, S.S. Ordway and Co.
Similarities can be seen between the two buildings, though Mr. Goss clearly adapted the Valk design and likely added the architectural flourish of the floating roof over the south entrance vestibule. The interior and exterior paint colors were also left to the discretion of the Congregation's Building Committee.
In 2009 Lyme Properties selected UK Architects of Hanover, N.H. to prepare construction plans for the restoration of the Wilder Center that preserved the original architectural character of the building, while adding the eastern addition and bringing the structure up to modern codes. The result is a wonderful combination of excellent architectural design from Valk & Son, Edward Goss, and UK Architects that we hope will stand for another 120 years in Wilder.
- Photographs of Church Building Quarterly courtesy of the Congregational Library, Boston, Massachusetts (Church Building Quarterly, December 1885). Special thanks to Jessica Steytler.
- "The New Church Plan" advertisement is from The Advance, Chicago, Illinois, published 1/1/1903. Accessed via GoogleBooks.
- Historic photographs of Wilder Center interior courtesy of Hartford Historical Society.