Church on the Square

Mills Lane IV was perhaps most pleased with his exterior restoration of the Unitarian Universalist Church on the northwest trust lot of Troup Square from 1999-2000. His parents had paid for the renovation of that square, and Mills took delight in restoring buildings on Savannah’s signature land configurations.

Restored façade of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Windows were reconstructed with handmade antique-style German glass.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, Mills had worked with the city to borrow a fence post from Bonaventure Cemetery to ensure the pattern that would surround the church was correct for the era. That era was the 1850s.

According to church records, silversmith Moses Eastman had originally agreed to fund the building by New York architect John Norris. After Eastman died in 1850, his wife Eliza M. Tuthill Eastman continued as benefactor. The church, built facing Oglethorpe Square across from Richardson-Owens-Thomas House, was dedicated on November 21, 1851. Norris also designed Savannah’s U.S. Custom House, Massie School Building and Green-Meldrim House, among others.

In May 1852, John Pierpont, Jr., son of a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, began ministry for an annual salary of $1,500. His brother, James, served as the church music director and organist. In 1857 he copyrighted the song, “One Horse Open Sleigh,” and the church is still known as the “Jingle Bells Church.” By 1859, there was no money to pay salaries and the Pierponts were gone.

In August 1859, the Unitarians sold the building to the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, and it became the home of St. Stephen’s, a black congregation. Since an African-American church on Oglethorpe Square would not be accepted at that time, congregants moved the building to Troup Square in 1861, closer to African-American neighborhoods. In 1947 the Episcopalians sold the building to Baptists.

The Unitarians had moved several times, merged with the Universalists, and become known for their work in Civil Rights. They reacquired the Eastman building and moved back into their ancestral home in 1997. That year Mills talked to church leaders about donating up to $150,000 to restore the exterior of the church building.

In 1999 Mills’s architects, Harvie Jones from Alabama and John Deering from Savannah, evaluated a small window that had been enclosed in the back of the building. That helped them determine the Gothic fenestration of Norris’s design. Remnants of very old green, yellow gold and purple glass were found in the window of the balcony.

Mills imported handmade German glass for the sanctuary’s reconstructed windows after choosing colors with artist and church member Lind Hollingsworth and church member Betty Chamlee Miller who researched the colors and received a letter from Phoebe B. Stanton, author of Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture, 1840-1856.

“You are on the right track with your color selections…. The present-day handmade German ‘antique’ glass is the very best, the most beautiful…. Non-pictorial colored glass in your windows is right for a Unitarian church.” Deering has pointed to those windows as further examples of Mills’s attention to quality details.

Ralph Anderson and his construction crew recreated the crocket finials and rescored and painted the walls to resemble blocks of brownstone.

After the Lane restoration of the exterior, the congregation undertook the interior with the help of Jim Abraham and SCAD historic preservation students and rededicated the completed project in February 2007.

The newly landscaped forecourt was surrounded by that newly cast iron fence. The “stolen” post was back in Bonaventure.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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