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New Construction: Proper Detail

Project: The Stanwich Congregational Church, Greenwich, CT

Architect: Grandberg & Associates Architects, Mt. Kisco, NY; Ira Grandberg, AIA, principal in charge

Contractor: The A. Pappajohn Company, Stamford, CT

By Will Holloway

On April 2, 2006, the first Sunday service was held in the new Stanwich Congregational Church in Greenwich, CT. Churchgoers were able to enjoy for the first time their new traditionally styled, 32,000-sq.ft. complex, which, along with the sanctuary, includes a fellowship hall, a conference room and library, clergy offices, a bookstore, Sunday School classrooms and three octagonal gallery spaces connecting the three axes of the plan. Designed by Mt. Kisco, NY-based Grandberg & Associates Architects, the church clearly evokes traditional New England churches while also providing all the amenities of contemporary usage without sacrificing the intimacy of the old church.

Greenwich, located at the southwestern tip of Connecticut, was settled in 1640, a mere 20 years after the Mayflower made landfall and Plymouth Colony was founded. The Stanwich Church itself, one of the oldest houses of worship in Connecticut, dates from the Colonial era. It was founded in 1731 by 13 families, who constructed a simple 32x26-ft. meetinghouse in 1732. In 1804, the original meetinghouse was torn down and replaced by a larger church.

That structure was destroyed by lightening in 1923 and replaced with an old Methodist church that had previously served as a meeting hall. Over the next 30 years, a steeple, parsonage and Sunday school classrooms were added. By the 1990s, the rapidly growing congregation had outgrown the space; in 1991, the church formed a building committee to look into expansion.

The congregation continued to grow in the '90s, more than tripling in size with the addition of ministries and services. In 1999, structural damage – including a split in the main roof truss – exacerbated the church's need. Because the old church sits on a small plot and neighboring properties were unavailable, the church purchased six acres about a quarter of a mile down the road.

Ira Grandberg, AIA, is the principal of Grandberg & Associates Architects, which was hired to design the new church in 2001. "The whole spirit of the church and the congregation is geared toward the New England meetinghouse environment," he says. "They interviewed many architects to choose a firm that they thought could capture the spirit of the church, and our firm is quite well known in Greenwich for our ability to make new architecture feel old."

The building committee's goals for the new church were clear from the beginning: it had to accommodate three times the number of parishioners while maintaining the intimacy of the old church; it had to have an historic feel while meeting a contemporary program; it had to include state-of-the-art technologies and safety features; and it had to have balcony in the sanctuary, a simple chancel for the church's wooden cross and a traditional steeple to house the iron bell that had been part of the church since 1926.

To imbue the new church with an historic New England feel, Grandberg and the building committee visited churches all over the region, examining each in minute detail, from the wood handrails and pews and the materials on the walls to the distance from the pulpit to the last row and the height of the ceiling. Along with strict attention to scaling and detailing, axes through the building, sightlines and arrival points kept the 32,000-sq.ft. footprint from, as Grandberg says, "looking like a 1950s elementary school or a series of Quonset huts. So many churches that you see in the country look like terrible elementary schools, because they have to deal with one-story boxes. We designed it so the periphery of the building has many crenellations, so as you walk around the building, you perceive smaller components. Then we created the architecture of those smaller components to be readily identifiable, so that all of them are subcategories to the sanctuary."

The layout of the church is predicated on the sanctuary, which was oriented east-west so that sunlight would stream through the 16-ft. triple-hung windows that enhance the space. The chain and sash windows with historical wavy glass were manufactured by The Woodstone Co. of Westminster, VT. "One of the joys of the old church was that sunlight came through the windows and hit the pulpit during Sunday morning services," says Grandberg. "The congregation was very much attuned to the emotional impact of that, so we oriented it to achieve that, in the way they would say it, 'spiritual feeling within the sanctuary.'"

The three major program areas are organized along two east-west axes and a connecting north-south axis. The southernmost east-west space includes the 3,200-sq.ft. sanctuary and the 3,000-sq.ft. fellowship hall on the first floor; a music room, youth rooms and storage and mechanical spaces on the lower floor; and the sanctuary balcony and a sexton's apartment on the second floor. The sanctuary and fellowship hall are connected by an octagonal gallery space that leads to a prayer chapel to the south and, to the north, a hallway leading to the octagonal gallery space of the northernmost east-west space. Along the north-south hallway are a conference room and library, clergy offices and a clergy reception area. The northernmost east-west space includes a bookstore, nursery and six Sunday School classrooms, four of which surround another octagonal gallery space. The three octagonal gallery spaces, defined by clerestory cupolas, operate as markers, guiding visitors through the building.

The plan, which Grandberg says was clear and defining from the beginning of the design process, creates a courtyard on the west side of the complex in the space defined by the fellowship hall, clergy offices and Sunday School classrooms. "It's not quite a Classical cloistered courtyard," says Grandberg, "but it is, in a sense, a Classical component that was modernized." Along with capturing afternoon light, it also creates a strong interplay of interior and exterior spaces, as all of the program areas aside from the sanctuary respond to the courtyard.

Along with a very traditional service, the church also has youth ministries with services geared to the younger set. Thus it was important for the design to integrate special sound systems and lighting for more modern services. "The challenge was to maintain the traditional sanctuary," says Grandberg, "but to also function properly for contemporary services. From an electronics and mechanical engineering point of view, we tried to hide as made ducts as possible and worked within the lighting systems so that what was required could be hidden as much as possible."

While keeping an eye on the budget, Grandberg was insistent that the detailing be kept appropriate throughout, especially when the idea of a prefabricated aluminum steeple was pushed. "We're dealing with an historical level of detailing of what a steeple should be," says Grandberg. "We were absolutely affirmative in our stance on keeping every bit of detail proper. By achieving a steeple that looks as traditional as any steeple – it's a blend of aluminum and cedar – we were able to pull it off and still use a prefabricated steeple.

"The minister, Neely Towe, was inspirational in the process. She had great faith in us – she has worked with architects before and understood the fine line between keeping things together and losing it. In a lot of larger building projects, you work on your own developing the project. In this case, there were a lot of eyes looking on – but they were wonderful people."

Grandberg says the reaction to the church, which was completed in 2006, has been extraordinary in the community. It has also been well received outside the community: the new Stanwich Congregational Church has been recognized with a 2007 Religious Art and Architecture Design Award from Faith & Form Magazine and the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture. TB

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