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 is 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 the 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, has undergone 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 the 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 moldings 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.
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 historically significant.
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 the admiralty, courteous and utterly imperturbable. Judge Prescott disliked litigation and full-dress court battles, so he 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 the 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 was 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.
All images used without restrictions from The Library of Congress