Asylum Hill Congregational Church

Status: Current

814 Asylum Avenue: Built 1864-1866, architect Patrick C. Keely, builder Samuel Coit; chapel (now Drew Hall) opened 1864; church dedicated 1866; bell installed 1871; tower and spire constructed 1875; clock installed 1897; parish house added 1903-1904; Gross Memorial Chapel and expansion of parish house added 1939-1940; second extension of parish house added 1990; third extension of parish house added 2004.

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Questions about Asylum Hill Congregational Church

Nope! Once upon a time, I heard that they were, that Keely either recycled his earlier design for Saint Patrick’s because he wasn’t really in Hartford then or that AHCC, looking to save money, had asked for the same design. The churches bear some resemblances, particularly in their steeples and their front façades, but along the sides, AHCC has a tiered roof while Saint Patrick’s side roofs are straight (apologies for not knowing the architectural jargon!). Even more significantly, AHCC has a chapel that is a part of the church structure, while Saint Patrick’s did not. So, even if Keely re-used elements of his design for Saint Patrick’s in his design for AHCC, he added new elements that weren’t found at Saint Patrick’s. That said, however, there are three twists that suggest there might be something to this local legend. First, AHCC did pay Keely a very low fee for his work – $630, out of a total project budget of $106,208.58, or about 0.6% of the total budget. I don’t know what the standard fee for an architect was in 1864, but that does seem kind of low. Second, Keely didn’t oversee the construction of the church, Sam Coit did. Coit was a local builder and an original member of the AH Congregational Society, and he may have stepped into this role in order to save the church some money. He also made alterations to Keely’s design as construction progressed, in order apparently to make the church appear more austere. And third, AHCC’s steeple was not completed until 1875, almost immediately after the original Saint Patrick’s was destroyed by fire. Roland Mather donated the funds for the completion of the steeple 10 days after the fire at Saint Patrick’s, perhaps revealing at least his sensitivity to how much the two churches looked alike. As soon as I gain access to a picture of Saint Patrick’s from before 1875, I’ll make a topic of this question so you can compare the two churches for yourself.

So far, I’ve identified three times that the church considered relocated: 3/21/1965, during its centennial celebration; 3/24/1973, when Walter Waggoner was called to be the senior pastor; and 10/6/1985, in the lead up to the restoration and re-dedication of its sanctuary. This question bears not only on the church’s relationship with Asylum Hill but also with its congregation: by 1973, Bernard Drew commented that most of the parishioners now lived outside of Hartford. As I learn more, I’ll include this as a topic.

As it turns out, very! Probably. And not just because it was odd that a Congregational church would hire a Catholic architect or an architect mostly known for designing Catholic churches. I haven’t found any contemporary references to Keely as he worked for the AH Congregational Society, but I have come across three references to him among lectures given by people looking back on the church’s history. 1904: C. C. Stearns spoke of the English Gothic inspiration for AHCC’s design and described Keely as “an Irishman.” In 1908, F. Irvin Davis listed only technical specifications about the church (length, number of pews) and described Keely as being “of Brooklyn, NY.” Atwood Collins kind of gushed over Keely, and he gave an extensive biography of him that included where he was born and an overview of some of the churches he’d designed. Collins seemed quite pleased that AHCC could be counted among Keely’s accomplishments – AHCC was in good company – and here it should be noted that of the three references so far found, only Collins was directly connected to the church. Stearns and Davis were guest lecturers at the Men’s Club, and while they may have been connected to the church otherwise, neither of them could be as identified with AHCC as Collins could be.

Probably very, but before I get to that, not really: AHCC probably hired Keely because they probably knew his work. In 1850, he had designed Saint Patrick Catholic Church on the corner of Ann and Church Streets. It’s not a stretch to assume the early members of the AH Congregational Society went and had a look before they hired him, and as such it’s also not a stretch to contemplate that they had also had a look at the work of other church architects around Hartford. In those contemporary terms, then, it’s not very significant, because they chose the architect based on their preferences and maybe even on local references – in other words, based on their due diligence. In terms of Keely’s career, however, their selection of him turns out to extremely significant. Keely specialized in churches, and according to some accounts he designed anywhere from 400 to 700 churches in the US and Canada during his 48-year career here. The vast majority of these churches were Catholic – some claims place the number of Protestant churches designed by Keely as low as five. That alone makes AHCC nearly unique in Keely’s output, but sadly, the real significance here is that Keely designed three churches in Hartford – Saint Patrick’s, AHCC, and the Cathedral of Saint Joseph. Both Saint Patrick’s and Saint Joseph’s were destroyed by fire, in the case of Saint Patrick’s twice, and neither is the church as designed by Keely (although Saint Patrick’s comes close). That makes AHCC the only extant version of Keely’s work in Hartford.

Not always clear who got what from whom. Sources include the Hartford Daily Courant & Hartford Courant; F. Irvin Davis, 3/2/1908; Maria Metcalf's letter; Jeremiah M. Allen's handwritten manuscript on the founding of the church; Atwood Collins's annual reports to the Asylum Hill Congregational Society; William L. Collins's diary; and James S. Tryon's paper on the 25th anniversary of the church. I haven't seen all of these sources for myself, but they are sourced in other histories of the church.


Sources

The main source for information on this page is the Hartford [Daily] Courant. Specific references to articles can be found under the history (timeline) entries. All sources for this page, including the timeline entries, can be viewed on the bibliography for this subject.


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To Move, Or Not to Move

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