Chestnut Hill Meeting House
The Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse, located at the corner of Chestnut Hill Road and Thayer Street in Millville, Massachusetts, is one of New England’s best-preserved 18th-century meetinghouses, a fine example of the primary public building of the colonial landscape. Funding from the Massachusetts Historical Commission allowed students in the Preservation Studies Program to provide historical research and archival organization to the small organization that owns the building, the Chestnut Street Meeting House and Cemetery Association. Several BU courses, as well as student internships, provided opportunities for closely examining the building and learning the research techniques appropriate to early buildings, including AM 753 Documenting Historic Buildings and AH 570 Early American Buildings. Student in these classes handled a variety of tasks, including a close examination, description, and recording of the building’s fabric. Students also organized the Association’s archives, which yielded materials that helped recreate the multiple phases of finishing, remodeling, and restoring the meetinghouse.
The Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse was constructed in 1769 and served as the general meeting place for the South Parish or South Precinct of the town of Mendon. In spite of its auspicious beginning, the parish never flourished, and only two ministers were called to serve, briefly; there has not been an associated church since early in the 19th century. It served a secular role as a site for town and precinct meetings, and for other social and religious events, for the next seventy years. Like most meetinghouses, the building is nearly square, measuring about 40 by 35 feet, and its two stories enclose the main floor of pews and a gallery around the second level. New England’s Congregational meetinghouses are perhaps the best-known examples of the room or auditory plan, well-suited to Protestant liturgical emphasis on the Word. The pulpit forms the centerpiece of the plan, including a reader’s bench, a fold-down communion table, a high pulpit, and an octagonal sounding board. The ambitious composition is typical of those rural meetinghouses that survive and likely represents the highest level of craftsmanship in the area. The configuration of the pews is a common one, lining the outer walls and including two blocks of six pews in the center of the floor. These pews take the regional form of paneled walls topped by a spindle screen. Stairs in the southeast and southwest corners lead to the three-sided gallery, where simple, heavy seating was traditionally filled by the boys of the town.
The Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse has long been described as a largely unaltered building, but close inspection of the building’s physical fabric, as well as evidence presented in an early history of the building, reveals this not to be the case. Like many eighteenth century meetinghouses, this one was not ‘finished’ immediately. The building was apparently not plastered and its box pews were not all installed until early in the nineteenth century and probably in 1807. It may be that the present configuration of the side doors of the meetinghouse date to this period. The east and west doors are in an unusual position, not directly opposite one another as in most other surviving examples, and are not closely matched in their decorative details. There is also evidence in the building’s framing scheme that they were not planned for the building, which may explain these anomalies.
When the new town of Blackstone decided to build a single-purpose town house in the village on the river, the secular role of the meetinghouse changed, and over the decade of the 1940s and 50s, both its function and its ownership are unclear. Eventually, a group of Chestnut Hill residents reconstituted themselves as the precinct’s ‘society,’ and thus became the de facto owners of the buildings and land; in 1896, the group was incorporated and its stewardship was formalized. A second round of alterations dates to the centennial of the church in 1869, and are more obvious to the viewer than the earlier adjustments. Documents still held by the descendants of a church member provided a detailed list of the changes and materials can now be matched to the physical fabric. The major changes included new window sash and surrounds, new doors, new brick chimney, and the removal of the box pews from the center of the floor and their replacement with simple slips. In 1930, the box pews were reinstalled in the center of the floor and with careful examination the new and old fabric can be distinguished. The meetinghouse was recorded by the Historic American Building Survey in 1935 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The report prepared by the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University in 2006 represents the first extended investigation of the Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse.