“A most unusual altar”

By: Karin Hamilton, Canon for Mission Communication & Media

An architect-designed altar made to look like books is back at Trinity on the Green in New Haven after 150+ years. The altar was designed in 1815 by Ithiel Town, architect for Trinity’s second, and current, building. Town’s personal library included over 11,000 volumes. That made him, said Peg Chambers, a Trinity historian and architect herself, “the perfect architect for the job of designer/builder of our new altar for our new church.”

Conservators from Holbrook & Hawes assess the Ithiel Town altar.

But the story of the book-altar really begins with two tablets:  Town’s altar may have been inspired by both his love of books as well as a desire for a “modern” presentation of the tenets of faith that had been displayed on two tablets in Trinity’s first church.

That first church, built in 1752, featured two wall-mounted tablets in the church’s sanctuary, placed there in 1803. One contained the Decalogue (the 10 Commandments); the other, the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer

The Ithiel Town altar in the second church was made to look as if it were built out of eight giant, black, leather-bound books that Town described as “relating to the government and worship of the church,” with two of them “open” to the same tenets of faith that had been on the tablets.

Town himself said of his most unusual altar that its “idea was a very interesting one.” Two “books” are placed horizontally, end-to-end, to make the top of the altar, and two placed the same way to make the bottom. One “book” stands vertically on each side. The book spines, which face the nave, where the congregation sits, feature gold-painted decoration and titles. The front of the altar shows two books opened, side-by-side, each to a two-page spread. One of these holds the Decalogue; the other, the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  

In 1816, the year that the second Trinity building was consecrated, the tablets were given to Christ Church, Bethany. Chambers thinks that including these three tenets of faith in the book-altar may have been a response to “what must have been a congregational sense of loss” felt when the tablets were given away. She believes that the paleography (handwriting) on the tablets was “likely seen as archaic by 1815, in the midst of our forward-thinking New Republic.”

In the mid-19th Century, however, the book-altar was given to St. James’ the Apostle Episcopal Church in the Westville section of New Haven, founded in 1835. No date is recorded for transaction. Chambers believes the reason was likely due to building renovations along with changing architectural tastes.

In 1884, for reasons again not recorded, the tablets were “kindly returned” to Trinity from Christ Church, as noted in a plaque now mounted between the tablets.

More than a century later, in 1994, St. James’ parish left its Westville property and merged with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at the corner of Olive and Chapel Streets near Wooster Square in New Haven, to form the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James.

Evidently the book-themed altar made the move as well. In 2015, Chris Wigren, Deputy Director of The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, alerted Chambers and others on Trinity’s History Ministry that he’d seen an altar in the parish hall at St. Paul and St. James’ that fit Ithiel Town’s description.

“We made the connection and all those involved celebrated at the find,” said Chambers.

Trinity members arranged to have the altar loaned to Trinity on the Green, where they have had it assessed by conservators and placed it on display at the chancel end of the south side aisle The 1803 tablets are on display in Trinity’s narthex.

Chambers is delighted. “It’s always wonderful to see any parish history come to life through a new discovery,” she said.

Source: MJ (Peg) Chambers, Architect
Photos: MJ (Peg) Chambers, Architect

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