The idea for a study of the Architecture on Historic Churches in Jefferson County, New York came from a request by the Jefferson County Historical Society to do a presentation. Knowing that there were far too many historic churches in the County than I had time to research, it was decided to narrow the presentation to specifically churches located on islands in Jefferson County - those on Grindstone, Grenell and Wellesley Islands. This article is from the first presentation I did 1999 and another in 2006. Since then, I have added one additional church in Alexandria Bay that is not technically on an island, but is one of my favorite churches. I am sure that there are other religious structures on other islands in Jefferson County, and hopefully this article will cause others to bring those to light.
All of the churches are small, but as is typical with most architecture in the 1000 Islands, the churches range in design from modest churches intended to serve both the year-round and summer population to more elaborately designed structures intended more for the summer population.
Architecturally, churches have had an enormous influence on building styles throughout the years. As religion was going through a tremendous change in the late 19th Century, so was the architecture that symbolized this change. Typically, the urban churches that we are familiar with, were built on a grand scale with complex massing, detail and richness that was in keeping with the growth and change in the role of the church in society. However, the island churches, for the most part, are a marked contrast to the urban churches. With one exception - these buildings are all constructed of wood and represent variations on the Victorian Gothic Style but in the wood version as Stick Style or Carpenter Gothic that was popular in the 1870’s and 1880’s. For the churches that don’t have a named architect, pattern books such as Gardener’s Common Sense in Church Building (published 1880) were used as a guide for church design and construction. Two of the most beautiful churches here added a Shingle Style variation that was popular in the late 1880’s through the early 1900’s
There are only three islands that contain the 8 churches and chapels in this article, they are Grindstone, Grenell and Wellesley Islands. Wellesley Island is the largest of these three, with Grindstone next and Grenell the smallest.
The growth of the 1000 Islands is important in understanding the history of these churches. Until the late 19th Century, the area was primarily agricultural and timbering with some manufacturing. But it was also known for its fishing, and it was the fishing that initially drew people to discover the area as a place to spend summers. With the advent of rail travel to Redwood, Clayton, Cape Vincent and Gananoque, travel to the 1000 Islands from places as far away as New York, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Chicago became an overnight trip. With the visit of General Grant, the President of the United States in 1872, the area entered its Golden Age of development and growth.
Grindstone Island which is located opposite the town of Clayton, has always been home to a year-round population, but over the years as the agricultural use of the Island has declined, so has the year-round population. In the summertime the population swells as people return to their summer homes. At one time there were two active school houses, a cheese factory and stone quarries. The Reverend Alexander Short arrived on Grindstone Island from Canada in 1883 to establish a Methodist Ministry. The current Methodist Church on Grindstone had its beginnings in 1890 when an existing church on La Rue( Hill) Island was dismantled and rebuilt in its current location by the Reverend Short. The church that was dismantled was a local or vernacular version of the Romanesque Style. The Church that was rebuilt was modeled in the Gothic Revival Style with two different size corner towers as shown in the 1899 photo. The church building needed some major repair work and in the mid 1930’s repairs were made, the two towers were removed and a central entrance tower added. You can visit the TI Life 5/13/11 article for more information on the history of the church.
Whereas the Grindstone Church was primarily built to address the needs of the families living and working on the island, the next series of churches were built more to serve the summer community who came to the area via the expansion of the railroad network in the late 19th Century. Many tourists came to Clayton by train and then going by steam ship to one of the many large resort hotels such as the Frontenac Hotel on Round Island across from Thousand Island Park, the Thousand Island Park Hotel or later the Columbian Hotel that succeeded the Thousand Island Park Hotel that was destroyed by fire.
Grenell Island is a much smaller island located between Grindstone Island and Wellesley island, with primarily a seasonal population. The Grenell Island Chapel was designed by Mr. E. S. Paxton of West Chester Pa. The construction was completed in August of 1898. Captain and Mrs. Grenell donated the lot for the Chapel. The original plans called for a frame building and a plan for the stone and wood structure was presented by Mr. P.M. Sharples, a Grenell summer resident. The building was built by Strough and Brooks of Clayton. Though one of the founders, the Reverend Frank P. Stoddard was Pastor of the Strong Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, the Chapel is non-denominational. Clergy from all major denominations are included in scheduling of services for Sundays in July and August. Stylistically, the Grenell Island Chapel still falls within the Victorian Gothic but with a more English Country influence with its wonderful stone work, English Tudor half timbering and white stucco, the exposed beams and diamond pane windows. It clearly demonstrates the sophistication of the more urban influence of the Architect who designed it. The church also has some very beautiful stained glass Tiffany windows that were donated by the family of Miss Lois Kerr and arranged in a memorial window in the East wall of the Chapel. You can read further on the Grenell Chapel at TI Life 1/13/13.
Wellesley Island, which is 9 miles long and stretches from Fishers Landing on the Mainland to Alexandria Bay, has some of both the year-round church and the summer chapel features of Grindstone and Grenell islands. As the second largest of the 1000 islands it was also home to a significant year-round population that was also agricultural based. Today the farming is all but gone, but because it is connected to the mainland by the Thousand Island Bridge, there are still many people who live there year-round. In the late 1870’s Wellesley Island became home to two separate religious colonies, the Methodist Episcopal colony in Thousand Island Park and the Presbyterian colony in Westminster Park.
At the Western end of the island, the Thousand Island Camp Meeting Association purchased the land on the South West end of Wellesley Island in 1875. It was founded by the Reverend John Ferdinand Dyan, who was originally from the Town of Lyme in Jefferson County, but grew up in Lowville in Lewis County, New York. As with many other things that were changing in the United States in the latter half of the 19thCentury, the concept of the Campground was also changing.
The Campground Meetings became extended affairs and the Campground sites became more permanent and more elaborate. Some were set up for specific purposes (i.e., Chautauqua Institute near Jamestown, New York which was established in 1874 as a summer center for the training of Sunday School Teachers). Soon, the tent sites gave way to cottages and the tent used for the services in the Tabernacle was replaced by a permanent structure in 1884. This 90’x 140’ relatively plain wood structure with open sides, was reported to have held 3,000 people. Stylistically, with its multi-paned windows and central tower on the main facade, it was in keeping with the Vernacular Italianate Architecture that can be found in the Park. The Tabernacle was replaced by a new even more plain, but functional steel frame structure in 1936.
The first Chapel in Thousand Island Park was built in 1889 but was destroyed a year later when the Thousand Island Park Hotel burned. The second Thousand Island Park Chapel was dedicated in July of 1891 and constructed in the Gothic Revival Style. From the early photos it appears that it had a polychrome scheme with fake stone quoins on the corners and small brackets on the tower and eaves with pointed gothic style windows.
The current Chapel was built in 1912 of concrete block construction by the St. Lawrence River Concrete Co. It was designed to be fire proof and look like stone after the great fire of 1911 destroyed the Colombian Hotel and many other buildings in the park including the adjacent Chapel. The building also housed a school and assembly hall. The interior is equally as sparse with a pressed metal ceiling and painted walls. Stylistically it is a vernacular Colonial Revival Style with minimal ornamentation. Many of the buildings in Thousand Island Park are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in the summer the population swells to over 6,000 people.
A short distance further east on Wellesley Island is the community known as Fineview. The Fineview Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1891 by the Reverend Samuel Call. The first services were held in the Moore Schoolhouse at Peel Dock and the Calkins Schoolhouse in Densmore, both on Wellesley Island.
The land for the church was donated by Henry LaFleur and the current church building was built in 1908. The Church is a good example of a small church built in the Colonial Revival Style. It does not have the pointed windows of Gothic inspired churches, but rather the rectangular pedimented lintels over the side windows. The Gable end window has more of a round top than a pointed top. The building contract was let to Captain George R. Brown of Thousand Island Park. The stained glass windows in the front of the church were given by the Ladies Society of Thousand Islands Park and Densmore and the rear windows were given by the Ladies Society of Fineview. Services were held year-round and were connected with the Densmore Methodist Episcopal Church in Densmore Bay a little further east on Wellesley Island.
The Densmore Methodist Episcopal Church was dedicated on August 15, 1902. The construction cost was $3,500 and it was built on land donated by Mr. John R. Calkins a farmer on Wellesley Island. In addition to the support of the local residents, two notable summer residents also contributed to the project. Royal R. Dean of nearby Island Royal gave a replacement bell after the first bell was reported to have cracked and Mr. and Mrs. George Boldt who owned extensive property on Wellesley Island and Heart Island ( Boldt Castle) gave the silver communion set and white marble baptismal font. The Church is built in a Shingle Style variation on Victorian Gothic.
The Shingle style had become a popular style for summer residences. The use of the wood shingles with diamond patterns and the entrance and tower on the corner with the wide stairway, give what is really a simple rectangular structure much more character. The placement of the entrance on the corner also hints to another unique character of this church, the interior layout is done on a diagonal, with the altar in the far corner and the pews radiating out from it. This is a variation on a popular Methodist building plan known as the Akron plan. The Akron plan was a style designed by Lewis Miller who was an Akron, Ohio inventor, manufacturer and businessman.
A typical Akron Plan has a sanctuary with sloping floor and seats arranged in a semi-circle rather than the traditional cruciform plan. The style was originally intended for Protestant Sunday schools as part of the American Sunday School movement, but was later applied to entire church buildings. The Fineview, Densmore and Thousand Island Methodist Episcopal churches were linked together as noted in the 1922 “Souvenir of the Densmore, Fine View, Thousand Island Park, Methodist Episcopal Churches, Wellesley Island New York”. The Densmore Church was placed on the National Register of Historic places in 1988. Due to a declining congregation and a desire to keep this important structure, in 1995 the Church changed from being part of the United Methodist Church to the Densmore Church Inc. and now has a weekly summer programs and is available for weddings and other functions.
On the Eastern end of Wellesley Island is Westminster Park. It was established by the Presbyterians in 1875. The 1878 bylaws of the “Westminster Park Association of the Thousand Islands” lists the Reverend P.H. Fowler as President and Honorable Andrew Cornwall as one of the Vice Presidents. Unlike Thousand Island Park on the other end of Wellesley Island, the Association in Westminster Park sold the land for building lots, rather than retaining long term leases. Interestingly enough, the bylaws also specifically call out that “Camp Meetings, so called are not embraced in the plan or management of the Association”, the Association thought of Westminster Park as a quieter, more private setting than TI Park. The Association was also to build “landing places, roads, walks, a boarding hall, a place of worship”, this place of worship as shown in the original map of Westminster park was known as the Chapel on Mt. Beulah. This Victorian Gothic inspired Stick Style structure with the tall spire and gothic windows would have looked very impressive on top of one of the highest points in Westminster Park.
The 1878 description called for a hexagon shaped auditorium fifty feet high that sat 366 people and an octagon shaped transept. It also described walls that could be opened to the outside to the piazza for additional seating. It was supposed to be ready for the summer of 1878. For a long time as I was putting the original presentation together, I could not find any evidence that it was actually built until the late Paul Malo graciously lent me a photo of the actual building. Unfortunately, with the bankrupting and dissolution of the Association in the 1930’s it disappeared. Later, with the coming of Interstate 81 across Wellesley Island in the 1970’s much of Mt. Beulah disappeared as well, becoming a gravel pit to supply the road building.
Westminster Park does however have a Chapel once more. It is a new structure that was commissioned by Mary Hannah and the late Randy Arnot. Randy and Mary Hannah thought there should be a chapel in Westminster Park and had approached me as a neighbor and architect to help them realize that vision for a chapel. It needed to be simple, look like a religiously inspired structure and meet the budget. The Chapel was dedicated in 2003 and is home to a statue done by Carmen D’Avino. It is a place for quiet reflection, available for ceremonies, meetings and events and it is always open.
The last church that I want to include is technically not on an island, but on Mill Point in Alexandria Bay. It is the Church of St. Lawrence, an Episcopal church that is now only open during the summer. The Reverend F.B.A. Lewis had been conducting services at both the Crossman House and the Thousand Island House, the two largest resort hotels in Alexandria Bay as early as 1877. On behalf of the diocese, he purchased the land for the church and it was the Reverend R.A. Olin, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Watertown who oversaw its construction.
The Church of the St. Lawrence was completed in 1887 and designed by William P. Wentworth of Boston who was also the architect for Trinity Episcopal Church in Watertown. It was built by Albert F. Bachman of Alexandria Bay. The Church is a wonderful example of Gothic inspired Shingle Style architecture which was in keeping with the summer resort architecture of the area. Unlike the Densmore Church, this building adds a three dimensionality to its style with the massive rough stone foundation, flared watertable and shingle covered buttresses that flank the pointed arch Gothic windows.
It has a simple enclosed entry porch with an octagonal belfry, spire and cross situated at the top of the main gable roof. The plan is a traditional plan with nave and chancel and two flanking octagonal ells. The interior is equally impressive with varnished wood covering the interior surfaces in a combination of vertical, horizontal and diagonal paneling. Hammer beam wood arches and soaring ceiling provide a strong visual statement of strength as it directs your eye toward heaven. There are several stained glass windows that light the interior. The workmanship of the interior, no doubt, can be attributed to the many fine boat builders who were in business at the time the Church was being built. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
There are several people I would like to thank for their help in supplying much of the original information used in this article. I would especially like to thank Nellie and Steve Taylor from Thousand Island Park who were very gracious in sharing some of the information that they had regarding the Tabernacle and Chapel in TI Park as well as the Fineview Methodist and Densmore Churches. I would also like to thank Steve for taking me out to Grenell Island on a cold fall day back in 1998 to see the Grenell Chapel and connect me with Harold Rasmussen who supplied me with photos and information on the Grenell Chapel. Mr Charles Margeson for his help with the Fineview and Densmore churches, Ramona Nunn for her help with the Fineview Church and Mrs. Jean Snow, now retired from the Thousand Island Sun and Ginny Sramek who at the time was the unofficial historian of Westminster Park. Ken Deedy from Grindstone and Karen Lago from Clayton who were very helpful with the story of Grindstone Church. I would also like to especially acknowledge Mary Hannah and her husband, the late Randy Arnot who gave me the opportunity to design the Westminster Park Chapel.
By Rick Tague
Rick Tague graduated from Alexandria Centre School in Alexandria Bay and received a degree in Architecture at the SUNY campus in Buffalo. After graduating he took a job with New York State as Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator. Working on historic buildings for NYS piqued his interest in Historic Architecture, culminating by attending Columbia University in New York City and receiving a Master of Science in Historic Preservation.
Rick is President of Bernier Carr and Associates (BCA) . BCA is a multidisciplinary architecture, engineering, surveying and construction management firm with offices in Watertown, Ithaca and Syracuse. BCA specializes in public projects with the Architectural Division working on schools, municipal buildings and healthcare and the Engineering Division working on water and waste water projects for municipalities. Rick has completed several important projects in the region including work on the Boldt Castle properties for Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, the historic court house restorations for Jefferson and St. Lawrence County. Rick and his wife Tricia are active community members. Rick is a past president of the Thousand Islands Land Trust and Tricia is a past president of the Thousand Islands Association.