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"White on White" reception recap

[]When people think of New England, chances are they're envisioning a pristine white Greek revival church on a village green. The iconic image is everywhere: on postcards and calendars, travel brochures and Christmas cards. Did you ever wonder why all those churches look so similar — why that simple and elegant 'aesthetic' appears and reappears all across New England, from Maine to Martha's Vineyard?

On May 1, we hosted a talk by architectural photographer Steve Rosenthal, a great friend of the Library and the author of a beautiful book, White on White. This collection of subtle and gorgeous photographs has been an enormous favorite here; somehow Steve has managed to capture through pictures the spiritual tradition of American Congregationalism, as it has grown since the seventeenth century.

Steve explained something of his photograph technique, how he waited for just the right moment when the sun was at a particular angle to get the perfect shot. He pointed out features of the buildings and why they're so pleasing to the eye.

But what caught my ear was the story of the pattern books behind these beautiful churches. In the early nineteenth century, most New England churches were built from "do-it-yourself" manuals written for amateurs. These were filled with schematics for windows and arches and shingles, all superbly drawn in great detail. Asher Benjamin's pattern books were the most popular. We have one in our collection: as you can see it is basically a guide to putting a church building together from the ground up.


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Those churches — painted white because that color was the least expensive — set the tone for what everyone recognizes instantly as a New England village. The tall white church on the green sits next to the town hall and the school, and surrounded by houses with the same Greek revival design.

Keeping those churches in tact is a huge challenge. It takes a lot of money, time, and commitment to rebuild a bell tower or preserve nineteenth-century shingles. In far too many cases, the easier route has been to raze the buildings or to renovate them beyond recognition. But as Steve pointed out, we the living today are only a small blip in the lifetime of these buildings. They deserve not just our admiration but our respect for the tradition and the people who brought them into being.


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