Over two hundred sixty years ago, in 1755, the Groton Meeting House began its long history of continued use. For over a third of its years, 1755 to 1859, this meeting house was the center for both town government and religious observances.
The 1755 meeting house was actually the fourth such dual-purpose building constructed within Groton. Early settlers in what was then a frontier community built the first structure in 1666 near present-day Memorial Common on Hollis Street. Probably a square-shaped building, it provided space for an assembly hall with balconies on three sides. Its thatched roof reportedly burned fiercely when Native Americans torched the town during King Philip’s War in 1676.
In 1678 returning settlers constructed their second meeting house near the present-day Legion Hall on Hollis Street. Increased population over the next 33 years led to the need to construct a third and larger meeting house by 1714. This one settlers located beside a more traveled road, a spot next to where Groton Academy, now Lawrence Academy, would be opened just before century’s end. Groton was a settled community, no longer at the precarious frontier. By 1730 townspeople purchased a first bell for the meeting house and began contributing funds toward acquiring communion-serving silverware as well as aiding the poor and providing more for the minister.
By the 1750s continued population growth required the construction of yet another and even larger structure, our own fourth meeting house, built on the same location as the third. Decidedly larger than its predecessor, this meeting house had a square belfry topped with a cone-shaped steeple centered on one gable end. From the road the belfry and steeple appeared on the left, and the main entrance to this building was in the long side facing west, toward the main road. Inside, the floor space of this one-story building was entirely devoted to an auditorium. Galleries were built along each wall, except for the long east side, where the pulpit was centered. The building’s design and unadorned Interior suited Puritan simplicity and was still well suited for town government uses.
Then came the American Revolution; America was no longer a colony of Great Britain. People representing other religious beliefs had been moving to Groton, and a growing number of Puritan church-goers themselves challenged the starker elements of their original religious faith. Church unity began to disintegrate. Although it did not last, the first attempt in Groton to break away from the one faith came in the 1780s as a small group of parishioners left to create a separate Presbyterian society.
Meanwhile, Groton’s population had grown to make it the second largest community in Middlesex County, qualifying it as a county seat. Between 1776 and 1787 justices of the peace in the region met annually in General Sessions Court in our meeting house to hear cases involving disturbances of the peace, and judges of the Common Pleas Court heard civil cases there.
In 1795 parishioners met quite another challenge when lightning struck the steeple. Given the importance of the meeting house to the community’s religious and civic life, citizens quickly replaced the damaged portion of the steeple. Over the next 20 years they made a series of lasting improvements. In 1809 a public clock, still in use today, was installed in the bell tower. In 1818 heating stoves were installed. And in 1819 they installed the present-day 1,128-pound bell, made by the Boston firm of Paul Revere and Son, after the patriot himself had retired.
In 1825 the calling of a new minister was the catalyst bringing into the open a split over doctrine that had been developing since before the separation of the Presbyterians. Some parishioners were concerned that the majority of churchgoers and their new minister were not following all the tenets of the orthodox faith and were becoming Unitarians. Both sets of believers could not continue worshiping under the same roof. The majority, in this case being those dissenting from strict orthodoxy, retained the stewardship of the old meeting house. In 1826 those adhering to orthodox principles formed the Union Church of Christ in Groton and built their own church edifice while the meeting house church became First Parish Church of Groton.
The early 19th century ushered in a period of revitalization of these dual-purpose meeting house structures across the state. Much more attention was paid to architectural design, making these buildings more aesthetically appealing, resembling churches of other faiths. In 1839-1840 the members of First Parish Church of Groton undertook their own major reconstruction project. They raised the building, adding new sills beneath the old, and turned it so that the north side with its bell tower and steeple faced west, overlooking the common where Minutemen had mustered and the main road lay beyond it. That gable side with the belfry and steeple became the new main entrance. Builders extended the front of the building out a few feet to enclose the bell tower within the main structure and constructed a Greek Revival façade and portico with supporting pillars.
Inside, the added height allowed the builders to construct a second floor in place of the galleries. The upper floor became the sanctuary for church services, with a small balcony for the church choir and organ on the west wall, up to 90 box pews in the floor space, and a high pulpit, communion table, sofa, and two chairs made of fine wood on the east wall.
The lower floor had its own entrance on the south side. Town business was carried out on the east side and church business on the west side. Folding doors separated the two sections but could be pushed back to the wall to create a single large town meeting hall.
This setup lasted until 1859, when construction of the Groton Town Hall took place. The days of town business and religious observances happening under one roof had come to an end.
In 1860 the lower floor became the Vestry, a large room for church meetings and religious education classes. In 1877 changes upstairs rendered the sanctuary more in keeping with then fashionable Victorian-era public building interiors. The organ-choir loft was removed and the organ lowered to the floor of the sanctuary. Entrance doors to the sanctuary were installed on either side of the new organ-choir area. The box pews were replaced with benches on either side of a center aisle. At the front of the sanctuary a partition with rounded corners and an open archway over the chancel, now recessed with its back at the original east wall, were introduced. The addition of mahogany woodwork and gray-colored walls with elaborate stenciling cast “a darkening effect” upon the sanctuary.
In the late 19th century further improvements included purchase of the church’s prized Hook and Hastings pipe organ in 1891. Luther Blood bequeathed his house on Powderhouse Road next to the meeting house to the church. Starting in 1893 this home served as a parsonage and now continues as the Parish House, providing church offices and meeting rooms.
Groton Architect Luther Park designed the third major remodeling of the building, completed in 1916. Wooden blinds were removed from the windows and sanctuary walls, ceiling, and pews were repainted white, brightening the interior. The corners at the front of the sanctuary were squared off, the front of the chancel extended out into the room, and a “goblet style” pulpit and wall tablets listing the ministers were put in place. The box pews Park introduced to replace benches had backs higher than the earlier style of box pews.
The wood-burning stove in the Vestry was lowered into a specially-dug cellar as remodeling took place on the lower floor. In 1934 a gas-fired heating system was installed, followed in 1972 by two oil-fired furnaces, which was then reconverted to heating with gas in 2010.
Additional improvements have been made by parishioners over more recent years. In 1972 when the steeple needed replacement, they carried out a wide range of fundraising events and projects to replace the existing structure with an exact replica. In the late 1990s parishioners raised funds for painting the building, an effort that helped inspire the congregation’s most ambitious project in more than 80 years, the 2002 addition of a two-story East Wing, reflecting in small the look of the Fourth Meeting House. The East Wing’s interior provides modern classroom space, an elevator and stairway connecting floors and leading to doors letting into the front of the sanctuary, a basement storage space and specially designed church archives room. The project included installation of a fire-detection and sprinkler system within the meetinghouse as well as the addition.
In 2014 The Old Groton Meeting House Advisory Committee was organized to address major preservation and restoration needs. The committee hired Architectural Preservation firm Spencer and Vogt to do a complete study of the Meeting House. Among the projects Spencer and Vogt identified were the steeple cock, clock faces, clock tower roof, the front steps and several structural issues, as well as lead paint removal and painting. In addition, the clock itself had to be rebuilt. Over $500,000 was raised through a combination of individual donations, Conservation Preservation Act funds, the First Parish Church building reserve, and the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund. Historic restoration specialists were brought in to complete all aspects of the preservation project, and the clock was restored to its original condition, making it one of the oldest tower clocks in the country.
The Advisory Committee was dissolved in 2017, and the Old Groton Meetinghouse Preservation Fund, a 501(c)3 composed of citizens of the town and a First Parish Church liaison, was established to usher in the next phase of stewardship for the building. In July 2021, The Old Groton Meetinghouse and the Parish House were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Throughout its 267 years, the Groton Meeting House has remained a focal point in the town, standing at its gateway, displaying its distinct aesthetic appeal, and reminding us of its history of revolution and evolution. Those 267 years also tell a story of how, regardless of religious or civic use, stewards of the meeting house have never lost sight of caring for the structure and valuing its importance in the town. As the meeting house approaches its 270th birthday, The Old Groton Meetinghouse Preservation Fund, in partnership with First Parish Church, is turning to the town — Groton and its citizens — seeking support for its initiative: a newly established preservation fund which will provide ongoing stewardship of this national treasure and ensure this iconic building’s upkeep in perpetuity.
By Laura Moore and David Gordon