The legacy of a 172-year-old church building lives on in Essex

By Elizabeth Reinhart/ • 04/06/2021 10:37 AM EST

With a significant decline in church attendance over the past century, many of Essex’s historic church buildings have been adapted for modern reuse. This includes a 172-year-old former Methodist church on Prospect Street in Essex, now valued at over $1 million, which was recently sold to new owners by Susan Malan of William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty.

Frederick “Fred” GE Clarke, now deceased, and Janet Clarke were responsible for the building’s transformation, with restoration efforts taking place from 1985 to 1996.

“Everything was boarded up…It was an abandoned property, but my husband always thought the view from the top would be spectacular,” Clarke said.

After convincing the owner to sell the property in 1985, admiring the view from the steeple was one of Fred Clarke’s top priorities.

“One of the first things my husband did was go up the steeple, [which was] all on board,” said Janet Clarke.

Together with Josh Crowell, the former senior pastor of the First Congregational Church of Essex, “they went through some of the windows to see the view through the slats,” she continued.

Clarke decided to stay on the ground that day.

“You talk about a very dangerous climb as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t want to come in. I wouldn’t go inside” the abandoned property, she explained.

Although somewhat discouraged by the initial state of the 8,543 square foot building, Clarke understood the importance of its history.

“He had several lives,” she said.

Built in 1849, the building was used as a church until 1945. Its many owners over the year have included the City of Essex and the Essex Fire Engine Company. It was also used as a warehouse for many years by Verplex Realty Company.

The Clarkes, who purchased the building in 1985, never used the building as their primary residence. They lived nearby, however, owning a home on West Avenue and then next door during the 11-year period the building was restored.

Both juggled between supervising restoration work and full-time jobs as corporate executives for the RR Donnelley printing works in Old Saybrook.

Clarke says her husband, who was born and raised in the area, was the driving force behind the entire restoration project.

“He loved, loved the whole Connecticut River,” Clarke said. “He just thought it was such an important thing to renovate this property. He thought the place was beautiful. He thought it was worth making the most of everything and he truly felt he was a steward of the property.

The Clarkes hired an architect, Steven Synakowski, who had studied ancient ecclesiastical architecture to help rebuild the structure. Synakowski kept certain elements of the church intact, in particular with regard to a skylight visible from the ground floor of the building.

“The steeple had blown up in the 1938 hurricane and he thought the glass on top would diffuse into the heavens…that was his concept,” Clarke said.

Synakowski also redesigned the altar area and created a pulpit-like staircase.

“He had church credentials,” Clarke said. “He took the chancel loft and glazed it, so you have the central sense of the core of the church.”

Another important part of the project was to redo the front facade of the building, a project necessitated by a previous owner.

“To make money, they sold…somebody sold, all the work on the front to another church on Long Island…They stripped the whole front, all these moldings were stripped and sold,” a said Clarke.

Working with original architectural sketches and measurements found by Synakowski, Fred “did it all back in solid wood,” Clarke said. “He had it all formed and redone…back to the original.”

The exposed wooden beams on the third floor also recall the period in which the church was built.

“It was structurally amazing and that’s what my husband understood is that the shipwrights that built it, they used all kinds of steel strapping, and the solid wood, we didn’t even no more trees that tall,” Clarke says.

A testament to the church’s historical legacy is also a painting, done in the 1920s by William Chadwick, an impressionist painter who was part of Florence Griswold’s Old Lyme Art Colony.

Although Clarke intends to keep this painting with her collection, she leaves behind a painting by Chester artist Leif Nilsson, commissioned by the Clarkes, which will pass to the new owners.

Clarke said Fred would have been pleased to know he was being sold to people with a similar mindset to his.

“The new owners are amazing because they’re going to be managing the property,” Clarke said. “His [Fred’s] it was all about making sure it was going to be handled in the future and Susan Malan even said that, she said, “It’s amazing. He saved the place.

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