Smokestacks and steeples are the skylines of small nineteenth century cities, and, as they fall victims to time, the city recedes into the landscape. The steeple of the First Baptist Church remained Gloversville New York’s compass pole even after the sanctuary fell vacant and cracks zig-zagged across its brownstone fa├žade. In its absence, the view down South Main Street will seem flat and featureless.

The First Baptist Church was a big city building. Its architect, Henry Franklin Kilburn (1844-1905) of New York City, produced an eclectic mix of patrician Fifth Avenue townhouses, churches for prosperous congregations, and formal public buildings. The son of an Ashfield, Massachusetts shoemaker, Kilburn had returned from a year in the Union Army to study architecture in nearby Northampton, departing for Manhattan in 1869. Even after he established an office at 229 Broadway, he executed many significant commissions in his native Connecticut River Valley, as well in New York City. Most of Kilburn's best-known buildings were designed in the "Richardson Romanesque" style.

Henry Hobson Richardson executed his first commission in 1867 and sprang to fame with Boston's Trinity Church, designed in 1872 and completed in 1877. Richardson's genius included the ability to animate masses of masonry by mixing textures and shades of stone and drawing contrasting horizontal lines with cornices and bands of windows. His most iconic buildings, which mixed Romanesque arches, rough-faced masonry, and elaborate carved patterns, were constructed on the scale of medieval castles and monastaries.

By its creator's death at age 47 in 1886, "Richardson Romanesque" had become the dominant style for large public buildings in the northeast. The New York State Capitol (in collaboration, 1875) and Albany City Hall (1880) are major Richardson commissions a short distance from Gloversville.

Although Richardson actively pursued church commissions, his designs required materials and craftsmanship beyond the means of even well-to-do congregations. Despite his auspicious start with the Trinity commission, just five of his church designs were erected. Albany's All Saints Episcopal Cathedral could have been the sixth. However, the vestrymen selected another architect, and Richardson's design can be admired only as drawings.

In the hands of imitators, Richardsonian Romanesque could become both ponderous and incoherent. Prominent Boston architect Ralph Cram assailed faux-Richardsonian buildings as:

A love-feast of cavernous arches, quarry-faced ashlar, cyclopean [keystones], and seaweed decoration ...in the sancrosact style of certain rather barbarous peoples in the south of France at the close of the Dark Ages.

Henry F. Kilburn was a Richardson imitator. His borrowing even extended to the use of “Longmeadow Stone” from the same Massachusetts quarries favored by Richardson. However, as the closeup of the First Baptist Church above shows, he arranged Richardsonian elements with an excellent eye for the interplay of shadow, light, and proportion. Our slideshow below is an autopsy of this now-demolished church as well as a pictural tour of its century-and-quarter on South Main Street.

POSTSCRIPT

There is no evidence that Henry F. Kilburn ever collaborated with H.H. Richardson. However, Park Presbyterian Church provides a sort of "Six Degrees of Separation" link. Kilburn's design for Park Presbyterian incorporates an existing chapel by Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908), a more prominent architect who collaborated with Richardson on the New York State Capitol in the 1870s. It has been suggested that Eidlitz was too busy to expand his original design and steered the commission to KIlburn as a favor to a friend. Kilburn's Mount Moriah Baptist Church at 2050 Fifth Avenue (1887-88), West End Presbyterian Church at Amsterdam Avenue and 105th Street (1890-92), and New York City Landmark-designated Saint James Episcopal Parish House in the Bronx (1892) also show his talents as a designer of ecclesiastical buildings.

Kilburn continued to have an active career until his final illness in the early twentieth century. One of his most charming buildings is a faux-castle overlooking the Hudson River at Tarrytown, New York. Built in 1897 as a 45 room residence, the castle long served as a private school and is now a conference center.

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