September 21, 2019

Visions of a stately Old Brick Church still dance in his head

Observer renderings courtesy of Mark Hutchins A side-by side comparison of the Old Brick CHurch as it stands today (RIGHT), compared with how it was originally decorated (LEFT), complete with original wallpaper.

Observer renderings courtesy of Mark Hutchins
A side-by side comparison of the Old Brick CHurch as it stands today (RIGHT), compared with how it was originally decorated (LEFT), complete with original wallpaper.

Architect releases new rendering of old landmark

By Phyl Newbeck

Observer correspondent

Architect Mark Hutchins may live in California now, but a part of him never left Williston. As a teenager, he led a group that restored the then-shuttered Old Brick Church. It’s been 50 years since he’s lived in Williston, but the work he did then is a part of his life he’s never really shaken: to this day, he remains committed to bringing the church back to its former glory.

“The Brick Church Committee has done a great job with the building,” Hutchins said. “It has been kept in wonderful repair and I was heartened when they quickly moved to replace the old belfry and interior after the fire,” he said, referencing a fire that started when lightning struck the bell tower back in May, 2007.

Still, in Hutchins’ eyes, the building feels “slightly lifeless,” and he is doing his part to try to revive interest in additional renovations.

Born in Morrisville and raised in Burlington, Hutchins and his family first moved to town when he was in seventh grade. Now 67, he still remembers driving through Williston as a boy and being impressed by all the brick buildings in the middle of town. Looking out his classroom window, he could see the Old Brick Church, which had been shuttered since 1899 when the Congregationalists and Methodists combined their congregations under one roof.

As a teenager, Hutchins was intrigued by the abandoned building and one day in 1962, a friend helped him sneak in through a loose shutter in the basement. “I’ll never forget going up those steep steps into the foyer and the sanctuary,” he said. “It was like a time capsule.”

Hutchins said vandalism had been minimal. The pews were still covered with crimson damask and there was red and black carpeting on the floor. “The colors were still pretty vibrant,” he said.

Almost all of the wallpaper had come down and the chandelier was sitting in the middle of the floor, but the room was totally dry. “It fascinated me,” Hutchins recalls. “I fell in love with it, although as an eighth grader I probably wouldn’t have used that word.”

Hutchins approached Reverend Ken Moody, who had written a history of the church. Moody had heard rumors that the church would be torn down and replaced by a gas station, so Hutchins rounded up 15 other members of his youth group and for two years they cleaned and swept the church. In 1964, the first service was held, and as word got out, money came in from across the country to help with the renovations. Hutchins became the youngest recipient of a national history award for his work in 1965, when he was honored by the American Association of State and Local History.

Hutchins is still proud of what his group did then, but he wishes they had done more. “It had been our dream right from the start to bring the building back,” he said. “It had done so well for 60 years on its own.”

Hutchins was heartbroken when a year or two after the re-opening of the church, his family moved to Plattsburgh, but he continued to monitor work on the church. He was happy when he heard that Cathy Yandell had sent a sample of the wallpaper to a Boston company which reproduced it and named the style “the Williston.” He was equally pleased when the town purchased the building for one dollar and took over operations, but he was saddened to hear that many aspects of the restoration would not take place. Although the paint scheme has been retained, the wallpaper was never put up and the original chandelier and organ are missing. “The building has become sort of a town symbol,” he said, “so I’ve always wanted it to be finished.”

Jack Price, trustee for the Old Brick Church, has spoken to Hutchins many times over the years. “That fire he had in the belly hasn’t gone out,” Price said of Hutchins’ passion.

“He’s almost 68 and when he started this he was a teenager.”

Price has been a trustee for 26 years and noted that the five-member board is mostly concerned with “nuts and bolts” issues like painting, heating bills and landscaping. “It takes a lot to keep something this old going,” he said. “We just don’t have the money to fulfill Mark’s vision, but if money becomes available, the trustees will have to decide if they want to take another step to making it more authentic and like it was during its heyday.”

Price said one of the requirements of the church being owned by the town is that it has to have community events like the winter concert series and Fourth of July gatherings. However, he noted that it is also important to preserve the history of the church, which was attended by many of the town’s early elites. “What we have is a frosted cake,” he said, “but it doesn’t have all the frilly icing that it could have if it were a museum or something other than a functioning meeting house,” Price said.

He added that he always keeps Hutchins in mind when discussing budgetary matters with the other trustees and Hutchins often calls him with ideas. “He’s not heavy handed at all,” Price said. “He’s the spiritual conscience of the church.”

Half a century after leaving town, Hutchins is still carrying a torch for the church. He recently submitted a rendering of what the interior looked like when he first crawled through the broken shutter including furnishings, carpeting, upholstery, wallpaper and the gold-leaf chandelier.

“The church today has a pleasant interior,” he said “but it could be much more elegant. It wouldn’t take much to get it back. It was my dream and there is a part of me that would like to keep it alive,” he said.

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