Small, rural Episcopal churches designed by world-renowned architect are disappearing

March 19, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church in Groton, South Dakota, is the last remaining church designed by renowned architect and Episcopalian Richard Upjohn. Photo courtesy of Groton Community Historical Society

[Episcopal News Service] In the center of a little former frontier town in northeastern South Dakota stands an Episcopal sole survivor.

The one-room wooden Trinity Episcopal Church was built only three years after the town of Groton was organized as a railroad stop in 1881. Groton is now a city of 1,400 people, according to the last U.S. census.

This simple, white-painted church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, representing significant mid-19th century revival architecture, exploration and settlement. Properties listed in the register are deemed important in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture. It’s the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.

The church’s cachet also stems from its architectural design. It was created by renowned church architect and Episcopalian Richard Upjohn, who designed the majestic Trinity Church Wall Street in downtown Manhattan and founded the American Institute of Architects.

There once were 153 churches built from Upjohn’s designs in South Dakota, and this is the only one remaining.

Perspective drawing for Trinity Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Groton Community Historical Society

“I always took it for granted that it was there. I live two blocks from the church and walked by it every day of my life since 1965,” said Betty Breck, who is striving to keep the church preserved and open for use.

She’s part of the Groton Community Historical Society that is seeking help from the public to gather enough donations to be able to apply for a grant from the City of Deadwood, South Dakota, and the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, set up to help historic preservation throughout the state.

A circa 1870 oil portrait depicts architect and Episcopalian Richard Upjohn. Photo: Wikmedia Commons

Upjohn, a heavily indebted English cabinet maker, migrated to the United States in 1829, gradually becoming one of North America’s famous architects. “The buildings he designed reflected new currents in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States and its parent, the Church of England,” according to an article by Joan R. Gundersen, the soon-to retire archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Gundersen, who lived in Northfield, Minnesota, from 1975 to 1989 while she was a tenured member of the St. Olaf College history department, wrote about Upjohn’s influence in “Rural Gothic: Building Episcopal Churches on the Minnesota Frontier,” published in Minnesota History, a quarterly publication of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Upjohn helped spread the Gothic revival in church architecture to the United States with his work on Trinity Church Wall Street and several other major churches.

“More important for the architect’s and the revival’s overall impact was the fact that Upjohn donated plans for many small churches and made it a policy to design one mission church each year,” she said.

“With these plans, they could build churches very quickly,” Breck said. “The directions were so complete. It’s fascinating to me how they did it.”

Betty Breck is trying to preserve Trinity Episcopal Church in Groton, South Dakota, due to its historic architectural design and significance. Photo courtesy of Groton Community Historical Society

Upjohn’s practical plans for building small churches, quickly, affordably and with local materials and craftsmen in rural America started a wave of 19th century church building, starting in western New York sometime in the 1820s, Breck learned.

It wasn’t until the 1820s that the Episcopal Church looked toward the American frontier, Gundersen wrote. That’s when the General Convention founded the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which first began work on the immediate frontiers of western Pennsylvania, New York and New England. Western New York was booming, thanks to the completion in 1825 of the Erie Canal. (Today, the Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out its mission under the name of the DFMS.)

Eventually, Upjohn gathered plans for a church, chapel, rectory and schoolhouse that he published as “Upjohn’s Rural Architecture” in 1852.

Then the building spread with the missionary movement throughout the Western frontier. In 1880, there were 22 chapels and 73 churches built with Upjohn’s plans in Minnesota, Breck said.

Trinity, Groton, was a consecrated church in the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota until the diocese deeded the property to the Brown County Historical Society in 1975. It joined the National Register in 1983. But the society struggled to take care of the church, so in 2016, the Groton Community Historical Society was formed for the express purpose owning the church to maintain and preserve it.

The interior of Trinity Episcopal Church in Groton, South Dakota. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Robert Hill

The church is exactly as it was in the 1880s, except for the chimney, turn-of-the-century wiring and the removal of an oil furnace on the floor. The ecclesiastical furniture — including the original pump organ, pews, altar and pulpit — are the same.

Once the roof is fixed, Breck envisions weekly music events and maybe use as a destination wedding chapel. She has an event planned May 27, with pump organ music.

When Breck started doing research on this church, she had no idea about its history.

“It was just this sweet little church down the road. When you sit in there, it just works its spell on you. It speaks to the spirituality of our ancestors here,” Breck said.

“They worked hard, and they took time to build a church not only for their Episcopal congregation, but by others also. It was a community center, the center of the town and held everything together on the prairie.”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at [email protected]

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