The Old Narragansett Church, built in 1707, is one of the oldest Episcopalian churches in the United States. In 1800, in what was surely the event of the season, the church was moved five miles from its original home on Tower Hill in Narragansett to its current location in Wickford Village, drawn by a team of 48 oxen over a system of rolling timbers. The noted early American painter Gilbert Stuart was baptized in the church; during the Revolutionary War, the building served as barracks for American soldiers. It’s a vital part of our vernacular history here in Rhode Island, and architect Peter Lofgren knew that preserving the structure was imperative.
The church has stood for 314 years, withstanding its great move, nor’easters and hurricanes, successive adaptations and renovations, and most recently, the loss of its barrel-vaulted roof. An ice dam – a common danger for buildings in New England – accumulated on the church roof during the winter of 2019, and the subsequent water damage caused the plaster covering the roof to collapse. Lofgren, contractor Mark Holden, Odeh Structural Engineers, and their team used new three-dimensional scanning technology to create a meticulous blueprint for the roof restoration. The curved ribs of the barrel-vaulted ceiling, pictured here before they were once again covered in drywall and plaster, reveal the elegant simplicity of the building’s design, reminiscent of the hulls of wooden ships built by early New England settlers.
Historic preservation is rarely a simple process. In a building with as varied a structural history as the Old Narragansett Church, architects, historians, and current inhabitants must decide which iteration of the building they wish to restore. Lofgren and his team have chosen to preserve the original character of the church while also incorporating evidence of its long history. The team restored a circular window once concealed by a 19th-century steeple: In a building with no electricity or heat, windows would have been an essential part of the initial design, drawing light and warmth into the structure. Many of the wooden benches bear names, drawings of birds, and geometric shapes, scratched in by a long-ago parishioner perhaps bored with a long sermon. Although these unofficial additions to the structure could easily be sanded out, restoring the pews to their pristine original condition, they are an integral part of the history of the church and its congregants, and will remain after the renovations have finished.
The church will reopen to the public soon, holding services, tours, and weddings. It’s an essential visit and a powerful connection to our regional past. Learn more at StPaulsWickford.org or visit the location at 60 Church Lane, Wickford.