MOTNGOMERY – With a fresh coat of paint now dry, the retired church looming over Montgomery reached a new milestone this month – according to its stewards, Pratt Hall’s exterior is considered fully restored.
The former home of Montgomery’s Episcopal church, Pratt Hall now looks more like the church celebrated on the century-old photographs hung from its walls than it has in a long time.
“There’s a historical context you want to preserve,” said Scott Perry, the Montgomery Historical Society’s chair, during a tour of the hall on Wednesday.
Since the 1970s, the church has belonged to the Montgomery Historical Society, purchased for a single dollar after the building had been condemned for demolition following years of neglect.
In the ensuing decades, a suite of restoration projects would see the top-most sections of the church’s tower rebuilt and, more recently, its western wall renovated and its tower’s base restored to the tune of, in total, “more than a quarter of a million dollars,” by Perry’s estimates.
Those decades-worth of restoration work were topped off this year as a layer of paint was scraped off by hand and repainted twice over.
While Perry warned “there’s always something” needing work at the former church, the Montgomery Historical Society said the new coat of paint, courtesy of a 1772 Foundation partnership with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, equated to the “completion of the exterior restoration and painting of Pratt Hall.”
Renamed Pratt Hall in honor of one of the Montgomery Historical Society’s early members, the former Episcopalian church now serves as the historical society’s home and, in the words of the historical society’s chair, as a “living artifact” for sharing Montgomery’s history.
“I like to use the term ‘living artifact,’” Perry said. “We don’t have a lot of artifacts,” he said, before motioning toward Pratt Hall, “but we do have one big one.”
While some modifications have been made inside for a myriad of uses – several pews had been removed to make room for the historical society and mounting boards have been added so art can be displayed inside – Pratt Hall handily resembles the Episcopalian church described in Montgomery’s town history.
Though its chimes have been temporarily muted, Pratt Hall’s clocktower still counts with the hours, and the church’s classic Gothic Revival features – its pointed frames, clocktower’s parapet and detailed motifs inside – remain reminiscent of their photographed counterparts from the early 1900s.
Even its single-step entrance platform recalls the Montgomery Historical Society’s primary reference photo guiding Pratt Hall’s restoration, though a new ramp has been attached for accessibility’s sake.
It is only behind the scenes – in the church’s rafters and within the clocktower itself – where one can see the fresh timber, added only in the past decade, now helping hold Pratt Hall together.
In a way, according to Perry, the former church provides a vehicle for telling the larger story around the small, rural community that came to be known as Montgomery.
A church has stood where Pratt Hall now sits since 1835, when Episcopalians finished building Montgomery’s first church at the village property, according to Montgomery’s historical society.
In the wake of the American Civil War, at a time when Montgomery was, in Perry’s words, “booming,” the Episcopalian church expanded to its current footprint and added the ornate stained-glass windows now tracing its exterior with Biblical scenes and dedications to Montgomery’s first permanent settlers.
One of those founders, Joel Clapp, the son of Montgomery’s first settler and the first child born in Montgomery, would serve as the town’s first Episcopal minister. Clapp’s portrait hangs from the hall’s northern wall and his family name can be found in virtually every nook and cranny in the former church.
A novel heating system, one believed by the historical society to be unique to the Montgomery church, allowed for heated coals to be placed in the basement beneath a vent located under each pew. During the winter’s colder months, those vents could be propped open, warming churchgoers in their pews.
As Montgomery’s boom slowed toward the end of the century, however, the church gradually lost membership. Around this time, the church would be rechristened as “St. Bartholomew’s” with the hope of drawing new membership, ultimately to no avail.
Numbers continued to dwindle at Montgomery’s Episcopalian church and, by the 1920s, services had thinned to the point of only one service being held a year.
By the time the historical society stepped in to purchase the former church, St. Bartholomew’s had deteriorated to disrepair and was slated for demolition.
While Perry, a relative newcomer to Montgomery, arrived long after the historical society agreed to purchase St. Bartholomew’s church, he affirmed the building was a “critical ingredient of who we were and who we are,” quoting the historical society’s grant applications for Pratt Hall’s restoration.
“Keeping this building in great shape and using it matters because it is a critical ingredient of who we were and who we are,” an excerpt from the application, sent to the Messenger read.
“It connects us to our past and to each other,” the excerpt continues, “and as sociologists warn, this social capital and connectedness is a critical ingredient for strong communities and social networks.”
Put more plainly, Perry told the Messenger during a tour on Wednesday the building was a means of “connecting our past and our future.” “A lot of people have personal memories tied to this place,” Perry said. “Some people were married here.”
Perry recounted stories locals had shared with him, from farmers who timed their chores to the tolls of St. Bartholomew’s chimes to parents who scheduled summertime lunches around the Episcopalian church’s 1 p.m. ring.
“This is a community landmark and a jewel,” Perry said, “and we need to keep it here for everybody.”