Dexter Universalist Church

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The Dexter Universalist Church is located on the northeast corner of Brown and Kirby Streets in the Village of Dexter, Town of Brownville, Jefferson County, New York. The approximately 20×40 ft building faces south onto Kirby Street, occupying a prominent location in the center of Dexter. Built in the fall of 1841 at an original cost of $1500, it is a Georgian-style wood frame, single-story building covered in clapboard. It is front gabled with a steep pitch (typical for this snow-belt region) and has a simple one-room plan. The roof was originally wood shingled and overhanging with molded cornices. The cornices wrap partially around the front and rear to form “bird boxes”. The building originally had 6/6-pane stained glass windows, numbering three on each side. The front entrance had double 8-panel doors that swung outward, topped by a multi-pane stained glass transom. The structure has a cut stone foundation consisting of solid outer walls and four inner piers supporting the floor joists. The stone was quarried from local sources of Chaumont limestone. The church was heated with a single coal stove placed at the rear of the church, with a single chimney rising on the outside center of the structure. The steeple is two-tiered with molded cornices topping each tier. The top tier, housing the church bell, has four 2-panel louvers, one on each side. The tin steeple roof has four flared gables topped with a stylized “Star of Bethlehem”. There was originally a horse barn rear of the structure to house the horses during services.

Since its construction, the structure has had a number of improvements and alterations. The most significant of these began in 1882. During this time, the horse barn and church chimney were dismantled and a three-sided, three gable vestry, set on a cast concrete foundation was added to the rear of the church. A new brick chimney was constructed on the exterior of the east facade, to accommodate the new oil stove installed in the basement. The front stairs were also modified with tube-steel railings . The paned windows were replaced with new stained glass windows which bear the names of the communicants who donated them. Two additional windows were added to the front of the church. Carved oak pews replaced the primitive pine pews at this time. The original pine door and window moldings were stained and artificially “grained”. The interior was finished in wainscoting and painted plaster and lathe. The exterior was also repainted at this time. The church was rededicated upon the completion of these renovations in 1893.

In the 1930s, indoor plumbing was installed to one of the small side-rooms adjacent to the vestibule, allowing for a sink and toilet. Electricity was also added during this time. In 1970, storm windows were added to protect the stained glass windows. Carpeting was installed in the center isle over the original oak flooring in 1971. The church was resided with Masonite in 1976. The original clapboard survives under the Masonite siding. The roof was replaced with asphalt shingles and the front doors were replaced with hollow plywood doors in 1987. A new gas furnace was installed in 1990. Painting was done in 1993 and in 1995 the front threshold was replaced. In 1996, following a severe storm, the steeple louvres were covered from the inside and new vinyl siding was added to the steeple. Some roof repair was also completed in 1997 . Repairs to the foundation were also done at some point in the recent past.
The congregation disbanded in 1997. In 1998, the church was donated to Frontier Housing Corporation of Dexter, a non-profit organization which manages subsidized housing in the Village of Dexter, among them restored historical structures. After restoration, the church is used by the Dexter Historical Society as a museum.

The First Universalist Society of Dexter was incorporated September 5, 1841 with 25 members under trustees Thomas Broadbent, John Maynard, Solon Stone, David Baker, Eleazer Parker, and Francis W. Winn. They commenced immediately upon building the society’s church at the corner of Kirby and Brown Streets, which was completed at a cost of $1500 and dedicated on December 23, 1841. The dedication sermon was preached by Rev. Pitt Morse. Rev. H. L. Hayward was the first minister, succeeded by Rev. G. S. Abbott in 1846. Other ministers to the congregation in the 19th century were Revs. J. Wendall, Charles Skinner, William McNeal, Lyman Perry, Asa Sax, J.H. Stewart, Harvey Hersey, E.B. Cooper, and Dr. Richard Fisk (Hough 1854;see also Everts 1878; Horton 1890).

The First Universalist Society held services each Sunday from December 23, 1841 through October 9, 1997, when the congregation voted to “close the doors and disband.” Declining membership had left the congregation in failing financial condition, unable to keep up with utilities and maintenance of the church. In 1998, they donated the church property to Frontier Housing Corporation of Dexter for restoration and renovation into a museum.
For 156 years, the church was a place of gathering for a congregation of Universalist followers in the Village of Dexter. Beginning with only 25 members in 1841, its congregation grew to 79 by 1878. By the end of the century, it boasted a Sunday School with 10 teachers and 40 scholars. Seating was added to accommodate 250 persons.

The Universalist Church, founded on the British Universalist model in New England in 1793, holds as primary the belief that all men (and women) are saved (Harris 1998). This belief dissolved the distinctions between free and indentured or slave peoples and ushered in the abolitionist and civil rights movements in America. The beliefs of the Universalists appealed largely to intellectuals and the indentured classes in urban settings.

Dexter Universalist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

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  • Last modified: 2018/12/06 17:16
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