Historic mural among the rubble at Southold church site

The interior of First Universalist Church of Southold during a service in the 1980s. (Credit: The Southold Historical Society)
The interior of First Universalist Church of Southold during a service in the 1980s. (Credit: The Southold Historical Society)

When fire destroyed First Universalist Church of Southold, the community lost not only a treasured building, but a significant piece of North Fork artwork as well.

Amid the rubble of the church lie the unrecognizable remains of a 12-by-16-foot mural that hung above the altar for nearly 90 years. Painted by noted Peconic artist Edith Mitchill Prellwitz, the mural was last valued at more than $80,000. She donated it to the church Nov. 27, 1926, in memory of her parents. 

On the day the mural was installed, the church held morning and afternoon services to allow more people a chance to see it, according to documents on file at Southold Historical Society.

Ms. Prellwitz and her husband, Henry, also a renowned artist, were original members of the Peconic Art Colony, a group of local artists whose members drew inspiration from the North Fork’s natural beauty. The couple often attended services at the church, which was built in 1837, while they lived in the Peconic home they purchased before World War I and where they worked in adjoining studios.

It was in her Peconic studio that Ms. Prellwitz spent two years painting the mural, which portrayed a man walking a desert path with two people crouched in the foreground. Ms. Prellwitz is believed to have purposely left the painting untitled, preferring to leave its meaning open to interpretation, said Laurie Ullman, president of the church’s board of trustees.

“She never told what it was because she thought the viewer should decide,” Ms. Ullman said. “Some people think [the man] is Jesus Christ … some people think it is the good Samaritan coming down to help these two people.”

After the piece was installed, parishioners sent words of praise and appreciation to Ms. Prellwitz; their letters remain in the Southold Historical Society archives.

“It is a deep satisfaction that my neighbors really seem to care for the work,” she wrote in response, in a letter dated Feb. 29, 1927.

Parishioners continued to value the mural into the 21st century for its religious and cultural significance, Ms. Ullman said.

“If you know anything about art on the East End you’d know about Mr. and Mrs. Prellwitz,” she said. “I appreciated her work and I appreciated that painting.”

According to a history written by Joella Vreeland in 1985, parishioners helped raised nearly $3,000 in the 1970s to restore the mural, which had sagged and darkened over time.

Once the canvas was removed for restoration, worshipers discovered another mural painted on the wall beneath it — by Henry Prellwitz. In fact, Ms. Vreeland wrote, it is rumored that Ms. Prellwitz was motivated to create a new mural for the church because she’d grown bored with her husband’s piece, which depicted a golden torch against a blue background.

The church itself also went through periods of renovation. Originally designed by William Cochran, it was constructed in 1837. It was redesigned in 1907 by architect Richard Lathers, according to a previous article in The Suffolk Times. Mr. Lathers even carved his own likeness into one of the balls that sat atop its six spires.

The iconic church steeple was restored in 1989, three years after sustaining damage in Hurricane Gloria, according to a pair of contemporary articles in The Suffolk Times.

While it is unclear what the Prellwitz mural was worth at the time of the fire, the Rev. Jef Gamblee said that the most recent appraisal, which was done before he arrived in 2013, estimated its value at between $80,000 and $100,000.

Though the church plans to recoup the money through insurance, the loss is worth more than cash.

“It can’t be replaced,” the Rev. Gamblee said.

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