In 1837, First Universalist Church was built on a sweeping curve along Main Road in Southold, opposite the Civil War memorial. Its trustees had voted two years earlier, in October 1835, to build a house of worship on that site.
And, oh, what a house of worship they built!
Driving by the church when it stood on that bend, you looked up and saw the big Gothic window over the front entrance and the grand side windows that faced west. Inside, a mural dominated the front wall, behind the altar. It was painted in 1926 by Edith Prellwitz in memory of her mother and father, and was called the “Light of the World.” Edith and her husband, Henry, lived on Indian Neck and were instrumental members of the Peconic school of artists that flourished in the early part of the 20th century.
As told on its website, the church was designed by architect Richard Lathers and constructed by builder William Cochran. We don’t know what else was around it in 1837 — the American Legion Post was not, nor was the Roman Catholic Church across the street — but its neighbors were surely among the oldest houses on Main Road in Southold. North of the hamlet, rich farmland stretched toward Long Island Sound.
In 1863, as the Civil War raged on, the church closed. It would not reopen for 15 years. During that time, the building was transformed into a local playhouse.
By 1880, the church was rededicated and began anew as a house of worship. As the website points out, its ministers were active in local affairs. One of them helped found Southold Free Library.
In the early hours of March 15, 2015, a fire destroyed the church and its parish hall. The loss of such a beautiful and historic Southold building was, for both its congregants and so many local residents, hard to put into words. It was truly heartbreaking. A Southold treasure had been reduced to ruin.
On Feb. 28, members of the congregation met with architect Peter Marren, builder Eugene Burger and others to showcase the design for a brand-new First Universalist Church, set to be built on the same site as the original. A model of what the building might look like was displayed, along with handsome drawings of the church grounds done by a landscape architect.
There is much work to be done before a shovel goes into the ground, of course. There was a great deal of talk about building a high-quality church that would leave a minimal impact on the environment. There were obvious questions about that and about overall costs, which have not yet been finalized.
Next week, the group behind the plans is expected to make a public presentation of what it wants to do. This is another step in bringing something great back to that sweeping curve in the road.
We strongly endorse plans to rebuild, and hope construction will start by this fall. A new First Universalist Church will once again bring beauty and grace to Southold.
Photo caption: A rendering by artist Alan Bull of the new building proposed by First Universalist Church of Southold for its Main Road property.