The original Meeting House was built in the Queen Anne style in 1708. Wikipedia notes that it was “too plain for [Mary] Wollstonecraft’s Anglican tastes”. This ‘plain’ building was substantially extended and improved in the mid-19th century to accommodate a growing congregation. At this time, “an internal gallery was built to increase the seating available, and a few years later the roof and apse were renewed”. The internal work, that expanded the capacity and improved the structure of the building, was accompanied by work on the façade of the Meeting House. The original façade was replaced with a Classical design: “a three-bay front with two round-headed windows, but with added Tuscan pilasters and a large pediment” The question is, why was this Classical design chosen and what did it represent?
One reason was cost. Andrew Pritchard, treasurer of the Unitarian chapel noted that “had it been possible to preserve without an extravagant expenditure its antique front it would have been done but the cost of such restoration would have exceeded the funds at command” . So a new design was commissioned. A new Classical façade was designed by T.H. Hovendon, the architect Pritchard had chosen to produce plans for the renovation of the building. The minister at the time, Dr Thomas Cromwell suggested a Classical design, and Hovendon followed his suggestion. He included a wide pediment – the triangular element formed by the sloping eves and the horizontal cornice line – which, in Pritchard’s opinion, “gave the building the usual appearance of a place of worship”. But it wasn’t the usual appearance of an Anglican Church.
There were precedents for a Classically designed Unitarian chapel. The ‘First Unitarian Church’ in Baltimore, USA, (1818) was the first building erected for Unitarians in the United States. The Classical pediment over the portico is a distinctive feature of this building. Later American non-conformist churches, like the first Universalist Church in Boston, (built c.1853) also followed the Classical style, in this case incorporating a pediment over a symmetrical three bay façade, with pilasters at either side. The design is reminiscent of Newington Green Meeting House.
The architectural elements of these designs were derived from the grammar of Classical temples, in which the pediment usually stood over a portico; a columned projection at the entrance to a temple. In fact, Pritchard confessed that “had it been permissible at the time, [Dr Cromwell’s] suggestion of a portico would also have been adopted”. Without a portico to support, structural columns were rendered unnecessary, but Hovendon added two pilasters (relief columns) at either side of the façade to maintain balance. The round arched windows that front the two side bays are arranged on either side of the door to create a symmetrical design in the rectangular area between the pediment and the pilasters. The overriding effect is one of Classical harmony.
The more traditional Gothic style, favoured by Anglican Church architects, was pointedly not adopted. Richard Hill has noted that financial constraints may have precluded the adoption of a “more up-to-date Neo-Gothic design”, but it seems that Dr Cromwell had made his preference for a Classical style façade plain to the architect. What could have been his reasoning? Cromwell knew about church architecture and had contributed to James Sargant Storer’s ‘Cathedral Churches of Great Britain’ (1814–19). He had become a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1838 in recognition of his erudition. He must therefore have been familiar with Neo-Gothic churches. Notwithstanding the financial constraints, it is reasonable to suppose that Cromwell’s choice of a Classical façade, with its balanced design and lack of ornamentation, may have had some connection with his Unitarianism.
John Summerson, the architectural historian, has defined the aim of Classical architecture as follows: its purpose is “to achieve a harmony of parts … to establish harmony throughout a structure” . This harmonious style has been used to express the ideals of many different beliefs, from Mussolini’s fascism in Italy, to “the God-fearing simplicity of the Nonconformists in England and America”. Each movement has sought to associate itself with the calm and harmonious rationality that is expressed in the Classical style. It is quite possible that Dr Cromwell felt the pull of Classicism for just this reason.
Summerson, John. (1963) The Classical Language of Architecture. London. Thames and Hudson
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cromwell,_Thomas_Kitson