Congregational Church The prominent site at what is now the intersection of Main, Seymour, and North Pleasant Streets was not always that of the Congregational Church. It was originally deeded by Painter in 1789 to John Deming for the construction of a blacksmith shop and tavern. Painter himself helped to underwrite the cost of this latter, a two-story building which could accommodate twenty-five guests at a time and served as seat of the Addison County Court both before and after the construction of the courthouse.
Where was the church then? The location of the church had been a principal feature of the long-lasting feud between Painter and Daniel Foot. Painter wanted it at the falls, Foot wanted it near his homestead at the center of town. Each side had its strong supporters who threatened to withdraw if the conflict were not resolved to their satisfaction. At the town meeting of 1788 Foot's barn had been chosen as the best available site for worship, and in 1790 a site committee voted three to two in favor of a meetinghouse location near Foot's homestead. The two were Painter and John Chipman, and they managed to block the final decision, so much to Foot's anger that he withdrew the use of his barn and eventually became a Baptist. In 1794 worship moved out of Middlebury's barns and into the newly completed Mattock's Tavern, where it stayed until the completion of the suitably uncomfortable courthouse in 1798. By 1806 there was little question as to the location of the functional center of town, and Daniel Foot had moved on. Painter finally convinced his townsmen and picked the site at the head of Main Street. The lot was purchased from current owner Loudon Case, the tavern was moved down Seymour Street (and demolished in this century), and the town finally prepared to build its church. It was a bit embarrassing. There was Middlebury, a sophisticated and increasingly attractive and important town with mills, stores, fine homes, inns, a courthouse, and a college—but still no church. The embarrassment was remedied, however, by the construction between 1806 and 1809 of a church the town could never have considered in 1790—one of the finest Federal style churches in New England.
As head of the building committee Painter called on Lavius Fillmore, a Connecticut-born house joiner who had moved to Middlebury in 1796 and had built four previous churches (East Haddam, Conn., 1794; Middletown, Conn., 1798; Norwich, Conn., 1901; Bennington, Vt., 1804 – 06) and, especially in the Bennington area, a series of magnificent houses. The Middlebury church was to be Fillmore's masterpiece. Three years in the construction, budgeted at about $9,000 (some fifteen per cent more than the Bennington church), and financed by the sale of pews for cash, building materials, and livestock, the building was similar to but larger and more elaborate than its Vermont sister. The general mass of the church is based on meeting houses built by Charles Bulfinch in Taunton and Pittsfield, Mass. in the late 18th century. Fillmore's early refinement of this type in East Haddam so influenced the design published by Asher Benjamin in his 1797 Country Builder's Assistant that for many years it was thought the Middlebury church was based on the Benjamin illustration. Many of the details of the Middlebury church bespeak its ultimate descent from the work of the English architect James Gibbs, who published designs for his most famous church (St. Martins-in-the-Fields, London) in his Book of Architecture, 1728. This last was a definite influence on the construction of John Brown's First Baptist Meeting House (1775) in Providence, R.I., which Fillmore might have known. Fillmore studied his sources and then adapted and combined elements from them with a sure sense of detail and proportion to arrive a building that was his own.
The remarkably sophisticated galleried sanctuary (seating 725) was derived by Fillmore from another Bulfinch prototype, the short-lived Hollis Street Church in Boston, built in turn under the direct inspiration of Christopher Wren's St. Stephen Wallbrook in London. Its basic rectangle has been skillfully manipulated through the use of groined vaults into a cross with a central dome carried on a series of ionic columns, each of which was cut from a single tree trunk in Court Square. Minor columns with Egyptian-derived lotus capitals carry the gallery. Originally there was a raised pulpit before the Palladian window, and the pews were arranged in a semicircular fashion. These last aspects and others were significantly altered in 1854, when the entire interior of the church except for the shell, ceiling, and columns was reworked, partly to permit the development of usable spaces in the basement. In 1925 the church was somewhat restored to its former character.
The product of controversy, sacrifice, and care, the church since 1806 has played a functionally as well as a physically central role in the life of the village. The frame and roofing were rushed to completion in time for the opening of the 1806 session of the state legislature in Middlebury, when townspeople and dignitaries alike sat on planks on kegs and shuffled their feet in the shavings. Since that date the church has served as a principal place for public meetings, dinners; and functions, including for many years the commencement exercises of the College and the annual Forefather's Day celebration (the oldest in the nation, instituted by Phillip Battell and the Middlebury Historical Society in 1842.)
Emma Willard Monument The small triangle of land between the church, the Green, and the Charter House was dedicated in 1941 to Emma Willard, pioneer in women's education. Middlebury, which had founded a male grammar school in 1797, decided in 1800 to do the same for females and invited Ida Strong to establish a female seminary in the courthouse. In 1803 a building was built for the new school with town contributions and on a Seymour Street site donated by Horatio Seymour. Miss Strong died in 1804; and in 1807 the town invited Miss Emma Hart from Berlin, Connecticut, to revive the enterprise. It was not an easy commission. Her first winter in town was so cold that she and the students spent a good deal of time contra-dancing to keep warm. In 1809 she married local doctor and man of affairs, John Willard, and retired from teaching to an impressive new house on South Main Street. However, the bank robbery of 1814 found the directors (including Dr. Willard) personally liable for the repayment of the $28,000 loss. The Willards were suddenly in financial straits, and Emma went back to teaching young ladies. This time the teaching was in her home and was directed not at a grammar school but rather at a collegiate level—the goal being to train teachers. The new curriculum, which Mrs. Willard published in 1818 as A Plan For Improving Female Education, included art (up to that time being taught in the United States only at West Point). The Willards moved from Middlebury, eventually establishing themselves and Emma's school in Troy, N.Y., where it became known as the first full-fledged normal school in America. The credit for the beginning of women's collegiate education, however, is Middlebury's (Middlebury's and the bank robbery's, that is).
Seymour Street To the southwest of the church begins Seymour Street, laid out in 1799 and incorporated in 1805 as the first leg of the Waltham Turnpike (another road-building venture in which Painter was involved). The turnpike ran down Seymour Street, across the picturesque Pulp Mill Bridge. Constructed possibly as early 1808, this historic bridge is one of only a handful of double covered bridges left in the United States and ranks as one of the oldest examples of the Burr Arch truss and as the oldest surviving covered bridge in Vermont. From here the turnpike made its way to Vergennes and was intended ultimately to serve as Middlebury's stage link to Montreal. Down this street can be found the 1891 shingle-style former railroad station and at number 7 the Dudley-Painter House, oldest extant house in Middlebury Village, moved from its original site on the Green in 1802.