By Annette Hinkle
Since 1879, the picturesque red clapboard building at the south end of Agawam Pond in Southampton has housed St. Andrew’s Dune Church. At that time, only the Presbyterians and Methodists had churches in the village, so the Episcopalians founded the church as a place to worship during their summers in Southampton.
The church has no heat and still functions as a warm weather house of worship, but these days, in addition to services offered by Episcopalian Rev. Peter Larsen, Priest in Charge who has spent 24 years at the Dune Church, others are led by clergy (occasionally rabbis) from other denominations.
“We do 16 Sundays — I preach two and guests from all over do the others,” explains Rev. Larsen. “ The church holds 425 and people have come here for generations. People like to hear what different people have to say.”
“There’s no commitment to this church, so you can come and go,” he adds. “No one will ask why you weren’t there last Sunday.”
While the building has enjoyed a long life as a spiritual center for Southampton, it began its mission by saving souls in an entirely different (and much more literal) manner — as one of the original life saving stations spaced at five mile intervals along the Atlantic Coast in the days when shipwrecks were far too common.
“What’s now the nave was built in the 1851,” explains Rev. Larsen. “They kept a boat in here and when spotters along the shore would see a ship in distress they would communicate with the crew and get the boats and hooks and go out.”
“One reason this became a church in 1879 is the government did away with the lifesaving stations,” he adds. “Charts became much more accurate, as did navigation.”
While most stations were torn down, this one was expanded. The transepts were added in 1883 and the choir and aisles in 1887 and 1888. But still, the structure remains a unique testament not only to its current use as a church, but to its former ties to the sea.
“It still is a life saving station,” says Rev. Larsen with a wry smile.
And more than once, the sea has come calling — most notoriously when the structure was practically destroyed by the 1938 hurricane and again in the mid-‘90s when it was moved slightly, shored up and protected by a new dune to stop the encroaching ocean.
On Saturday, May 11, St. Andrew’s Dune Church will be one of seven buildings (and the only church) open as part of Southampton Historical Museum’s “4th Annual Tour of Southampton Homes: An Insider’s View.” Also on tour will be six homes illustrating Southampton’s architectural history — from Colonial times to present.
When it comes to unique architecture, St. Andrew’s evokes a Norwegian boat house turned house of worship. With dormer windows, rustic woodwork, ships lanterns and stained glass that admits colorful shafts of light into the space, there’s a certain Melville-esque feel to the space. Tales of infamous shipwrecks are documented on plaques throughout and even the walls offer sea-themed passages from scripture.
Other intriguing touches include four oak corbels — gargoyle like heads from Blythburgh Church in Suffolk England (circa 1442) — which protrude from the corner post supports. Then there’s the belfry where bells call the faithful to service and a set of tubular bronze chimes are played before the professional each week.
But it’s the stained glass that really packs a punch in this church — there are nearly a dozen Tiffany windows (three were lost in 1938), several of which have gone on view in museum exhibits.
“Most are dedicated to family members who served,” explains Roger Blaugh who leads tours of the church and will be on hand Saturday to share his knowledge. “It takes quite a bit to make a window — the more detailed, the more costly.”
And played out between the leading of the windows of Dune Church, notes Blaugh, is an artistic battle waged between Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. The two top makers of stained glass in the late 19th century had planned to go into partnership — until Tiffany learned the secret of glassmaking from LaFarge.
In 1879, LaFarge created opaque glass and patented it. Unfortunately, he also shared his knowledge with his competitor before a contract was signed.
“LaFarge layered glass to manipulate color and texture and shared that information with Tiffany — there’s some excellent examples of that here,” says Blaugh who encourages people to actually touch the windows — lightly, of course — so they can feel the process through the varying textures of the glass, the layering techniques and the painting process.
“Tiffany took off,” he adds, “and with the family’s wealth and connections pulled out in front in the race to be the best glass maker in the industry.”
Tickets for the 4th Annual Tour of Southampton Homes are $75 ($90 on tour day). Hours are 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, 2013 followed by a reception from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Call the Southampton Historical Museum at 283-2494 to reserve.