Have you ever had the chance to examine your familiar surroundings in a new light? Several Old North educators recently had this opportunity. Parish Administrator Priscilla Burns received an envelope containing two faded, worn photographs and a note indicating the photos were taken at Old North Church in August 1905. The church in the photograph, however, is drastically different from the Old North seen today. As Building Conservation Associates work to slowly uncover the church’s decorative past, peeling back layers of paint to reveal historic colors and murals, it is meaningful to reflect on the power in experiencing your daily surroundings from a new perspective. It is one thing to read about how the church appeared before the 1912 whitewashed restoration, but another thing entirely to see it with your own eyes in historic photographs and uncovered murals.
When Priscilla received the photograph, she came into the sanctuary to look at the church interior, struggling to comprehend how this could be the same building. Even with the photograph in hand in the building, the scene appeared so foreign. What struck me most was that the large window above the altar today was entirely missing, showing instead an ornate arch framing the altarpieces. But the closer we looked at the image, the closer we looked at the church, leading us to realize it was indeed Old North.
Although we were initially struck by the differences, looking closely revealed the similarities and allowed us to experience our daily surroundings through new eyes. We identified the portrait of Christ still prominently displayed behind the altar, the bust of George Washington tucked in the back of the right aisle, plaques bearing the names of former rectors and vicars of Christ Church, the distinctive curves of the gallery-level pews, the 1724 chandeliers and the details on their suspensions. We even noticed marks on the walls hinting at the false wall covering the front window. Looking at the photo again today, I notice the recently uncovered cherubs adorning the upper arches of the church.
Identifying these familiar elements in both the photograph and the church itself helped the image come to life and also helped me better envision what it was like to be inside Old North before its last major restoration. It becomes easy to take common surroundings for granted. Studying this photograph to confirm that it depicts Old North emphasized the importance of seeking new perspectives and looking at the everyday from new angles. I find now that the more time I spend in the Old North Church, the more I discover that helps the building’s history come alive to me.