originally published in the New Britain Herald March 8, 2009
NEW BRITAIN — Wherever you walk in downtown New Britain, chances are
your skyline view is dominated by the castle-like bell tower of the
enormous stone building at 69 Main St., a former church now known as
Trinity-on-Main. The history and future hopes of Trinity-on-Main
closely parallel those of New Britain itself: fantastically wealthy
when America was the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, declining in
tandem with American manufacturing, and now hoping an artistic revival
can fill the financial vacuum.
“Trinity United Methodist Church was built between 1889 and 1891,” said Anne Pilla, executive director of the performance center now occupying the building. “The annex [a beige cinderblock appendage jutting from the main body of the church] was built in 1963.” By the 1990s, further construction was far beyond the congregation’s means; simply maintaining what it had proved too costly to manage.
“They were going to tear down the church and sell all this for salvage,” Pilla said of the ornate, stained-glass windows, elaborately carved wooden pews and other vintage architectural flourishes that would be impossibly expensive to build today. “They would’ve made a lot of money.”
But the congregation couldn’t bear to destroy the grand old structure, and local history boosters didn’t want to lose it either. Therefore, said Pilla, some local residents formed the straightforwardly named Group to Save 69 Main Street.
“When the Group to Save 69 Main Street started, they just wanted to save the building, but they didn’t know what for. They got a grant and hired a consultant, who said the best use would be a performing-arts center. Turning the church into housing or businesses wouldn’t be feasible.” In 2004, the group officially changed its name to Trinity-on-Main.
They bought the original stone church, and the Trinity congregation moved into the cinderblock annex before selling that to the performance center, too. Bob Mossmann, the last lay leader of Trinity Church, said the remaining congregants merged with an out-of-town church. “We had sold the old church to Trinity-on-Main, then sold the parsonage ... there was a church in North Canton in trouble, a big mortgage with a variable rate. We had a half-million dollars we couldn’t spend, which almost covered it.”
So the Group to Save 69 Main Street ultimately saved a historic Canton church, too. Meanwhile, there remained the question of what to do with the building in downtown New Britain.
“We did comedy nights, children’s programs, lots of shows,” Pilla said. But it wasn’t enough. “Turning profits on shows was happening, but not quickly enough. ... In 2008, when we went for another funding grant, we were asked to put another business plan together. We hired a consultant, who identified our product to promote or sell as ‘space,’ not entertainment.”
That’s how Trinity operates now: hosting its own performances from time to time, but getting most of its operating budget from the rental fees it charges other groups. Classrooms in the modern annex go for $10 or $20 per hour, while anyone wishing to rent the ornate Victorian structures would pay anywhere from $50 to $225.
“Many of our rooms need renovating before we can do anything with them,” Pilla said. “We need a rich benefactor. We have plenty of naming opportunities.”
People who have been to performances at Trinity-on-Main are most familiar with the auditorium and rotunda. The auditorium was formerly the sanctuary, with the stage where the altar once stood. (“The church has been deconsecrated. The congregation did that first thing,” Pilla said.) Stained-glass sliding doors separate the auditorium from the rotunda, where a decorative trellis blocks off the entrance to the bell tower. The tower still needs extensive renovations before it can be opened to the public.
“There’s a lot to do here,” Pilla said as she pushed the trellis aside and started climbing the stairs. Though she said contractors have recently done clean-up work in the tower, it would be easy to believe nobody’s been there for decades. Peeling, faded paint obscures the ornate masonry, and in some abandoned areas, the stained glass windows provide the only color in rooms turned gray with dust.
“These were the Sunday school classrooms,” Pilla said, walking through rooms edged with child-height coathooks. The stained glass is lovely but the rest of the room is a mess; Pilla tore a peeling paint piece off the wall. “I always thought this would be a perfect office for nonprofits sharing space,” Pilla said. “This will all be rentable space once we fix it.”
She opened a small door leading into a cubbyhole with slanted ceilings. “This was the education minister’s office.” It was empty save for a dusty desk, and chair with decaying upholstery. Pilla opened the desk drawer. “I’m always looking for treasures,” she said, but found none.
An old ladder in the Sunday-school room leads to a higher tower room, which needs even more work than the classroom below it. Every step on the raw wood floor made creaking sounds throughout the room. “Water was pouring in like a waterfall,” Pilla said. But on a clear, sunny day, the view out the window, over the church’s gray slate roof and into downtown, is stunning.
Beneath the tower is an entrance to the basement, which also contains many rooms in need of refurbishment. Directly under the tower is a large room filled with theater chairs, which Pilla said were donated by the University of Connecticut.
“We want to renovate this into a theater to show second-run movies,” Pilla said. “Just think! It would only cost about $25,000 for this, and what a naming opportunity! The ‘Your Name’ Memorial Theater.”
Not all of the basement rooms have working lights. A flashlight provided the only illumination in a small room where granite bedrock juts through the original flooring. A cool, dry storage room holds props for the Connecticut Virtuosi Opera (which operates out of an office it rents in the Trinity annex). Other basement rooms can’t be used for anything until someone fixes the leaky pipes that nourish permanent puddles on the floor.
“This will all be beautiful once we fix it up,” Pilla said. But that requires help. “When we talk about being self-sustaining, we’re talking about the operational budget. For capital projects, we’re still looking for benefactors, or federal, state and local grants.”