St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Keene, NH

St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church on West Street here in Keene has always been something of a puzzle to me. When I think of Greek Orthodox churches, I think of rounded domes. In fact, I remember hearing once that the architecture of Orthodox churches points to an important difference between Orthodox theology and that of both Western Catholicism and Protestantism. Whereas both Catholic and Protestant churches typically feature tall steeples that represent the individual soul’s strivings toward God, Orthodox churches are topped by rounded domes which represent the gentle flow of God’s love down from heaven. Steeples represent Works and the Protestant work ethic that grew out of them; domes represent Grace and the more contemplative approach that eastern theology is known for.

But, the Greek Orthodox church here in Keene is weird: it has neither spire nor dome. And yesterday I finally got an answer as to why that is so.

Map of Keene, NH, 1877

Yesterday I took a walking tour of buildings featured in a current exhibit at the Keene Public Library. “The Character of Keene: Illustrations of Some of Its Architectural Heritage” features restored black-and-white photos taken some 30 years ago by Anne R. Wardwell, who had been hired by the now-defunct Cheshire Arts Council. Thirty years ago, the Cheshire Arts Council wanted to raise public awareness as to the importance of historic preservation; today, the trustees of the Keene Public Library used a $5,000 grant from the Monadnock Community Foundation to restore, re-mat, and re-frame the photos. In conjunction with the current exhibition of these photos, the Library trustees enlisted Peterborough architect Richard M. Monahon, Jr. to lead approximately 30 interested locals through intermittent drizzle to look at several of the buildings featured in Wardwell’s photos. And as one of those 30-some rain-dampened folks, I got my answer about that odd Greek Orthodox church.

The building which houses Keene’s Greek Orthodox church, you see, isn’t Greek at all. Instead, it’s an example of a style of architecture whose popularity stretched throughout the Romantic era of late 19th century America and which was particularly popular in Keene during the 1860s and 1870s. Keene’s Greek Orthodox church isn’t Greek…it’s Italianate.

Italianate house and barn, ca. 1860, Keene, NH

It turns out that many of my favorite buildings in Keene are Italianate…I guess it’s my Italian blood seeking out its own. Keene reached its commercial heyday during the industrial flurry that followed the Civil War, and many of Keene’s weathy citizens built Italianate houses that represented the height of contemporary fashion. The building that now houses the Greek Orthodox church, the on-campus home of the President of Keene State College, and the building that houses the Historical Society of Cheshire County all exhibit features of Italianate design: flat roofs, large overhanging eaves, decorative roof brackets, tall (often arched) windows, square cupolas. Nineteenth century architectural plan books promoted various Romantic design styles, among which Italianate was one of the more popular, and builders could order pre-fabricated moldings and other parts that would arrive via that technological wonder, the railroad.

Italianate house, ca. 1860, Keene, NH

The highly ornamental Italianate house that sits across the street from the Keene Public Library is wonderfully restored and fancifully colored: although this particular color scheme isn’t historically accurate, it does a wonderful job of highlighting the level of architectural detail. As lovely as they are, Italianate houses aren’t terribly practical for a New Hampshire climate. Having tall ceilings and a low-pitched roof might make sense when you live in a sunny clime, but New Hampshire winters are cold and snowy. I can only imagine the expense that goes into keeping these buildings heated and their flat roofs snow-free in the winter; apparently, their initial owners weren’t thinking in such practical terms. Nineteenth century Keene was an industrial town: the wealthy elite made their money by operating brickworks, furniture factories, and textile mills, industries known for their grit, grime, and toil. When the boss men left work to return to their upper-class homes and families, they wanted their homes to offer a peaceful, beautiful retreat. If it’s true that a man’s home is his castle, why not make it appear as such even if the world outside is snowy, harsh, and cold? For during the summer months at least, God’s love shines down on the roofs of Keene whether they be flat-topped, steepled, or domed. That much hasn’t changed over the years.