Documents from Ontario Heritage Trust.
Assessment of Historical and Architectural Significance
Municipality of Chatham-Kent
Highgate United Church is historically significant for its association with the growth of the Methodist Church in Ontario and for its association with individuals of local significance, most notably members of the Gosnell family and the Rev. T.T George.
The Highgate United Church congregation dates to 1834. The current church, constructed in 1917-1918 is the seventh building the congregation has held services in throughout its 176 year history. In the summer of 1834, Mary Webb Gosnell invited members of the community into her home for a church service conducted by Rev. Stephen Miles, a Methodist circuit preacher. These small gatherings in Mary’s home became an established congregation in the Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada. The new congregation was part of the Kent County Circuit. When the congregation became too large to worship in Mary Gosnell’s home, services were held in a local schoolhouse.
In 1849 a small frame church was constructed on the grounds of the local cemetery on land donated by Joseph and George Gosnell, Mary’s two sons. The first pastor of the church was Rev. John McLean. In 1861 a larger church was constructed on the same site by contractor Andrew Tolmie with local volunteers assisting with the construction. The new church was called The Centenary Church and had a resident pastor, Rev. M.A Wright. During this same time period, a number of the congregation felt The Centenary Church was too far from their homes and began holding services at Hornal’s Schoolhouse. In 1879, Thomas Lee donated land for the construction of a new place of worship, Lee’s Church. Centenary Church and Lee’s Church were a two point charge until Lee’s Church closed in 1969.
In 1870 a new frame church was built in the village of Highgate on the site of the present church. The old 1861 Centenary Church continued to hold services, but was soon sold and moved to Orford Township and used as the Township Hall. In 1897 the Rev. T.T. George drew up plans for a new, larger church. The cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1898. The new church was dedicated on December 18, 1898.
In March 1917, this church burned to the ground. It was decided that the new church be constructed to the same plans as the previous church. It was completed in September 1918. In 1925, the Methodist congregation voted to join the newly formed United Church of Canada.
Over the years, the congregation of Highgate United Church has declined and the final service will be [was] held in June 2010.
The architect was Rev. T.T. George, the minister at the Highgate Church. He drew up the plans in 1897 and these same plans were used to reconstruct the church after the 1917 fire. It is likely the nonconformists in Highgate were looking to the largest nonconformist church in the area, First Presbyterian Church, Chatham (1892), and its designer, the leading local architect of the time, T.J. Rutley, for inspiration in the design of their church.
Highgate United Church is designed in Romanesque domestic and Richardsonian Romanesque styles, likely as a reaction to churches like the Rutley-designed First Presbyterian in Chatham. The basic shape is a central square, but the walls are bulbous, to accommodate an amphitheatre seating plan. The turret-style west entrance is reminiscent of the Richardsonian but the openings for the bells are more akin to a basic Romanesque window with a faux moulding done in darker brick. Highgate also uses a stone stringcourse running under the window openings.
Over the pyramidal roof that covers the body of the church there is a small pyramidal cap. This pyramidal cap originally would have admitted light to illuminate the stained glass dome over the sanctuary. Also indicating a possible Richardsonian influence, the roof over the body of the church features eyebrow dormers (now covered by asphalt shingles), which were employed often by Richardson. Fully articulated dormers with gable roof are found on the sides of Highgate United Church. Under the roofline, darker bricks have been used to create a corbel table arrangement.
The east end of the church exterior has another bulbous or round turret-like projection element that mirrors the west turret entrance, but in this case the windows are set wide apart, accommodating a pulpit platform on the interior which fills this round space.
The basement of Highgate United Church introduces an Akron plan-inspired space. The Akron plan was first developed in Akron Ohio at First Methodist Episcopal Church (1870), wherein the Sunday school was placed behind the sanctuary. It had an open auditorium area where the students could be one large group and then there were smaller schoolrooms on the periphery where the students could be broken up into smaller groups. In Highgate this kind of Sunday school arrangement was designed in the basement; the inspiration for this might again have come from Rutley, who used a similar Akron-inspired plan in Paris Presbyterian Church, where the Sunday school was placed to the side of the sanctuary. The placement of the Highgate Sunday school is not unusual; basements were the traditional space used for Sunday schools before the 1870’s.
Highgate is a small rural community located just south of Highway 401 in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. With no commercial core or large government buildings, Highgate United Church is the landmark structure in the community. It can be seen on approach from King Street and Gosnell Line.
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