During the early 1870s, as America rebounded from its destructive Civil War, Boston-based Reverend Phillips Brooks was developing a reputation for his spellbinding sermons at Trinity Church, drawing sizable crowds to the old parish building at Downtown Crossing. When the Great Boston Fire of 1872 ravaged the neighborhood, the church leadership set its sights on the new Back Bay neighborhood, which had recently been developed as a land-filled marsh, and “starchitect” Henry Hobson Richardson deliberated over a building design that could function as an “envelope for Brooks’ voice” (in the words of Wellesley College historian James F. O’Gorman).
The new parish, completed in 1877, still presides over Copley Square today and helped usher in a new style of architecture called “Richardsonian Romanesque,” defined by its inventive mix of Roman arches, Gothic towers, and articulated masonry. Murals by painter John La Farge cover nearly every inch of the church’s interior, and artist Sarah Wyman Whitman’s stained glass Phillips Brooks Memorial Window, featuring a wreath and floral lattice, can be found in the Parish House. Richardson’s innovative aesthetic would inspire the design of hundreds of churches, city halls, courthouses, libraries, and train stations across the country for decades to come.
Trinity Church’s new look was part of a “golden age” of artistic creation that followed the Civil War and included Mark Twain’s satirical novels and Emily Dickinson’s prolific poems. Whitman further contributed to this movement through her work as a book cover designer at nearby Houghton Mifflin Publishing, the first professional woman to be employed full-time at the company. Her minimalist jacket designs appeared on books by authors such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Throughout her convention-defying career, Whitman opened her own firm, Lily Glass Works; helped to found the all-women’s Radcliffe College in Cambridge, through her position on the board of Harvard University’s “Annex”; and raised funds to establish a library and reading room at Trinity Church.