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The Rye Meeting House in Rye, New York, was built as a one-room schoolhouse at another location. It was moved to its present site in 1867. After multiple additions, including the picturesque bell tower, the building served as an Episcopal chapel. In 1959 it became a Quaker meetinghouse. It was also used as a Zen meditation center. By serving these three religions, the building represents, in part, the freedom of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is now secular and used for the public benefit.

Image of the Rye Meeting House

Plant, Sky, Building, Window

The Rye Meeting House is an example of 19th-century religious architecture that served a once bustling maritime village within Rye, called Milton. The village was defined by a busy working harbor. Market sloops carried produce and goods from the area’s farms and artisans to New York City.

The building is a simple example of the Gothic Revival style, constructed in wood. The core was built in the 1830s as a one-room schoolhouse at another location. It was moved to its present site in 1867 and become an Episcopal Sunday school affiliated with Christ’s Church in downtown Rye. A series of additions, culminating with the bell tower in 1877, tripled the size and transformed it into an Episcopal chapel with the distinctive asymmetrical facade seen today. It was called Grace Chapel or Milton Chapel. The south wing, built in 1875, housed a circulating library. The original bell cracked. The congregation raised funds to purchase a replacement bell, installed in 1888. 

In 1959 the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) bought the building from Christ’s Church for use as a meetinghouse. In keeping with the Quaker testimonies of Equality, Peace, and Stewardship of the Earth, it became a place of civil rights and anti-war sentiment, plus public proclaiming of the first Earth Day. In the 1990s, the building was used for Zen meditation.

In 2017, a conservator started to uncover 19th-century stenciled wall paintings in the chancel, long hidden by solid-color paint. Until their discovery seven months earlier, no living person had been aware of the existence of these images. 

In a habitat area north of the Meeting House, underground foundations still remain of three 19th-century buildings that no longer stand. William Voris owned two of the buildings. According to census records, he was an African American saloonkeeper. He bought his land in 1841. It was unusual for African Americans to own property before the Civil War. John Gedney, a prominent merchant in Milton, owned the third building.

The Meeting House grounds border salt marshes and a small tidal estuary formed when the fresh water of Blind Brook meets and mixes with the salt water of Milton Harbor.

In 2002 the City of Rye bought the land and building with the help of an environmental grant from New York State. Now entirely secular, the property is operated by the nonprofit Bird Homestead and Meeting House Conservancy as a historic, environmental, and educational site. 

This entry was written by Anne Stillman, President and CEO of the Bird Homestead and Rye Meeting House Conservancy.

Ames, Lynne. “For a Foray Into Zen: Be Ready to Listen.” The New York Times, Sept. 29, 1996.

Easton, Lisa, Dan Kelly & Peter Saver. Rye Meeting House National Register Nomination,           

(November 2010)

Elliott, Diane. “A Little Rye History: Origin of the Grace Chapel Bell.” The Rye Record, March 

9, 2012.

Husock, Howard. “From Mission to Meeting House: A Changing Chapel and the Lost Village    

of Milton.” The Westchester Historian, vol. 89. 2013.

Russell, Brooke. “EverGreene Architectural Arts, Rye Meeting House Investigation Summary.” 

March 5, 2020. 

Viteri, Paola. “Final Report on the Historical Research of William Voris and John Gedney for     

the Committee to Save the Bird Homestead, Inc.” 2017.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

U.S. National Register of Historic Places