No. 81  April 2010
The authoritative source
on early churches in New Jersey



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Feature of the month

William Strickland—architect, engineer, artist

Except to architectural historians, the name of New Jersey native William Strickland (b.1787—d.1854) will be meaningless. But he was an exceptionally talented and versatile architect, engineer and artist; this month's feature focuses on him.

He did relatively little work in his home state—only two churches here, one in Salem and one in Bridgeton and a picturesque cottage in Burlington survive; although a 1954 article in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians hints at much more work here, author Agnes Addison Gilcrest mentions none. But his engineering analysis for the Pennsylvania Society for Internal Improvement and his even earlier aquatint image of the Delaware Water Gap merit our water gapattention, even if we knew nothing of his significance in the adoption of the Greek Revival style of architecture. The range of his expertise is quite impressive.

Strickland was born in Navesink (Monmouth County) but his family moved to Philadelphia while he was an infant. When he was 14 he was apprenticed to Benjamin Latrobe, one of the country's leading architects and later, the designer of the U.S. Capitol building. That might seem like a stroke of luck, but Strickland's father was a master carpenter, which meant something more then than it might connote today. John Strickland worked under Latrobe on the first Bank of the United States, where his son came to the attention of Latrobe. John Strickland had sufficient wealth and standing to have his portrait painted by Thomas Sully, so probably it was not a huge leap across class distinctions to secure a place with Latrobe. The usual progression in the first decades of the nineteenth century was from apprentice to carpenter to contractor-builder. A few with special talents sometimes made the next big jump to architect, but at that time, most architects were simply at the top of the heap of the trades regarded as "mechanics," and rarely considered the social equal of their employers.

Strickland stayed with Latrobe until he was 17, studying architecture and engineering. During this time he absorbed British-trained Latrobe's expertise in engineering and respect for historical accuracy. Strickland then worked at several trades, including landscape painter, illustrator for periodicals, theatrical scene painter, engraver, and pioneer aquatintist in New York SecondBankbefore he opened his own architecture practice in Philadelphia. In 1815 he submitted a design for the Second Bank of the United States, which he won in competition with Latrobe and other established architects. The Second Bank, modeled on the Greek Parthenon, was one of the first Greek Revival buildings in the United States, and immediately led to other commissions. Among his other significant buildings in Philadelphia are St. John's Episcopal Church, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, the Mariner's Church, the Musical Fund Society Hall, which was the site of the first Republican Convention in 1856, and the neoclassical Merchants' Exchange.

In 1825 he was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Society for Internal Improvement to travel to Britain to report on canals, railways, turnpikes, breakwaters, calico printing, gas lighting, machinery, and iron manufacture (topics of particular interest to Philadelphia merchants). During his visit to northern England, Strickland was impressed by the Hetton Railroad's use of both stationary and locomotive steam engines to carry coal over a five-mile path with a series of steep inclines. Strickland's report quickly attained the status of a classic on both sides of the Atlantic. It was particularly influential in its depiction of railroads as effective technological systems. As a direct result, a committee of "highly respectable citizens of New Jersey" met to draft resolutions recommending a rail link between New York and Philadelphia, and that was the beginning of the Camden & Amboy Railroad. Strickland was also deeply involved between 1825 and 1836 in the design and construction of the Pennsylvania Canal.

strickland biographyFrom 1828 to 1833, Strickland designed such a large number of public buildings in Philadelphia that he was dubbed the "city architect." Highly versatile, he designed two insane asylums in Pennsylvania, an Egyptian style church in Nashville and a fantasy Gothic fortress-like church in Philadelphia in the 1820s, as well as cemetery monuments for George Washington and James Polk. His design for the Eastern State Prison there was less successful. One architectural historian noted that Strickland was a "much too committed neoclassicist to have a natural feeling for the Gothic," but his two churches in south Jersey are well-conceived. The Second Presbyterian church in Bridgeton now lacks the steeple or parapet and pinnacles that were probably on the original, and the entry porch is a later addition, but it is certainly in the Gothic idiom rather than a Wren-Gibbs building with Gothic arch windows punched out. The plan for this church was originally done for St. John's church in Salem, but was also used several years later by Christ Church in Easton, Maryland, probably without Strickland's knowledge, as the actual plans were carried by Easton's new minister from Salem to Easton in 1844.

Tennessee capitolIn 1837, a financial panic (depression) curtailed all commissions, causing Strickland to head south, where he had been engaged to design and supervise construction of a new state capitol in Nashville. While that was underway he also designed several churches, including the fascinating Egyptian Revival Downtown Presbyterian church. He died during the construction of capitol and, as he wished, is entombed beneath that building, which today is featured on Tennessee license plates.

Strickland's abilities as an architect and a draftsman were matched by his strong background as an engineer. In addition to his architectural projects, Strickland also completed several engineering ventures. His Delaware Breakwater (on the other side of Delaware Bay from Cape May), a project seemingly rife with political interference, remains in operation 150 years later. As America entered the transportation revolution of the nineteenth century, Strickland's expertise was sought by a number of entrepreneurs, and his work includes numerous reports on railroad and canal projects. Architectural historian Catherine Bishir observes that "though he was not a very progressive architect in terms of construction techniques, Strickland exhibited a changing attitude towards iron, using it as a structural member. Through his efforts, he helped shape an emerging American architecture." Strickland was also the teacher of Thomas Ustick Walter, another major nineteenth-century architect who continued in Strickland's strong Greek Revival tradition.

Additional reading: Agnes Addison Gilcrist, William Strickland—Architect and Engineer—1788-1854 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).


Last month's feature article was adapted from the initial chapter of my forthcoming book on the churches and meetinghouses of Mercer County, titled Asserting Legitimacy, Maintaining Identity: the religious architecture of Mercer County, New Jersey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book will be published this month by the Wooden Nail Press.

The 302 page book includes more than 200 photographs, tables and drawings, an outline of architectural styles, a summary of the religious denominations operating in the state during the early centuries, a glossary of architectural terms, an extensive bibliography, and index. The book will be available from Amazon.com, and the publisher's website, http://woodennailpress.com.