Elberon Memorial church
The intriguing Elberon Memorial church, erected in 1886, has always presented a problem for me because the architect—clearly most accomplished—is unknown. Or, more accurately, the authorship is disputed. More of that in a moment.
First let’s take a close look at the location and the building. The shingled exterior was a fashionable sheathing for residences, casinos and churches in Newport, Long Island, and Elberon in the 1880s. Those were summer resorts favored by people with social standing, old money, new money, or aspirations. Heirs, bankers, merchants and industrialists of the gilded age, as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner called the period in their book of that name, sought fashionable places near the ocean to erect large cottages for use in the summer months. Elberon is adjacent to Long Branch, that section of the Jersey shore favored by presidents from Grant to Wilson. It was newer than Newport, and not as stuffy or exclusive, but much closer to New York, and very highly regarded then, although today not so well known.
From the street we are confronted with a large not quite symmetrical, gable-fronted building with a tall Norman tower set off to the left. There is a shed roof over the wide entrance porch and a gabled roof over another entrance through the base of the tower. A large circular window with its own gabled roof is set in the gable. The New York Times in 1886 described the tower as “quaintly-designed,” which suggests a vernacular structure, but this tower is anything but. It is clearly based on a Norman precedent, from the region of Normandy where wealthy French and English took their summers. The ironwork and open trusses on the supporting columns of the entrances are reminiscent of those found on the better Episcopal churches, and the side windows and the large rear window contain exceptional tracery and stained glass. Two huge gables, almost the size of transepts, project from each side, with unusual buttresses. The design of the gables/transepts is sui generis—without precedent in this state. The workmanship and materials throughout are exceptional, and the church seems to be beautifully maintained.
The church was built as a memorial to Moses Taylor, a prominent merchant with one of the great fortunes of the age in the years immediately following the Civil War. According to the Times, the building cost his widow $35,000, although another source put its cost at $165,000, which is probably closer to the truth; it seats about 600. When it was dedicated, a special train from New York brought guests and a raft of ministers to the services, an event that merited a full column in the Times. On her death, Mrs. Taylor left a substantial gift for maintenance of the church.
Some local historians claim that Charles McKim of the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White was responsible, but others have disputed that, saying there is no evidence for that attribution. I used to be among the skeptics.
A recent book, Mosette Broderick's Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age, details the history of the firm, and the economic and cultural history of the period. The book caused me to re-evaluate the matter. It details the complex web of the firm's connections to old family, old money, new money, business alliances, club life in New York, alcoholism, infidelities, vacations and buying trips to Europe, and the close bonds among several families that characterized the age. (The scandal in the title was Stanford White's affair with 16-year old Evelyn Nesbit and his murder at Madison Square Garden by her deranged husband.) There is much information about the working methods of an architectural practice, and their collaboration with artists like LaFarge, Tiffany and Saint-Gaudens. It’s a rich account of a period that was awash in money to fund lavish homes along Madison and Fifth Avenues (now mostly demolished) and in Newport, Stockbridge and Elberon. The firm's major works include the old Penn Station, the Morgan Library and the Boston Public Library. McKim was also responsible for Morristown's St. Peter's church.
Family connections, or more rarely, talent, might land an aspiring architect a job in an established firm, but it rarely lead to partnership or a serious share in the profits of the firm. Connections, rather than competitions or competitive bidding seem to have been the predominant factor in who to hire and where to build. Connections might be family, business, political, or through one of the several men’s clubs—the Century Club, the Union League Club, the University Club and the Metropolitan Club formed in New York after the Civil War. The ability to charm a client was essential, and in that respect, McKim, Mead & White became masters. Mead had the family standing that offered access to the old money; McKim studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which provided a cachet shared by only a few architects in this country, and Stanford White combined the design sensitivity and the social skills of a polished clubman. Both Mead and McKim worked on Henry Hobson Richardson’s great Trinity Church in Boston, and maintained contact with him, as well as with the other leading architect in New York, Richard Morris Hunt.
Broderick generalizes about the lack of culture of the arriviste in matters of architecture and taste, which was responsible, in part, for McKim, Mead & White's success:
Americans still felt culturally inferior, a lick of European polish could greatly impress those who found the transmission of that tradition important. Hunt and Richardson returned to the United States from the École des Beaux-Arts able to discuss not only the architecture and art of Europe, but also its music, language, gastronomy, and manners. This air helped them to convince monied Americans that they could put some of this European gloss on their designs. Both the architect and the client would bathe in a brighter light, and show cultural superiority over native-trained, often provincial architects and their clients, who tended to receive watered down replicas of perhaps slightly-out-of-style European precedents.
American architects in this period, even the better-educated ones, usually were dependent on what was new and fashionable in Europe, especially England. They read the British architectural publications eagerly to see what was popular there. The upper classes and the newly wealthy were “overawed by European taste, and a fashionable country house or English club was likely to be copied, not detail for detail, but in general masses and finishes.” The major architectural firms drew heavily on books and the professional journals, and when the taste began to favor Italian Renaissance styles, they ordered photographic prints from the Alinari brothers in Italy. A major part of their practice was reworking existing building, particularly interiors, which might include furnishing it with fireplace mantels, cabinets, tapestries, gates and doors, and even ceilings obtained from European dealers.
At a major firm like McKim, Mead & White, the partner who brought in the business generally worked out the conceptual design with the client, and if the contract was secured, much of the work—drawings, engineering, specifications, as well as site supervision—was delegated to underpaid associates. A large firm might have a dozen draftsmen who toiled in obscurity; if they could not afford to study abroad, most aspiring architects began by working for an established firm. Many left to form their own firms—a few, like Carerre & Hastings and Cass Gilbert, were to become major architects, occasionally winning a commission, like the New York Public Library, which their former employers also sought.
Now let’s take up the issue of the Elberon church. Moses Taylor was a family friend of McKim’s father when both were active in the Presbyterian Church and the abolitionist effort. Taylor gave young McKim his first significant commission in 1876, after the he left the employ of Richardson. It was to design a large summer cottage in Elberon. McKim then built two houses for one of Taylor's sons—one in Newport and another in Elberon in 1878. McKim also built a house for Taylor’s other, ne’er-do-well son near Islip, Long Island in 1884, and another for that son in Newport in 1885-86. There were several other commissions over a 30 year period from the Taylor family, and as near as I can tell, all went to McKim, Mead & White. McKim’s partner, Stanford White, rented a townhouse in New York City from Taylor’s son for 8 years beginning in 1892. Following Taylor’s death in 1882, his widow commissioned a memorial chapel in Elberon. Several authors aver that it was the design of McKim. Others just as vociferously argue that it was not—that there is no evidence in the firm’s books to support that attribution. In my work on the churches of Monmouth County (A Proper Style), I took no position, noting there was no evidence to connect it to the firm. But Broderick’s book notes that both McKim and White often did work off the books for friends; sometimes there was a note to that effect, but occasionally there was no notation at all, especially when no fee was charged. So the absence of a written record is not dispositive of the matter.
Given the initial family connection with McKim's father, and the long-standing relationship between the Taylor family and McKim, I think it is extremely unlikely that the Elberon church would have been designed by anyone but McKim. Architects of the time were quite hesitant to steal a client from another firm; McKim apologized on more than one occasion when a client (J. P. Morgan, for one) decided to change architects and solicited McKim. It was apparently a point of honor in the nascent architectural profession not to poach a colleague’s client. The clincher, in my mind, is the fact that a few years before the Elberon church was erected, McKim had made an extended visit to Normandy and made a close study of the medieval architecture of the region as well as some of the newer villas erected for wealthy clients there. This church, and the casino he designed for Newport, both reflect that Norman grammar. It's not conclusive, but it has me convinced.
New Book: A Brief History of the Religious Architecture of New Jersey 1703-1900 has just been published and is available at Amazon. It is loaded with full-color illustrations representing the significant architectural designs in the state. It is authoritative but not scholarly in style, and was written for the average reader with an interest in the old meetinghouses, churches and synagogues of the state. Here's a direct link to its page on Amazon. In my (unbiased) opinion, it would make a fine gift. You can find out more about it at the Wooden Nail Press website.
Steeple Envy is the title of my
latest work in process—the history of the churchscape
of Morris County, and I expect it will be available during the first quarter of 2011.