No. 53 November 2005
The authoritative source
early churches in New Jersey
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of the month
& Akron plans
months ago I reviewed a book (Kilde, When Church
Became Theatre) that explained how a new relationship between
preacher and congregation in the nineteenth century
demanded a new architecture—an auditorium rather than a temple.
The traditional rectangular seating arrangement with a focus on the altar
was displaced in a number of mainstream Protestant denominations (not
Episcopal and not Catholic, of course) by an amphitheatre design, with
pews in a semi-circle facing an elevated stage, pulpit and often a centrally-arranged
choir. This month I want to expand on that development a bit by highlighting
a church that ties together several of the themes I've explored over
the last five years here, and also to call attention (again) to an exceptionally
creative New Jersey architect who is still little known or appreciated— Oscar
Teale, of Plainfield.
Our story begins in Hackettstown (Warren County)
about 1832 when a Methodist congregation (Trinity) organized and erected a standard
church. We can
find similar examples all over the western and southern part of the state. These
two-story reinforced frame buildings included a gallery around three sides (usually)
separate entrances for men and women. The buildings
didn't differ much in
the exterior and the basic construction from a barn, and could be scaled up or
down a bit to fit the congregation's size, pocketbook and aspirations. No architect
was needed because the men of the congregation were fairly familiar with this
sort of building and could handle most of the construction tasks themselves.
When the congregation outgrew the building, it was often auctioned off, torn
moved to a nearby location and reassembled as a barn, blacksmith shop, multi-family
residence, or even a church for another congregation. Our history is replete
with such tales. The Hackettstown congregation did not sell
the building; intending to use it as a Sunday School, they moved it a few hundred
feet back so they
fashionable style on the prominent location they had built on earlier (what
is now Route 46) . Both the original Methodist and Presbyterian buildings in
town still exist, although the condition of the Methodist church seems hardly
the oldest churches in the county. A wooden building that has survived one hundred
and seventy-five years old deserves a decent respect (but that is a different
issue, and one I won't expand upon now).
I have seen photographs of the second Trinity church—a
Wren-Gibbs style building erected in 1858; it served the congregation until 1888,
when it, too,
was inadequate to seat the growing congregation. That building did not survive,
however. Oscar Teale, an architect who specialized in churches, was engaged by
the congregation. To the best of my knowledge, this is only the second church
state designed by Teale; two years earlier he had completed the First
Reformed church in North Plainfield (which has fairly recently been designated
as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places). I have not seen the
building, but from the outside it is a well-crafted if traditional plan. The
significance of Trinity is that it appears to be Teale's initial Akron Plan church.
He designed at least four more in the region in that manner by 1898, but this
was the first.
There is often a confusion between the amphitheatre
plan, which dates to the 1840s and was very widely adopted, and the Akron Plan,
which was first employed
in 1866-1870 by a church in Ohio. The essence of
the Akron Plan is a large open space encircled by two tiers of small classrooms
arranged around a stage or speaker's
platform. The altar was essentially eliminated. Sliding or folding doors or partitions
shuttered the classrooms from the main auditorium, but they could be opened at
appropriate times. Teale used that plan in several of his subsequent designs:
the Seventh Day Baptist church in Plainfield (1890), an addition to the Second
Presbyterian church in Elizabeth (1890s), and for a Sunday School on Staten Island
(1898). Anyone walking into the “rotunda” of Trinity will be stuck
immediately by the similarity to those other buildings, right down to the half-timbering,
the clerestory windows, and panelling of the folding doors.
Although the rise of evangelical denominations
in the mid-nineteenth century was probably a factor in the widespread adoption
of the amphitheatre
plan—and Trinity's main auditorium is certainly a fine example
plan—I believe we should never underestimate the power of fashion—a
building that could affirm the taste and financial resources of a congregation
was as potent an argument in its favor, in my reading and interpretation of the
mid-to-late nineteenth century architecture, as liturgical considerations. We
are not likely to know what motivated the congregation in 1888 to seek out a
relatively unknown architect to design their new church, but we should be grateful
for whatever it was for we have an exceptional building in exceptional condition.
And that was apparently recognized at the time, for less than a dozen years later,
Teale was asked to design the showpiece building for
Centenary College, a Methodist institution a few blocks west of the church.
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