No. 53 November 2005
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

amphitheatres & Akron plans

A couple 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 meetinghouse-style 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) and 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 down, 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 could erect a new church in a 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 fitting for one of 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 in the state designed by Teale; two years earlier he had completed the First German 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 interior of that 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 of that 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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Copyright 2005 Frank L. Greenagel