No. 70 August 2008
About this site
We've created a database and photographic inventory containing more than a thousand of the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each month. We solicit all contributions and suggestions from visitors.
— Highlights —
Feature of the month
Documenting religious architecture
I have a few thousand books in my library, about 100 of which are on architecture, and half of those are on religious architecture. Some deal with a specific area—Chicago, Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Mexico, Maryland, while others treat a period or style—the Spanish missions of California or the wooden churches of Prince Edward Island. One of the most beautiful is on the Cistercian Abbeys in Europe. A few are surveys of American churches, or of English, or draw on the houses of worship from a couple dozen countries. A few are dedicated to a single building, like an 1864 book on Strasburg Cathedral that includes a number of tipped-in plates by a photographer who might have been a distant relative of mine. The collection is not comprehensive in any sense, but reflects my interests and what I stumbled across browsing through second-hand bookstores over the years. One of the generalizations it has yielded is (it seems to me, anyway) that the history of western architecture is mostly a history of religious architecture, at least until we get to the present century when, judging by the titles available on the shelves at Borders, the subject begins and ends with Frank Lloyd Wright. The multi-volume series on architecture published by McGraw-Hill in the 1960s and 70s fills (and weighs down) a lower shelf in the library; it provides clear evidence that for most of European history, from the medieval period through, say, the seventeenth century, the important, influential buildings that give character to an age are religious ones, not castles or palaces. Those books on Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Late Baroque and Rococco architecture are largely illustrated by photographs of churches, abbeys, and cathedrals.
Upon reflection, that should not surprise us, I suppose, because the Catholic church was often the wealthiest and most powerful institution in Europe, and its buildings were a means of displaying that power and wealth (or the power and wealth of the cardinal, duke or count who commissioned them). With the exception of a few architects like daVinci, Vaubon, Le Vau and LeBrun most of the names associated with architecture that have survived over the centuries—Alberti, Bramante, Brunelleschi, Abbot Suger, Michaelangelo, Wren and Hawskmoor—built religious structures rather than palazzos or fortresses. It is curious, though, how few even of the great Renaissance and later buildings can be attributed with confidence to a specific builder or architect. What a twist today that many buildings are famous because of their architect—Alvar Alto, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Antonio Gaudi, Louis Kahn, I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaus, Phillip Johnson aren't exactly household names, to be sure, but within the subculture that is aware of buildings and architects, they are the equivalent of . . . aaah, who can I name—Paris Hilton and Britney Spears? That'd be an impertinence to the architects, but you get what I mean. However, with an unknown name on, say, the exceptional Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, the general public might not show any interest. Americans—a part of us anyway—seem to be attuned to celebrity architects more than to their buildings. And that brings me to my subject this month.
Because there is, and was, so little concern by most people about architects and architectural traditions, the documentation of our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture is a sorry tale. What we know about the architects and builders who erected our early buildings is extremely limited, or unavailable without some effort and expense. Of the 1,200+ New Jersey churches in my database, I have been able to identify the architect or builder for only 220 of them. That is not simply sloth on my part. Trying to find more information about New Jersey architect Oscar Teale, for example, I learned that his papers were available at the Avery Library at Columbia University. Because I am neither a student nor a faculty member there, the library was off limits to me. I could purchase a one-day pass to the New York City Library for $65, I was told, and that would entitle me to at least get in the door of the Avery. I am not sure whether it would have allowed me to actually examine Teale's papers, so I took a pass. Although I am sure Teale designed more than a dozen churches here, I know for sure of only six of them. The same story might be said of a handful of other architects, including William Halsey Wood and J. Cleaveland Cady, and such lesser figures as William Kirk and Thomas Roberts, for example. It is often only by accident that I learn who a church's architect was. And the minister is often more surprised (or indifferent) than me.
This is beginning to sound like a lament, and I don't mean it to be. I hope that church members and local historians who read this might take a moment to ask their ministers what is known of the design and building of their church. Often it was a local builder-contractor, sometimes a member of the church who was awarded the contract. By the time of the Civil War we find congregations engaging regional architects to design their churches, although that is rarely mentioned in the commemorative volumes issued by the churches on their 100th or 150th anniversary. The Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians sponsored planbooks in the later decades of the nineteenth century as a means of improving the architectural quality of their churches. When a church's building committee decided on a particular plan, they contracted with a builder, not an architect, to carry out the general design they found in the planbook. But I have yet to see any specific plan cited in the church minutes. Elements of many churches might have been adapted from the 1880s book prepared by Hart (left). If the issue of design is mentioned at all, it is usually that they desire a "neat and proper church in the Gothic manner," and then specify the dimensions and the budget. Only careful examination of a few of the planbooks led to my tentative attribution that a church was very likely based on a specific plan in a specific book. The architect or the planbook was not important enough to warrant mention in the church minutes, and I have examined a lot of them. But Samuel Sloan, an exceptionally influential architect operating out of Philadelphia was responsible for several of those planbooks, and Richard Upjohn made his plans so widely available, and at such a low cost, that several buildings are known by their congregations as "mail-order" churches, unaware that their church was designed by one of the most important nineteenth-century American architects.
Although there are many factors that influence the architectural style of a church, the specific architect may not be one of them—architec-tural historians have speculated for years whether Notman or Upjohn or perhaps Wills designed St. Marks in West Orange. Whoever it was doesn't change the beauty of the building, of course, but I believe we ought to know, that we ought to want to know. And I suppose that, as much as anything is what has driven me to spend the last 11 years trying to identify and document the old churches of New Jersey.
And speaking of that, let me call your attention to a new website, a wholly commercial effort designed to sell books. The Wooden Nail Press is where you can find out about my books on the New Jersey churchscape— what's in print, what's soon to be published, and where you can order them.