32 February 2004
The authoritative source
early churches in New Jersey
created a database and photographic inventory containing more than
half the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add
to it each month. We solicit all contributions and suggestions
Architects & Builders
Oscar Teale, architect
Building by the Book
you identify this church?
- Faith Fellowship
photo of the month
A dozen at-risk buildings are noted. Submit your nomination for the most
endangered churches in the state. We will research the submissions and
feature one each month, then maintain that list indefinitely.
Do have additional information about any of the buildings in this article?
Or perhaps an old photograph or an article that can enrich our knowledge?
Please submit that information for the benefit of other visitors.
to use this site
Architects & master builders
Consult the database
Annotate the database
Upload a photo
Suggest a church for inclusion
List of churches, by county
Links to related sites
of the month
What a surprise to encounter a polished Georgian entrance in an uncoursed
stone building, erected in 1819, well off the major roads in Hunterdon
County, by a denomination that eschewed as too worldly almost everything
about contemporary life, including singing, education, and missionaries.
It is perhaps impossible at this point to reconstruct why they felt a
stylish entrance for their meetinghouse was acceptable, but we can with
some confidence figure out how, in an area with no architects and no
tradition of fine homes or public buildings, that was accomplished.
Stone Meetinghouse in Locktown is not an anomaly. Not only did
remarkably accomplished churches get built by the middle
of the eighteenth century,
but they sported fashionable detailing in the door and window treatment,
the altars, cornices, and other cabinetry. Old
Swedes in Gloucester, the Reformed Church in Hackensack,
and the First Presbyterian Churches in Elizabeth, Newark,
and Bloomfield come immediately
to mind. This sophistication is to
be found in numerous churches by the waning years of the century,
and even in some of the backwaters by the early decades of the next.
All of these buildings were probably considered provincial
compared to what was current in London, or even New York and Philadelphia,
but they were anything but crude imitations, as anyone who has ever visited
the restored First Presbyterian Church in Newark can testify. We do not
have to wait until the prosperity brought by the opening of the canals
and railroads in the decades just before the Civil War to find accomplished
work, not only in the grand mansions, but in relatively small rural churches.
Yet we know that there were few architects practicing in the state until
well into the 1800s. How did this happen? The answer lies in the pages
of a builder’s guide.
the time of American Independence, English books on architecture were
a staple in the library of the gentry. Although gentlemen-architects
of Thomas Jefferson’s caliber were unusual, most wealthy planters
and merchants were well-acquainted with the architecture of England and
Italy, and almost certainly would have taken an active role in the design
of their own houses. By 1740, the Carpenter’s Company in Philadelphia
had a library of architectural books which they lent out to guild members,
but the average rural carpenter-builder would not have had access to
those books, of course. What that local carpenter-builder would have
had, however, was a pocket-size builder’s guide—a handbook
with elementary arithmetic and geometry, cross sections of moldings,
cornices, pediments, and pedestals, and hints that allowed him to reproduce
the fanlights, cornices, and other details characteristic of Georgian
An early builder’s guide
was Batty Langley's The
Builder's Jewel, published in 1741, followed by William Pain’s The
Practical Builder in
1774. Americans soon got into the business; Asher Benjamin’s, The
County Builder’s Assistant (1797), drawing heavily from Boston
architect Charles Bulfinch, ultimately went through six editions. A New
Jersey architect, Minard LaFever, published
The Beauties of Modern Architecture in 1835, and it leaned to the
up-and-coming Greek Revival.
1800, the handbooks were plentiful and many of the details which grace
the modest early churches can be attributed to the influence of those
books. The Greek Revival details (especially the non-functional mutules and
guttae of the cornice) of the portico added to the Second
Presbyterian Church in Hackettstown (1838) clearly bear evidence
of a builder’s guide, almost certainly Asher Benjamin’s,
rather than a regional building tradition or local model.
The Locktown meetinghouse door surrounds might have come from William
Pain’s book, and so might the doors and windows of the Reformed
churches in Millstone and Blawenburg.
We know that details of the cornice of Springfield’s
Presbyterian Church came from Pain. There wasn’t a builder
in south Jersey who didn’t carry around a copy of a book on the
Georgian style of Philadelphia, and books on Greek, Palladian, and Gothic
architecture typically went through many editions.
those builder’s guides lacked was much of a background on architectural
history, and very few of the early ones had more than a couple of basic
plans or elevations of the front façade. It was assumed that
the builder/contractor and the owner or building committee would work
out those details.
carpenter’s handbooks were particularly important in America.
Since there were few professional architects, most buildings in
the colonies were designed by owners assisted by carpenter-builders,
who together would lay out the chief elements of a plan and structure.
The handbooks were used less for plans of buildings or elevations
of whole façades than they were for details, particularly
such features as doorways, mantelpieces, cornices, windows, and
Hugh Morrison, Early American Architecture (Oxford, 1952)]
of the later books reproduced barely disguised drawings of influential
churches, such as Robert Upjohn’s Burlington masterpiece, St.
Mary’s. Because the builder’s guides focused on details,
they did not treat anything of the history or architectural tradition,
but prescriptively laid down the proper proportions of the five classical
orders, we have many a church with a Greek Revival portico and Gothic
arch windows (Piscataway),
or an Italianate belfry on a basic Greek Revival building like the
Presbyterian church in Cranbury .
. . and the a few like the Baptist church in Pemberton that
seem to cram in something from almost every style. In
the hands of the trained and clever, we have some wonderful, eclectic
buildings, particularly later in the century (and some monstrosities
like the Roseville Methodist Church in
Newark). It is fair to speculate that the reason for some of the eclecticism
of our rural churches are due to the borrowing of one element from
a Neoclassical plan, another from Greek Revival, and a third from the
Although builder’s guides and plan books
were common throughout the entire nineteenth century, by the middle of that period,
church building was specialized enough to offer sufficient projects for several
architects, and even to support a contractor in the state who did nothing but
build and erect steeples. When an architect was engaged, I assume there was less
reliance on the builder's guides. By that time there was also a substantial building
tradition—models to observe and draw on, and experienced builders and carpenters
who perhaps could be consulted.
guides were eventually followed by plan books, some dedicated to religious architecture,
and by pattern books of model cottages, villas, and mansions. Pre-eminent was
probably Andrew Jackson Downing’s Cottage Residences (1842), but
it was quickly followed by many others. By mid-century, the builder’s guides
had become pattern books, often with detailed floor plans, elevations, a list
of materials, and estimates of the total cost of construction. They were designed
for homeowners, not builders. Robert Guter and Janet Foster’s wonderful
book on residential pattern books, Building by the Book, demonstrates
the pervasive influence these pattern books had on domestic architecture in so
many of the towns of the state.