No. 74 February 2009
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250



   
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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.




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Feature of the month

separated at birth?

There are about 1,500 surviving meetinghouses, churches and synagogues in the state that were built before 1900. It would not be surprising if a few of them were very similar to others. Most architects and builders by the mid-nineteenth century took on a variety of tasks including churches, and there were several who specialized in churches. Benjamin Price of Atlantic Highlands issued a book of plans, and no doubt others reused plans for one church a second time, or a third. Richard Upjohn mailed building plans to impecunious Episcopal congregations, and his small frame board-and-batten churches can be found in several communities—at least one of them refers its “mail-order” church, without realizing (as of my last visit a few years ago) that its designer was the most famous American architect of the last century.
By the time of the Civil War, several major denominations—Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist—had issued plan books or promoted specific architects who assisted congregations in upgrading the quality of its architecture. Both Catholic and Episcopal bishops had their favorite architects, and Keely and O'Rourke, Upjohn and Wills and Notman, Pursell and others flourished under that policy. There were no patents on designs, and no architectural critics to look down their noses at congregations that built in the manner of another admired edifice. The elders of the Chesterfield meeting in Crosswicks sent a team to check out other Quaker meetinghouses in 1777 to find a suitable model for theirs. They found it in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. When the Hicksite schism in 1824-1828 sundered congregations here, the minority party usually had to build a new meetinghouse. In Medford the orthodox group lost and their new meetinghouse is a virtual duplicate of the old one. St. Paul's Methodist congregation in Port Republic so admired the design of the Methodist church in Williamstown that they borrowed the plans and erected a fraternal if not identical twin.
Let's look at several others apparently separated at birth and note, or speculate on the reasons for the similarity.
     The Old North Reformed Church at Schraalenburgh (Dumont) and the Old South Reformed church in Bergenfield (right) were erected by two different builders, a few miles and a few years apart (1801 and 1799, respectively). The original congregation was founded in or near Bengenfield by 1723, but by 1755 dissension within the congregation led to a rupture. This was a time of dispute between traditionalists and those who wanted the ability to ordain ministers in this country. The two parts of the Schraalenburgh congregation decided to build separate churches by 1798. Both are in the Dutch Reformed tradition of Bergen county, and bear a strong similarity to the Reformed church in Hackensack, erected in 1781. Both churches were enlarged later, with identical wooden entry porches added. The Bergenfield congregation, now affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, is on the National Register, and the HABS website includes measured drawings as well as photographs from the 1930s.

The design of the Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic church in Boonton (left), erected in 1860 is a common one, clearly based on that of St. James the Less in Philadelphia, erected fourteen years earlier. That design made a profound impression on Richard Upjohn, a leading Gothic Revival architect who designed churches mainly for Episcopal congregations, but whose designs were widely influential among other denominations. The basic characteristics of the plan are a symmetrical gable-front building with a steeply-pitched roof line, lancet windows, a bellcote, and substantial buttresses projecting from the front of the church. The architect was Jeremiah O’Rourke, who designed hundreds of other Catholic churches in the country, but in this case, he borrowed a bit from Upjohn in my opinion. There is only the barest suggestion of a tower, and where the liturgy dictated aisles, they could be accommodated within the slope of the roofline. The plan for the Boonton church was substantially copied , albeit on a slightly larger scale, in St. Joseph’s church in Bound Brook (above right), erected twenty years later in 1890.
     Windsor, a hamlet in Mercer county once called Centerville, and Allentown, a much larger town in Monmouth county sit only a few miles apart. Both have Methodist churches, erected in 1863 and 1859, respectively, that are very similar. The Allentown building (above left) has a band of dentils marking the distinction between the lower and upper floors, an unusual feature. The ground floor provided space for a lecture hall, Sunday School and other meeting rooms, and the main auditorium is on the second floor. The church in Windsor lacks the dentils but there is a string course marking the first and second floors, and the fenestration is identical. The architect/builders of the Allentown church were Elias & Benjamin Rogers, who also designed the Baptist church in that town and I suspect, based on both the similarity and the proximity, that they built the church in Windsor also.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Annandale and Perth Amboy are located on opposite sides of the state, but both erected remarkably similar churches within two years of each other, Perth Amboy's Simpson Methodist congregation in 1866 (left) and Annandale's Dutch Reformed church in 1868 (right). Charles Graham was the architect of the brick Perth Amboy church, but the architect-builder of the wooden-frame church in Annandale is unknown. Complicating the matter, there are at least 15 other churches of more-or-less identical design erected within 10 years of each other, mostly across the central part of the state. Only the names of a few of the architects are known, but the plan was a popular one. There are usually differences in the treatment of the entrance (sometimes three doors, sometimes only one) and the belfry, but the Tuscan arch in the tower is a common feature of most.
     What is now the Senior Citizens Center in Whippany (left) was erected as the Monroe Union Chapel in 1890. I have learned essentially nothing of its history. A little more is known about another Morris County church of identical design—the Crystal Street Chapel on Morris Street just south of Dover, built in 1892 (below). That building was erected by the Methodists or the Presbyterian church as a mission, succeeding a small Sunday School chapel a few hundred yards away. A some point it was sold to a union congregation. The name of the architect or builder in both cases is unknown to me. The two chapels were obviously built from the same set of plans. At this point one can only speculate about the connection between the two—the churches are far enough apart geographically that a common builder may not be involved—builders and contractors were pretty tied to their immediate area except for major projects. Any additional information about either church would be most welcome.
     One of the more unusual church designs is the 1886 First Baptist church in Washington (Warren County). My initial impression was that the church had been modified substantially sometime later, but that is not the case. An old photo shows that it used to have an open belfry and a different paint job, as well as what appear to be shingles rather than clapboard siding, but otherwise the building looks much as it did in 1928 (except for the aluminum siding, of course). The hipped roof and the front "shed," with its own gable and entry vestibule is unique in my experience, except for the carbon copy Yellow Frame Presbyterian church, erected about twenty years later right on the county line that separates Warren and Sussex. Yellow Frame does not appear to be anything more than a crossroads today, but is has been the site of a Presbyterian church since 1763. There was a large meetinghouse-style church in 1859 on the south side of the road, where the cemetery now is, but that church was taken down in 1906 or so. According to one source, the current church was erected in 1887, but that is doubtful, in my opinion. Sometime between 1904 and 1907 is the likely date when the current church was erected.
     It is relatively easy to see similarities between churches; often it is a little more difficult to find out why. Among the several possible reasons are the
conscious copying, such as happened with the Crosswicks and Buckingham meetinghouses and the two meetinghouses in Medford. In Port Republic we have a case where the congregation actually borrowed the plans to build their church. Upjohn and Benjamin sold plans by mail order, and there were church sponsored plan books not long after the Civil War . Finally, we should not rule out the development of a
meme—the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena ( term invented by Richard Dawkins) of what an ideal church should look like. That changed over time, of course—from Greek Revival temples to Gothic Revival churches to eclectic late-Victorian shingled, stick or carpenter Gothic edifices. But even a cursory glance can reveal what architectural elements were demanded by congregations expecting its church to reflect their financial resources and obviously sophisticated tastes.


If you know anything about the old churches or synagogues of Cumberland County, I would appreciate your help. I created a wiki specifically for that purpose. A wiki (like Wikipedia) makes it easy for readers to comment, add to or even edit the information. I'm going to encourage churches to add a link to their own website (one has already done so), photos and other historical elements that may interest a wider audience. Initial readers have already added four more and identified one that had bedeviled me for years. Churches are organized by municipality. Here's the URL: http://sites.google.com/site/cumberlandchurchscape/  My purpose is not to supplant this website  but in the hope of encouraging a wider participation in gathering information. I find I simply do not have enough time to get to all the local libraries to look up dates and names in the 21 counties of the state.

 

 
 

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