No. 12 March 2002
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early churches in New Jersey
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of the month
The many forms of "Akron Plan" churches
Many churches erected in the last two decades of the 19th century describe
themselves as "Akron Plan"churches. Most of them had a corner
entrance and were usually built of rusticated stone, like the Reformed
church in Whitehouse Station, so popular
for late Gothic revival churches and courthouses in this country. I saw
nothing particularly novel about any of those buildings, but when I investigated,
I found that there were apparently thousands of such churches built in
this country between 1870 and World War I.
I was led to the story of a Methodist Episcopal
church in Akron, Ohio that was built in 1866-1870, designed by George
Kramer but with the plan specified by the church's Sunday School Superintendent,
Lewis Miller. It seems Miller wanted flexible space that would provide
small meeting rooms for the Sunday School classes, which could open up
into the regular auditorium so the classes might participate in a portion
of the regular services. Sunday School students, sorted by age, would
enter their classrooms and Miller would begin with a prayer and scripture
reading; the shutters would then be closed and the day's lessons would
proceed. At the end of the lessons, the doors would be reopened and the
concluding part of the general session would be available to all.
Kramer designed an amphitheatre, rather
than a building with a rectangular nave, and a stage, with two tiers of
small classrooms encircling the stage. The altar was essentially eliminated,
and the choir loft was moved from the rear center of the gallery to the
front of the church. Sliding or folding doors or partitions shuttered
the classrooms from the main auditorium, but they could be opened at appropriate
times. An expert on ecclesiastical
architectural history has noted that it was "supremely adaptable
space for other groups in the church. Weekday prayer meetings for men
or women, missionary support group meetings, plays upholding Christian
values staged in the auditorium, temperance meetings, ice cream socials,
church fellowship suppers, and ladies circles could all be accommodated
in the same flexible structure."**
The only New Jersey church that might aptly
be described as an Akron Plan church is actually an addition to the Second
Presbyterian church in Elizabeth. The original church was erected
in 1828, and the addition sometime in the 1890s, I believe. It appears
there are at least eight small rooms on the second tier, and a like number
on the main floor. The room itself is magnificent, with its dark wood
and colored glass partitions.
There is another example of an "overflow"
room opening onto the main auditorium, although the tiers of classrooms
The Seventh Day Baptist church
in Plainfield, one of my favorite churches in the state, and a most unusual
design, has placed the pulpit where it is visible from the main auditorium
and the overflow room. It makes use of the amphitheatre seating in the
main auditorium, but there is an open floor (no fixed pews) in the adjacent
Many churches use an amphitheatre style,
with curved pews and aisles that radiate from the pulpit, and I suspect
that is how most congregations understand the term "Akron Plan"
today. Often the floor is ramped slightly, and the model seems to have
been the late 19th century theater or opera house. The Methodist church
in Flemington is a fine example, and I am certain there are many more
throughout the state.
The din of the classroom in the Akron Plan
was undoubtedly a disturbance to the congregation and the flexibility
probably proved illusory; whatever the reason, there are few "true"
Akron Plan churches in the state.