No. 75  March 2009
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Benjamin Price & the Board of Church Extension

By the 1860s congregations had become more much aware of architectural styles, and the several presbyteries, conferences, synods and connections often recommended architects who could be counted on to deliver stylishly appropriate plans for a church. Much earlier, the Ecclesiology Society in New York issued a short list of “approved” architects for Episcopal parishes that wanted to erect churches in the acceptable Gothic style. “Let the other denominations erect their pagan temples,” they said, referring to the then-popular Greek Revival style; true Christian worship, they asserted, depended on doing so in an appropriate building, which meant the parish church of fourteenth- century England—which is to say, Gothic.
      Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodist were a little late in endorsing or promoting architects, but when they did, they were often willing to provide a modest amount of financial aid as well, usually to help an impecunious congregation get started, but also to assist congregations desiring to upgrade the quality of their churches. There were limits to that aid, of course; the minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Board of Church Extension (BCE) in 1885 reiterated its policy of not aiding church construction where the cost was to exceed $10,000, saying their intent was to help smaller congregations build stylish but moderately. According to an 1885 magazine published by the Methodist church, the BCE began in 1870 by publishing “illustrations and brief descriptions of churches, and referred parties interested to the architects who could furnish them. Then we had a few plans lithographed, with specifications printed, which we could furnish at greatly reduced rates, and later, after sundry experiments, we effected an arrangement with Benjamin D. Price, Architect . . . under which we furnished plans, including detailed drawings and specifications, for a mere fraction of what plans would have cost prepared by hand. . . . . Those proposing to build [a church] are invited to write for our Catalogue of Plans. . . . TAKE NO STEPS TOWARD BUILDING BEFORE SECURING OUR CATALOGUE.”

     The BCE had published plans of Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, but by 1876 it determined that Sloan's plans were very expensive to erect, so they contracted with Price to prepare plans for a range of more affordable churches, from very simple structures to rather stylish ones, mostly with a Gothic flavor. By 1885 Price had prepared 67 church plans, and the Board has sold 1,975 copies of those plans by mail, at a cost ranging from $2 to $50. Price had an established reputation for upscale homes as well as churches, which he said he specialized in. Samuel Huckel, who became half of the very successful partnership of Hazelhurst & Huckel, trained in Price's office between 1867 and 1869. Price (b. 1845 – d.1922) claimed to have sold more than 6,000 copies of his plans between 1876 and 1906, including those sold by the BCE and through his book, Church Plans, which was issued in several editions between 1885 and 1906. I have not been able to find that book, but copies of a few pages have turned up on the web, and so we are able to document, or at least offer the likelihood that Price was responsible for a number of churches where the architect was previously unknown. In this month's issue we'll look at several of them that have survived.

The earliest one is found in Millville (Cumberland)—Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, erected in 1881. I had noted its similarity to other Methodist churches, particularly the First Methodist Church in Salem, but architectural historian Richard J. Cawthon called my attention to Price's plan # 220 in Church Plans (1906 edition). Cawthon was the chief architectural historian of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and I want to acknowledge here his work on Price and his contribution to most of the other attributions in this article.

Groveville is a small town southeast of Trenton. A Methodist congregation was organized there in 1837 and fifty years later this church, presumably their second, was erected. The design was probably based on a plan of Price's. The main windows are similar to Methodist churches in Port Colden (Warren) and Changewater (Hunterdon), as well as many churches in the south. In fact, that rhombus-shaped arrangement of windows can be found in dozens of churches south of the Mason-Dixon line, mostly Methodist churches erected after 1885.

The First Methodist Church in Mays Landing is often overshadowed by the adjacent Presbyterian church there, but deserves its own place in the sun, as it is a fine example of a large late-nineteenth-century wooden frame church. It was erected in 1888, with additions in 1906. The design is probably based on the BCE catalog, which was re-issued as Plan # 220 in Price's Church Plans. As in Price's Plan #19A (above) it was a common feature of the period to locate the tower at the intersection of the L, with the principal entrance through the tower.The door and window surrounds and the detailing of the opening for the belfry often show the inventiveness of the local builder, as the variations to be seen are numerous, and only loosely based on plan books. But notice the similarity in the treatment of the tower and belfry here and that of the Riceville Methodist Episcopal church in Navesink (Monmouth) below.

There are many fascinating features of the Methodist church in Navesink, a wooden-frame Gothic church built on the foundation of the congregation’s previous building, which was erected in 1853. There are numerous projections and a variety of surfaces. The cross-gabled, steeply-pitched roof sets the tone, which is then expanded upon by the bell-tower, separated by string courses. The entrance is through the tower. There is tracery in the Gothic-arch window over the transom as well as in the prominent tripartite window in the gable and the lancet windows framing it. The
bargeboard with a quatrefoil is positioned directly above the oculus, which is on the same level as identical windows in the tower. There are louvered openings in the belfry, and the steeple rises from the top of the tower with four squat square minarets at each corner. Cawthon called my attention to the similarity of this church to Plan No. 6 in the 1906 edition of Price’s book.

Farmingdale (Monmouth) was known as Upper Squankum until 1854, and was the junction of two railroads—the Jamesburg and Freehold Agricultural Railroad and the New Jersey Southern Railroad. By 1834 there were 10 sawmills, five grist mills, 26 tanning vats, two distilleries, but no churches. The Methodists purchased a parsonage for the circuit preacher, however, and by 1849 had erected their first church. It was remodeled in 1866, and then replaced by the present building in 1894. The church is a standard plan; there is a similar church in Perrysburgh, Ohio, and close variations exist in brick and stone. Although Freehold architect Warren Conover is credited with its design, he was only 25 at the time and probably acted as the construction supervisor, a common practice even for established architects in smaller cities. The design seems to me to be based on plans published by the BCE or by Price. The plan probably has an amphitheater seating arrangement. which was very popular at the time. It stands in a State Historic District.

The Methodist Board of Church Extension continued to offer Price's plans through 1889; in that year Price bought the rights to his designs back from the BCE, and had formed a company with his son to make and sell paper imitation stained glass. By 1904, when he and his son Max issued their Church Plans, his office was located in Atlantic Highlands. Price died in Florida in 1922, and is buried there.

I'm still in need of help on the old churches of Cumberland County. If you know anything about their old churches or synagogues, I would appreciate your assistance. There is a wiki specifically for that purpose. A wiki (like Wikipedia—you do know about it, don't you?) makes it easy for readers to comment, add to or even edit the information. I've encouraged churches to add a link to their own website (only one has done so thus far), photos and other historical elements that may interest a wider audience. Initial readers have added four more and identified one that had bedeviled me for years. The churches and synagogue are organized by municipality. Here's the URL:  My purpose is not to supplant this website  but to encourage 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 15 counties where I have not yet completed the bulk of my research.




Copyright 2008 Frank L. Greenagel