No. 76  May 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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Benjamin Price, architect

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Freehold - First Baptist

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Feature of the month


Church belfrys are one of the major elements of religious architecture where the carpenter or architect seemed free to express his individuality and creativity. Cupolas, although they often but not invariably perform a similar function—a housing for a bell—are different. One cannot usually determine the period or architectural style of the building from the cupola, as you normally can from the door and window surrounds, or from the belfry or steeple, which is also a leading indicator. It appears that the designer of a cupola drew on a much more constrained set of conventions than those who constructed a belfry. All of the cupolas in the state are eight-sided structure, and all but a few employ round arch (rather than Gothic or pointed arch) openings. We'll explore the range of cupolas found in the state's churches in this issue.
     The cupola on the First Baptist Church in Bridgeton (above) is perhaps the most ornate one in the state—well-proportioned arches interspersed with columns and urn-like finials. The cupola's dome is actually an eight-sided structure, like the dome of the Duoma in Florence (technically, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore). The church was built in 1854, but the cupola was added later—sometime before 1905.

Cupola is from the Latin, meaning a small cup. The cap of the structure is hemispherical in shape, but much smaller than a dome. Sometimes it sits atop a tower, as does the cupola of Christ Church in Shrewsbury. The tower and clock were added by 1874, but an early woodcut of the church shows the cupola set back on the roof of the church, so probably dates to 1769, when the church was built. Other cupolas are settled on a small platform, usually at the front of the roof of the church, like the cupola of the Dutch Reformed church in Neshanic. Part of that church date to 1772, but much is of a later date and I suspect the cupola dates to the first decades of the nineteenth century. A few of the cupolas seem to grow out of the roof itself without the aid of a platform, as we can see in the Mt. Hope Methodist Episcopal Church in Rockaway Township (Morris county), erected in 1868. Most of the louvers are missing now, but the church is being stabilized and some restoration is underway I have been told. Most of the cupolas are about twice as high as their width, but there are exceptions, as we shall see.

These three cupolas are also eight-sided, but quite different in concept. Christ Church in Allaire Village was erected in 1832 for the ironworkers at the forge there; the cupola is located on the rear of the church because the support for it was apparently too weak at the front. The dome is surmounted by a weathervane and just below the dome is a clock. The tier holding the clock has four wide sides and four narrow ones, all the paneling. The First Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge, erected in 1839, was designed by William Kirk, who went on to design several lovely Gothic churches in Newark. It is a classic Georgian structure, perfectly symmetrical, and it, too, boasts a weathervane. It appears to be more squarish then eight-sided, with pilasters at the corners of the belfry. But it has a real hemispherical dome. The Methodist Church in Absecon, erected in 1856, is more like a nipple than a dome, but clearly falls within the definition of a cupola. If there are columns between the arches, they are very subdued, and the louvers are very narrowly spaced. The cornice is a series of blind arcading below the compound roof of the cupola. Notice that it is set on a small platform, a little back from the front of the gable.

The three cupolas pictured above have nothing bearing any resemblance to a hemisphere, but not to call them cupolas would be an exercise in pedantry. Turrets or pinnacles won't do—these are cupolas. All have conical roofs above the eight-sided cupolas. The Old Tennent Church was built in 1751 and is purely decorative—there is no bell there, and I don't believe there is any access to the cupola from the interior. It is mounted on the west end of the church, although symmetry would normally suggest that it be located in the center of the roof, directly above the main entrance; but that's part of its charm. The First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, erected in 1791 to replace an earlier church burned by the British troops during the Revolutionary War, like the Old Tennent Church, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it also sports a weathervane. The arches are rather delicate, similar to those of Shrewsbury church. It is mounted on the front of the gable-ended church. Notice the small "windows" between the clockfaces—an interesting touch. The Methodist church in Roseville, erected in 1889, is a strange building in my opinion, but I'm really fond of its cupola which is mounted in the middle of the roof line. It is overwhelmed by the grandiose tower at the front of the church (which seems to me top-heavy). The small cupola—about six feet in diameter I estimate, is something one might expect to see on a medieval building in Germany, or perhaps on the grandstand at Churchill Downs. The louvers are bolder, and make a strong statement. The shape of the weathervane is a bannerette, which was stylish in the 1870s in this country.
     One final example—the Trinity AME church in Gouldtown (Cumberland county) was erected in 1860, although the congregation dates to 1818. It has a delicate cupola housing a bell, set well back from the front of the church. The church incorporates several other Georgian elements—the compass (round arch) windows on the sides, and the elaborate entrance console and fanlight over the front door. Whereas I believe all of the other churches here and their cupolas were designed by experienced architects, I suspect this church is not the product of an architect but a rather nice adaptation of elements borrowed from a builder's guide grafted on to what is a basic meetinghouse. It's a distinctive element, and very nicely done.

Recalling my days as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota I know how much of a time-saver a good select bibliography can be. The one in my books on the churchscape is updated with every new volume, and now contains about 275 entries, most of them directly relevant to the old churches of New Jersey. I'm making the latest version, prepared for the book on the old churches of Mercer County and current as of a couple of weeks ago, available in a PDF format as a free download. Bibliography

I expect I will be more irregular than usual in keeping to a monthly schedule of publication for NJChurchscape. In addition to working on several books on the old New Jersey churches, I have taken on another project relating to eighteenth-century buildings—the restoration of a 1765-1783 house in Phillipsburg. It's a lovely large stone Georgian farmhouse, probably the oldest structure in the town and on the National Register. I'll be getting dirty with some digging and sweeping, but mostly documenting the work as it progresses. You can see more about it at the blog we created: If you have any specialized knowledge about that kind of building, I'd be very pleased to hear from you.

One more time: 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 2009 Frank L. Greenagel