No. 41  November 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

The Dutch Reformed tradition of Bergen County

It has been said that the history of American architecture could be written without reference to a single building in New Jersey. That's very likely true, although it might be said of most states as well. What is equally true but could not be said of very many states, is that the history of American architecture could be written entirely from examples within this state (with the exception, of course, of the Spanish colonial architecture of the southwest). Extending that assertion just a bit, the history of American religious architecture might be written rather well just from New Jersey's remaining Dutch Reformed churches. To push the generalization even further, we can see almost all the popular styles of the 18th and 19th centuries in Reformed churches in just three counties: Bergen, Essex and Somerset. We will find a common form of the basic meetinghouse in Blawenburg and Millstone, a good half dozen Greek Revival churches elsewhere in Somerset, Gothic and Gothic Revival in Newark, Romanesque in Jersey City and Somerville, and most of the late Victorian styles (board-and-batten, shingle, stick) scattered around Somerset. There is even a reproduction of the early form of a square church—the Three Mile Run church in Johnson Park (Middlesex County), which follows the concept of a 1595 Reformed building in the Netherlands. But it is the repeated use of a single building style over a period of almost a hundred years, not the later embrace of whatever was fashionable, that I have chosen to focus on this month.
I invite your attention to a dozen churches, built essentially to the same plan, mostly in Bergen County, although others can be found in Passaic, Monmouth, Middlesex, Somerset, and Hudson. They represent the work of almost as many builder-architects, all of whom drew on the same prototype as did the Old First Presbyterian church in Newark, which was designed sometime before the Revolutionary War, although not completed until 1791. Many of these are the second or third buildings on the site, usually preceded by an octangular building. The oldest Reformed congregation is in Jersey City (1660), and many of the Bergen County churches were formed before 1720. All of the interiors have been remodeled, some several times, but invariably include a gallery on three sides and I believe all originally had box pews. Most of the exteriors were remodeled sometime between 1845 and 1868— some by making the windows more Gothic and in five cases by the addition of a Victorian porch to the front and additional woodwork on the window surrounds. So what we see today is close to the original plan, but not quite. Fortunately, most of the later remodelings are easily detected.

The basic plan is a rectangular building with a projecting tower centered on the symmetrical gable end. In contrast to the New England version of the Wren-Gibbs plan (nicely exemplified in Boston's Old North Church), the tower doesn't project as far and these are generally built of stone rather than wood frame. An entrance through the long side of the building was popular in New England, but almost all of the churches in this area rejected that in favor of an entrance (often three doors) in the gable end. Some have multi-tiered belfry, clock, lantern and steeple, but mainly what we see today is a modest steeple. I suspect that many of the buildings originally sported a taller spire, like that of Dumont's Old North church and the Pompton Plains church. It appears that half the buildings feature a pediment, although it is normally not as accentuated as we see in Greek Revival and churches erected after 1860. The side windows are usually Gothic-arch, although the shape of the arch, at least in some of the buildings, was later emphasized with remodeled frames and mullions. In a few, the windows have round arches typical of the Georgian style. Most of the churches include an oculus as well as one or two narrow windows in the tower.

Among the surviving Reformed churches erected in this tradition are the following:

  Pompton Plains 1771
  Hackensack 1791
  English Neighborhood (Ridgefield) 1793
  Ramapo 1798
  Old South (Bergenfield) 1799
  Paramus 1800
  Old North (Dumont) 1801
  Wycoff 1806
  New Brunswick 1812
  Pompton Lakes 1814
  Saddle River 1819
  Closters 1862
  Six Mile Run 1879

I have omitted several churches that have been extensively altered over the years and undoubtedly have missed others, as I have not worked Bergen or Passaic counties very thoroughly yet, so the true extent of utilization of this plan is understated. [The drawing on the left of the Old South/Schraalenburg church in Bergenfield is from HABS.]

Let us examine a couple of these buildings in more detail. The Reformed church in Hackensack was organized by 1686 and the present church is the third building on the site. The first two were octangular structures, but by the Revolutionary War, the Dutch communities had adopted the English plan of a rectangular building with the entrance in the gable end. Although the Ponds church which burned in 1939 shares the basic symmetry with its later cousins, it seems to me that the immediate model for this church is to be found in the plan of the Presbyterian churches in Elizabeth and Newark. The Hackensack church was erected between 1791 and 1793, and contains stone from its predecessor. It was remodeled in 1847 and again in 1869, although both renovations are said to have been minor, at least as far as the exterior is concerned. The pediment and the stack of door-window-oculus-window in the tower is quite similar to the Newark church, and is a pattern that will be repeated in Reformed churches in Bergenfield, Dumont, Ridgefield, and Saddle River.

The church in Ridgefield, know as the English Neighborhood Reformed church (LEFT) was erected in 1793, and is, with the exception of the single entrance and the absence of a pediment, very similar to the Hackensack church. It is smaller in size, but similarly proportioned. The congregation was formed by 1770, and this is only their second building. It appears to me that the belfry and steeple have been altered some time in the last 60 years, and the window surrounds on the side of the church were apparently part of the 1860s renovation.

The Dutch farmers in the Hackensack Valley at Schraalenburgh stablished a Reformed congregation in 1723, but it split into two congregations using the same church sometime after 1755. One group erected this building in Bergenfield—the Old South church—in 1799, and the other group built a virtually identical church in Dumont in 1801. Both added identical porches and remodeled their interiors in the 1860s. The Old South congregation decided to affiliate with the Presbyterian church in 1913. There is a little more vertical emphasis in these churches than in the Hackensack one, and two windows have been added above the side doors, but in other respects, the plan is similar.

In 1786 the Reformed church in this country established Queens College (now Rutgers) in New Brunswick to educate clergy for the church. Twenty-five years later the local congregation, organized in 1717, erected this church (LEFT), one of the largest in the country at the time. A steeple was added sometime later, but proved unsatisfactory, so a multi-tiered tower was added in 1827-1835. The building is comparable to Newark's Old First, and is much the largest Reformed church in the state. Aside from later tiers, one of which includes the town clock, the building's fenestration draws its inspiration from both the Old First and the Hackensack churches.

The Reformed congregation at Six Mile Run (named for the stream six miles from the center of New Brunswick) was organized in 1710 by a mission sent out from the Three Mile Run church. This large shingled frame building was erected in 1879, but it, too, borrows from the traditional Reformed idiom. The pediment is missing and the pitch of the roof is steeper, which reflects the Gothic influence; the juncture of the gable with the tower is nicely done, and the columns and arches of the belfry echoes Newark's Old First, but the essence of the early Reformed churches
of Bergen remains.

There are two aspects of this design that are particularly remarkable: (1) it was adopted over a span of about 70 years by Reformed churches in at least five counties with very little modification, and (2) it was adaptable even a hundred years after its initial appearance in a high Victorian era in a manner that looks contemporary, yet true to the Reformed tradition. Only the Quaker meetinghouses exhibit such fidelity, and their tradition was based largely on the liturgy and basic tenets of their faith.



Copyright © 2004 Frank L. Greenagel