No. 14  May 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Zion Baptist Church,
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Lawrenceville Presbyterian,
Mercer County


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Feature of the month

Board-and-batten: from cottage to ecclesiastical style

The essence of Gothic is vertical, but how to do vertical in a wooden building of modest size? Narrow windows help, as does a steeply-sloped roof, but what else can be done to provide a vertical emphasis? That was a question which, in one form or another, confronted mid-19th century architects asked to design a church in the Gothic manner, but limited by budget to a wooden frame structure. A clue to the answer is to be found in some of the "cottages" of Llewellyn Park in West Orange.
     Llewellyn Park was the first instance in this country of a residential "development" designed to have a picturesque natural setting. Planned a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War by A.J. Downing, the design for the park was guided by the idea that even the smallest residence on a modest lot could be "picturesque" if sympathetically sited. The developer, Llewellyn Haskell, who was also influential in support of Central Park in New York City, engaged a friend, architect Andrew Jackson Davis, in his project. Davis built his own residence there and designed several others with a decidedly Gothic look employing steep roofs, multiple gables, narrow pointed windows and a clear vertical emphasis in the siding, called board-and-batten, which he had worked out 20 years earlier.
     In 1836, Davis published Rural Residences, a book which would have a significant impact on American architecture. It included the first known illustration of the board-and-batten technique of vertical siding for a wood frame building. Board-and-batten consists of tongue-and-groove planking covered by a batten (a narrow strip of wood) over the joint. This produced a fractured surface with a strong vertical emphasis, which is what those who favored the Gothic were looking for.
     By the mid-1860s, board-and-batten churches sprouted up all over the place—Maine, upstate New York, Wisconsin, even Colorado. I have found a dozen board-and-batten style churches in the state, all but two of them Episcopal churches, scattered from Cape May to Hackettstown, Boonton and High Bridge; Rocky Hill has two, and I expect there are at least another half dozen more that I am not aware of. The board-and-batten churches in New Jersey were built over a span of 25 years, from 1849 to 1875, and I suspect that Richard Upjohn was the architect for at least two of them. He built the first church in that style in 1845-46 (in Brunswick, Maine), and within a few years, was deluged with requests from small parishes. To handle the demand, he published a book, Upjohn's Rural Architecture, which gave plans and specifications for a small country church. Dozens of churches cite that work as the basis for their building plans.
     St Peters church in Spotswood (above), built in 1849, is the earliest of the board-and-batten churches in the state—and very likely, one of the earliest ones in the country. It is usually attributed to Upjohn, although the National Register listing credits Frank Wills and Charles Pursell, which I think is unlikely; I have not been able to find another wooden church that Wills designed anywhere in the country. St Peters sits in a park-like setting with a stream flowing nearby, and clearly embodies the ideal that was to be incorporated in Llewellyn Park 10 years later. St Peters was followed in 1856 by a board-and-batten Reformed church in Rocky Hill. The builder/architect was Henry Leard of Princeton. Six years later, Horace Stone designed and/or built another board-and-batten church for Rocky Hill, Trinity Episcopal. In 1859, St James Episcopal church in Hackettstown was erected. I believe this is also an Upjohn design. The following year, a New York architect and leading light in the Gothic Revival movement, J. W. Priest, designed St Stephen's church Millburn. Then came St John's church in Boonton, erected in 1863, possibly by Upjohn; the open-frame steeple on that church is very similar to those he designed for churches in Copake Falls, NY and Clermont, NY, and it has the entry, transept and chancel that are never missing from his churches.
     In Cape May, we can find a board-and-batten church that, just as clearly, was not designed by Upjohn—St John's church/Chapel of the Assumption, built in 1865, has board-and-batten siding, but not of the verticality of most of the other such churches in the state. It does not seem to me that the architect/builder of that church has any real feel for the Gothic.
     Holy Cross church in North Plainfield (top, right), erected in 1868, by an unknown (to me) architect is a nicely-preserved example of a church complex that has been added to subsequently without destroying the character of the original building. In High Bridge we find a fascinating Reformed church—I hesitate to describe it simply as a board-and-batten building because it is so much more. Designed by New York architect George Post, who is better known for his skyscrapers, it was built in 1870. Post said his A-frame building was modeled after a Gothic church he had seen in France. Although the steeple is much shorter now, after serious damage in the 1930s, the building (right) is one of the most interesting churches in the state, and is, like the Spotswood church, on the National Register.
     Vincetown, in the southern part of Burlington county, we can find another Gothic revival building with board-and-batten siding (now aluminum) and a round apse, unusual in a small rural church (erected in 1872). Medford, a few miles from Vincetown, is home to two fine Quaker meetinghouses, pre-Civil War Baptist and Methodist churches, and St Peter's (Episcopal) church (left), erected in 1875. Painted dark red, it has not held religious services for some time, and was being renovated for professional offices when I last visited the town.
     In 1868, St Luke's Episcopal parish in Metuchen erected a delightful small church just north of the center of town. It combines the board-and-batten siding with a very steeply pitched roof, a minuscule but appropriate belfry and an elaborate barge board characteristic of what is called "carpenter Gothic." There was some modification to the church in 1890, and I am not sure whether the belfry and the barge board are original or date to that renovation.
     Board-and-batten siding was a technique rooted in American domestic architecture; because American architects and builders were quick to exploit the capabilities of wood, this style became the principal difference between small Gothic Revival churches in American and those in England.
      "By making the board-and-batten function so logically as a vehicle of the Gothic style, Upjohn created something which by its very uniqueness was expressive of a new and ever-changing America." The Gothic style was widely used by early churches in new towns of the west and midwest, a style which above any other, "maintained the image of an established church tradition and brought an element of grace to even the most isolated pioneer town. . . .The board-and-batten cottages and churches of Downing, Davis and Upjohn together spoke of a restless people moving ever farther into the wilderness and taking with them as they went, not the established certainties of a familiar building tradition, but rather the ingredients of a new architecture, flexible and varied in form, but simple and attainable in structure. (The quotations are from William Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects, New York: Doubleday 1978.)

 
 

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