Episcopal churches designed by “John Doe”
Dispatching a digital file to a printer for a new book is (1) the culmination of 12-16 months of work over an extended period, (2) one of the many satisfactions of being an author-publisher, and (3) the last event before the sure-to-follow bummer of discovering a typo that should have been caught. There are, of course, additional concerns about whether the book will sell enough to cover the cost of gas for the many trips to Cumberland County that were required. Whatever. The Cumberland Churchscape is now with the printer and will soon (second week in September) be available at Amazon. A sneak preview of the opening chapter is available free (228K PDF download) here.
High among the other satisfactions is discovering the identify of a hitherto unknown architect for a exceptional building. My research is generally limited to close examination of the printed literature, making inquiries of the resident minister, and sometimes looking for stylistic parallels with churches of known architects. In Cumberland that approach revealed an unusually rich architectural provenance for an early Presbyterian church. The close similarity of the Bethany Presbyterian church in Bridgeton to St. John's Episcopal church in Salem and a happy reference to an identical church in Easton, Maryland lead to information that supports a firm conclusion that Philadelphia architect William Strickland was responsible for all three. Moreover, I am convinced on the basis of plan and style that the basic plan was borrowed from Ithiel Town's Trinity Church in New Haven, Connecticut, erected some 20 years earlier. Town drew on James Gibbs' book, A Book of Architecture, who got his inspiration from All Saints, in Derby, England, a thirteen-century parish church. The English penchant for record-keeping might reveal the name of All Saints' architect, but that would be pressing our luck. The connection between medieval England and South Jersey by way of London and New Haven is a delight; an unexpected bonus from a county whose mid-nineteenth century churchscape was generally dominated by vigorous and sometimes raucous revival meetings led by unlettered exhorters who probably couldn't qualify to run for office.
That connection, in any case, is a prelude to the real matter of this month's feature, which is my inability to identify the architect for a handful of exceptional nineteenth century churches, many, as it turns out, Episcopalian. I have flipped my inadequacies as a researcher around, you may have noticed, and implied in my title is that Episcopal priests and vestries, however much they cared about Gothic arches, buttresses and fully-articulated chancels, were overly circumspect about recording the name of the architect, hence the placeholder name of John Doe for the individual whose identity in not known. That's an overbroad generalization, of course, because the work of Upjohn, Wills, Dudley, Notman and others are well known. Here I've listed several fine Episcopal churches that were certainly done by an accomplished architect whom diligent efforts have failed to identify. Maybe you can help.
St. Paul's Church, Rahway. b. 1843
St. Paul’s is a gem—a primitive Gothic building, which owes more to the Neoclassical Wren-Gibbs form than to the Gothic idiom. By the 1840s the Episcopal leadership in New York and New Jersey began to urge the Gothic style of the fourteenth century English parish church as the only acceptable design for Episcopal churches. Hence the rectangular footprint (the chancel at the rear was a later addition) with a projecting tower centered on the nave. This building has more in common with Reformed churches in Bergen County built 80 years earlier than it has with Episcopal churches built a few miles away 15 years later. The large Gothic arch windows were unmistakable Gothicisms, but were occasionally found on even Greek Revival churches. It is clear that architects and builders were trying to make use of Gothic elements but were not yet comfortable and simply tacked on decorative items; the pointed arch windows, pinnacles and crenelations atop the belfry are the only Gothic elements of the exterior. The church has much in common with Ithiel Town's Trinity Church in New Haven (CT), erected 25 years earlier. At this time, architects were often regarded as little more than house-carpenters by the elite, so it is perhaps not unusual that there is no record of the architect or builder.
St. Andrews Church, Mount Holly. b.1844
St. Andrew’s was founded as a mission church of St. Mary’s, Burlington by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1742 and their first building was located in what is now the graveyard on Pine Street. The second church was begun in 1786, but not completed until 1813. The present church was built in 1844, the corner stone being laid by Bishop Doane, an unremitting advocate of the English Gothic style, who certainly had a voice in the selection of the architect. We know that James Powell, a deacon of the Baptist church, was the contractor, but he did not design the church, which is an early example of the perpendicular Gothic style. The buttresses reach to the top of the tower, which has a crenelated parapet and elongated pinnacles. Fine tracery in the windows and what appear to be crockets on the pinnacles. It is built of brick, with a rough-cast (stucco) covering. The extended chancel and vestry were added in the 1880s. A conversation with the rector regarding design and construction records a few years ago was unproductive. There is nothing naive about the plan or execution—note, for example, the way the corner buttresses are canted 45 degrees.
St. Peter's Church, Perth Amboy. b. 1852
St. Peter’s is reputedly the oldest Episcopal parish in New Jersey. Records show the first service was held in 1685 or 1698 when 12 Church of England communicants designated themselves the Congregation of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Early records are often ambiguous or inconsistent and it is sometimes difficult to determine theagree-upon date of a church's founding. Congregations like to adopt the earliest date that can be plausibly supported. The first building was erected shortly thereafter, and the second in 1722. That one was destroyed by fire and this fine Gothic structure erected in 1852. Like the Mt Holly church, the stepped buttresses of the tower are functional, not just decorative; the square tower yields to an octagonal spire. Lancet windows have replaced the wide Gothic arch windows of Rahway's church. A major renovation was needed after the Black Tom explosions at the munitions plant across Raritan Bay in 1918 caused significant damage to ceilings, walls and windows.
St. John's Church, Elizabeth. b. 1860
St. John’s was organized in 1706 by a missionary of the SPG, and the present building is the third church on the site. This Gothic Revival building was erected in 1860 at a cost of $50,000. The interior is a fine example of provincial English Gothic architecture.
According to correspondence with Rev. Joe Parrish, Rector of St. Johns, the church was designed “after the twelfth century-church, St. Mary the Virgin, the ‘university church’ of Oxford University. The outside of St. John’s seems to be modeled after Magdalen College of Oxford, near St. Mary’s. We have not been able to determine the name of the architect, however.” It seats approximately 700 and is the largest Episcopal church in New Jersey. The stepped buttresses, pinnacles and decorative belt courses became staples of Episcopal architecture for several decades. With respect to obligatory features for the (New York-based) Ecclesiological Society that had great influence on Anglican church design at this time, St. John's is somewhat lacking: there is no transept, no clerestory and the chancel is too shallow.
Rev. Parrish remarked that St. John’s was apparently built to be the cathedral church for the whole state but was left somewhat orphaned when Bishop Odenheimer drew the line for the new Diocese of Newark only about three miles north of St. John’s, and it never became a cathedral. Under those circumstances it is very curious that the architect has not been identified.
St. Luke's Church, Metuchen. b. 1890
In the last decade of the nineteenth century the architectural profession was flourishing and there were dozens of accomplished local architects operating out of Newark, Elizabeth, Trenton, Plainfield and Jersey City. This is a wonderful example of a Carpenter Gothic church; its proportions areideal (my judgment) and the details quite elegant. Board-and-batten construction had been an Episcopal tradition for 50 years since Upjohn's early work for that denomination. The bargeboard is fascinating, the timbered supports of the entrance porch another Episcopal tradition. The symmetrical placement of lancet windows and the small rose windowpositioned at the point of the roof of the porch are all from Gothic traditions. The open belfy looks like ones modified from Upjohn plans of a half-century earlier. In my opinionit is the product of an accomplished architect, not a local builder working from a set of plans. It has recently been repainted in authentic colors. It was built after publication of Clayton's 1882 History of Union and Middlesex Counties, so there is no help there or on the church's website.
Christ Church, Orange. b. 1891
The Episcopal congregation was organized in 1868 and this elegant building, their second church, erected in 1891. It is an example of the high style that a congregation aimed to project in this city of many fine churches. The porte cochére made a statement—a sign that people in this congregation were accustomed to arriving in carriages. The building has all the required elements of an Eccesiologically-correct church—a deep articulated chancel, an east-oriented altar, south entrance and transepts; the exterior is clearly of a later vintage than the Gothic Revival churches of 40 years earlier. The light-colored stone and the mixture of rounded turrets and square battlements are not elements likely to have been found on a Gothic Revival church of the 1850s. But having established an Anglican “brand” (to use today’s parlance), the High Church vestry here was confident enough to approve a more contemporary look for its church. The reredos (above) is exceptional.
Because the choice of an architect had symbolic value, a New York architect with a national reputation would have been an obvious decision. Congregations in this period were frequently in competition for social and cultural pre-eminence in a city, and there were several other exceptionally fine churches in the immediate neighborhood. The quality of the decorative elements—reredos, hammerbeams, chancel amenities—as well as the size of the church suggests this building was a vigorous assertion of the congregation’s leadership.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Lumberton. b. 1896-97
This stylish Episcopal church borrowed an English name—St. Martin’s in the Field—an important Neoclassical church by James Gibbs located in London. This St. Martins was erected in 1896, and I suspect the congregation was organized about that time. It is clearly the product of an experienced architect, not the product of a set of standard plans.
By this time, architects were comfortable mixing stone, brick, terracotta and shingles. Notice the elements of an Ecclesiologically-correct Episcopal church are mostly here—the articulated chancel, an east-oriented altar, transepts—even the buttressed stone foundation. There is no information about the history of the church on its website.
Episcopal churches are not alone in this failing; other John Doe churches include the Methodist church in Mount Holly (b.1883), the Romanesque Livingston Avenue Baptist church in New Brunswick (b. 1893), the impressive early Greek Revival Presbyterian church in Sykesville ( b. 1844), St. Cloud Presbyterian in West Orange ( b. 1890), and the delightful Scotch Plains Baptist church (b. 1870), are also orphans (in the sense their paternity is unknown).
Several are on the National Register of Historic Places, which means that the architect's name has eluded the efforts of even the architectural historians who prepared the extensive applications necessary to get listed. That, somehow, makes me feel a little less defensive about my own research failures. With four exceptions, all were built after the Civil War, which is significant because before the war any architect without a national or substantial regional business was likely to be regard as a house-carpenter, or at best, a contractor-builder. Which many of them had been. The point is that these are not obscure church (with the exception of the church in Sykesville), and several of the congregations have published commemorative books celebrating their centennials written by people who presumably had access to the minutes and other records of the church. Perhaps "crowd-sourcing" will provide some names.
My newest book: A Mighty Architectural Shout: The Development of Religious Architecture in Essex County, a book I've been working on for almost seven years (not steadily, of course). It treats the 109 remaining churches and one surviving synagogue in the county in a series of two- and four-page spreads, but the real subject is the social, liturgical and cultural forces that shaped the churchscape. I deal with the major factors—immigration, pluralism, urbanization and industrialization and the wealth accumulation it produced, and how those factors are reflected in the plan and design of the religious architecture of the county.