No. 61  August 2006
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

William Halsey Wood — "destined for prominence"

Any regular visitor to Newark, Paterson, Passaic, or Bloomfield is likely to pass a church designed by one of the country's most imaginative and prolific architect's—Newark's own William Halsey Wood. Although the name won't ring a bell for any but architectural historians, he was nationally famous in the 1890s, and his design for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York was one of four finalists. Wood also designed a large stone mansion in Saratoga Springs, NY that became the principal building of Yaddo, the famed artists colony. But it his his work in New Jersey, of course, that merits attention here rather than any of the libraries, college buildings and churches he designed for congregations as far away as California, Wyoming, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, and even Shanghai, China.
Wood was born in Newark in 1855, and following school, went to work as a draughtsman for Thomas Roberts, a Newark architect who designed the Central Presbyterian (1880s) church in Orange, the exceptional Gothic Revival Clinton Avenue Reformed church (1870) in Newark, and St. Barnabas' church (1864), also in Newark. Roberts took him in as a partner in the firm in 1875 when he was only 20, and the firm was then known as Roberts, Taylor & Wood. I do not have a date when he left to set up his own office but I suspect it was relatively soon. One source says he was educated abroad, another that he was a frequent traveler to Europe; in any case, his work shows considerable familiarity with Norman and Tudor architecture of England, although most of his work is decidedly in the Romanesque style.

I have identified ten churches in the state that can be attributed to Wood with confidence, but I suspect there are several more. He drew on a variety of late nineteenth century styles, and didn't confine himself only to what was currently fashionable. Wood knew his architectural history well and tapped the cruciform (Greek Cross) plan of early Christian churches (as Roberts did in his plan for St. Barnabas) and one must infer that the great central dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople provided the idea for the Peddie Memorial First Baptist church (1888) in Newark. We can find the exposed timbers of the Tudor style in the small St. Paul's church (1895) in East Orange (right) and a Norman tower and other heavy elements in a couple of his churches, notably St. Paul's Church (1895) in Paterson and Christ Church (1893) in Bloomfield.  Few of his buildings draw extensively from the Gothic idiom, in spite of the Episcopal church's virtual endorsement of that style; a book on religious architecture (Francis Parker, Church-Building) published for Episcopal congregations in 1886, says, “As to the order of architecture, it is not worth while to throw away time in discussing which shall be adopted; that question has practically been settled in favor of the Gothic. The Protestant sects and the sect of the Jesuits should be allowed the monopoly of classic and renaissance architecture.” Even in Wood's designs for Episcopal congregations he seems more partial to the Romanesque for his basic plan, which (from the exterior) seems to provide scant separation of nave and chancel, and frequently makes use of the amphitheatre style seating arrangement—something no self-respecting Anglican congregation would have considered in the middle decades of the century. His arches, columns, and polychrome and rusticated stone are not to be found in the Gothic lexicon. We can see the occasional buttress, a steeply-pitched roof and some pointed arch windows in a few of his designs, but on the whole he seems to have gotten away from the precepts laid down forty years earlier by Episcopal Bishop Doane who insisted that Anglican churches be based on the model of English parish churches, meaning Gothic.

Woods' earliest church in the state (to my knowledge) is St. Peter's Episcopal church in Washington (Warren County), erected in 1886. I believe it has a cruciform floor plan, but I have not been inside to verify that. The exterior is deceptively modern, but it appears there is space for aisles and even separation of the nave and chancel, which were important features of Anglican architecture based on liturgical considerations. The round windows are unusual, as is the absence of buttresses and Gothic-arch windows. I passed it by several times, thinking it was built in the 1920s or 30s, until an old postcard convinced me of its antiquity.
Next in order comes what is generally regarded as one his masterpieces, the Byzantine Newark's Peddie Memorial First Baptist, built in 1888. The seating plan here is certainly an amphitheatre, with semi-circular rows of seats radiating from a stage rather than an altar. The exterior columns are thick and not very tall, quite different from what one would find in a Gothic church. We will see them again in his church for an Episcopal congregation in Paterson. The towers are the sort that might be found on many a midwestern courthouse or post office of the time—very Romanesque. This is an imaginative design, superbly fitted to its location and to the revival style of preaching Baptist and Methodist congregations had come to expect as discussed in Jeanne Kilde's book, When Churches Became Theatre: The Trans- formation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America.

In 1889 an Episcopal congregation in Jersey City built a church—St. Mark's, which may have been designed by Wood—the evidence for his involvement is indirect; he is credited with a St. Mark's in that city, and there is no other that fits the timeframe. It is a fairly traditional approach—a wide central tower projects a few feet in front of the symmetrical nave.
    In the ironbound section of Newark Wood was confronted with a similar sort of property—a small plot tightly squeezed in an urban block. The Presbyterian congregation of St. Paul's obviously wanted a substantial church, but the result is less successful. The symmetrical arrangement of the façade lacks any relief, and even very much texture. Many of the architectural details such as the pillars supporting the dormer in the central tower look strained and unfamiliar. St. Paul's was built in 1890. A somewhat similar plan is his design for the First Congregational church a mile away on Broad Street. In this case, Wood made use of colored stone to produce the polychrome effect which accentuated arches and windows as well as the several string courses (the horizontal bands that usually marked a separate story. The congregation has an especially fascinating past, and I hope you will click on the link to review it.

Two years after the Congregational church was built (1891) Woods built Christ Church in Bloomfield. Here he had space to work with. The result is a massive building, almost fortress-like, constructed of the rusticated stone that was made popular by the Romanesque revival. The windows here are lancet in shape (that is, Gothic), and remind me of the narrow slit windows in Norman architecture—wide enough to shoot an arrow from but pretty small for defensive reasons. Notice how the angles of the roof and gable here echo those of the church in Washington.

I have not yet visited the Wickcliffe Presbyterian church in Newark, which has been credited to Wood. St. Paul's Episcopal church in East Orange, pictured above, was erected in the same year (1893) as Christ Church. It is a modest, but not undistinguished building with some Tudor timberwork. But two years later Wood designed another St. Paul's —this for an Episcopal congregation in Paterson. Here he had almost half a city block to work with, and the result is another massive stone building, even more fortress-like than Christ Church. From the rear it reminded me of one of the old abbeys of France, something like the reconstruction of the central part of Cluny—a ninth century center of learning and culture. The image of the columns at the top of the page is also of St. Paul's, but they are quite similar to those he designed for the Peddie Memorial church. I have not been inside this church, but it is a priority for me as I am most interested in Wood's approach to the crossing, the chancel and the ceiling of an Anglican building.
     His last church in New Jersey, erected the year before his death, was in Passaic, almost adjacent to the old Reformed church. Although there is another substantial tower here, the emphasis in St. John's Episcopal church is on the horizontal—the several entrances, ambulatories, chapels and what-not ramble on for about a hundred yards it seems. If it is not as soaring as a Gothic church, it is certainly not as heavy as Christ Church or St. Paul's. If you have any doubts about the importance of the setting, compare this to St. Mark's or to the Presbyterian church he did in Newark's Ironbound, St. Paul's

Wood was widely referred to by contemporaries as "brilliant" and "famous," and seemingly destined for great prominence when he died at age 41. But New Jersey history knows little of that. Here are ten churches that may help us to remember.

This article is one of a series featuring the architects and builders of the state—none of whom seems to have merited an entry in the Encyclopedia of New Jersey. Previous articles examined the work of J. Cleveland Cady, Jeremiah O'Rourke, and Oscar Teale, and we've called attention here and there to William Kirk, Thomas Roberts, and John Welsh, as well as to contractor-builder-architects Asa Dilts, William Goltra, Aaron Hudson, Henry Leard, and Amos Wilcox. They were all professionals who based their practices in New Jersey, not just who did some of their work here. I would be most appreciative of additional information about any of these men.



Copyright 2006 Frank L. Greenagel