No. 82  May 2010
The authoritative source
on early churches in New Jersey



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Feature of the month

Greek Revival

"20,000 American buildings bear the indelible imprint of the form of a Greek temple," claims Roger Kennedy, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, in his monumental book entitled Greek Revival America. About 80 of those buildings, including the Hightstown Baptist church (left) are New Jersey churches. Several hundred more in the state are private residences, banks, colleges, or other public structures, most built between 1820 and 1860, but many as late as the 1930s. It is no wonder that Greek Revival was once called this country's "National Style." The lavishly-illustrated book is at least as much about culture and connections as it is about architectural styles, but it's a good excuse to review (again, see the 2001 and 2005 features) the importance of the debt we owe the Parthenon and other ancient Greek temples.

Kennedy emphasizes the idea that there was a political dimension to the Greek Revival, which became popular about the time when Greeks were asserting their independence from their Turkish rulers (1820s). This country identified strongly with that independence movement (the birthplace of democracy and all), although we did nothing to aid it, which is not entirely surprising since President Monroe's emaciated navy was scarcely able to defend American shipping beyond the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Patriotic addresses of the time were replete with assertions of our republic simplicity, and James Fenimore Cooper even wrote of the "Doric" virtues of Washington and Jackson—meaning austere and heroic. Architect Robert Mills, working for Jackson, developed a ceremonious Greek style for the nation's capital, which persisted well into the twentieth century.

The Greek Revival style was readily adapted to domestic architecture. Thousands of frame buildings were erected with a front gable roof of low pitch and a wide cornice; many have entry porches, although those may be modest or full-width with a row of columns, and many frame houses have square pilasters at the corners. This was the dominant style from about 1820 to 1860, so much so it was called the National Style. Residents living in Madison will certainly think of Drew University's Mead Hall, built for Thomas Gibbons in 1832-36, and now the university's administration building. Princeton probably has several dozen Greek Revival residences, and Flemington has several. Although one often thinks of southern palatial mansions, with their two-story columns as the archetype of the style, in fact ,New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois probably have more Greek Revival dwellings than all the other states combined—it was a style that moved west with the frontier.

The earliest Greek Revival church in New Jersey is probably the Miller Chapel at the Princeton Theological Seminary. It was built in 1833, very likely from plans drawn up by Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter. The Greek Revival façade of this building is classicism at its purest, including the steps and the base of the Doric columns. It has been attributed to a local architect-builder, Charles Steadman, but that is doubtful, in my opinion; Steadman worked on the First Presbyterian church in town, where he was responsible for finishing the interior and exterior, and had purchased a design for the building from Walter. It is likely that Steadman served as a general contractor, and Walter, who was known for his classical designs, was responsible for the plan. It has a full portico and is certainly modeled on the Parthenon.

The exceptional First Presbyterian churches in Princeton and Trenton have been discussed here before, so I'll skip over them to call attention to several other notable Greek Revival churches in the state that are less well known.

The Presbyterian church in Fairton (Cumberland County) is a large meetinghouse-style building with several Greek Revival elements—particularly the shallow-pitched roof, pediment, and dentils. The porch is probably a later addition. The original church was built in Fairfield, about a mile south, in 1780, but when the population shifted decidedly to the town of Fairton, the congregation erected this church on Main Street near the center of town in 1837. The form is so familiar that it is easy to overlook the Greek revival elements, but it is clearly in that idiom. First the symmetrical arrangement and the gable-front with a shallow-pitched roof; the entry porchand rectangular windows are features seen on residential buildings, of course, but the accentuated pediment with the row of dentils along the raking cornice is definitely Greek in its antecedents. Even the absence of a steeple or belfry shows the architect kept true to the roots of this style.

 

Charles Steadman was very likely the architect/builder for the early Greek Revival building erected in 1838 in Cranbury (Middlesex County). It is similarly proportioned to the Presbyterian church in Princeton, (although with a wider recess for the entry and windows flanking the main entrance) which was built two years earlier. The multi-tiered belfry and cupola harkens back to a different style (Georgian), and may be a later addition. Note the Doric columns; most of the Greek Revival churches in the state employ Ionic columns (ones with the scroll-like capitols, called volutes), although all those pictured here have Doric capitols.

The Presbyterian church in Sykesville (Burlington County) is a small building, but nicely proportioned and selected by the Historic American Buildings Survey for the full measured drawings treatment. The 11 HABS drawings of the church are fascinating in their detail. Built in 1839, this might be considered a scaled-down copy of the Presbyterian church in Trenton. It was constructed of brick and covered with stucco.

Somerset County has a number of fine Greek Revival churches, mostly Reformed, and built, it appears, from a set of plans that are very similar (but not identical) to the Presbyterian churches in Cranbury, Trenton, Sykesville, and Mount Holly. Griggstown Reformed, erected in 183_ is a fine example, but there are others in Raritan, Pluckemin, South Bound Brook and South Branch.

The Old Bergen Reformed church in Jersey City was erected in 1839 by architect William Kirk. It was founded in 1660, which makes it the oldest congregation in the state, although the original Reformed congregation merged with a Presbyterian congregation. Cornerstones of the earlier churches, one of which resembles the Reformed church in Wycoff, are embedded in the front wall of the church. William H. Kirk & Company of Newark is listed as the builder, as he is on the Presbyterian church in Basking Ridge, erected about the same time as this building. By 1848 Kirk will be listed as "architect" for at least three Reformed churches in Newark. National Register, of course. HABS drawings available.

In Beverly, the First Baptist church, built in 1867 is a large brick building on a substantial stone foundation. Like many churches erected immediately before and after the Civil War, the auditorium is on the second floor, with a basement or ground floor dedicated to Sunday school and other activities. There are a couple of interesting features here, particularly the combination of stone foundation, red brick and the wooden white columns, pediment, and the recessed entry. The in antis plan (a recessed entry) seems to have been more commonly employed in New Jersey than in other states I am familiar with. The raised sanctuary, which provided ample space for a Sunday school and other meeting rooms, which are lighted by window-openings above ground on the sides of the building. Compare this to the very similar church in Mount Holly (below).


Baptist congregations in the mid-nineteenth century often preferred Neoclassical styles, and so in Mount Holly we find one of the few surviving temple-fronted Greek Revival churches in the southern part of the state. It was erected in 1843 and enlarged in 1866. It was sold to the Presbyterian church, who restored it and used it for church-related activities until recently when it was sold again to an independent congregation. The Baptists came to Mount Holly relatively late (about 1800), and this was their second church. As a result of a big revival in 1866, the church was enlarged by extending it to the rear so it could seat 700, and include lecture and Bible-class rooms. Carpeting and upholstering of the pews was accomplished and “an excellent pipe-organ” installed. This is an example of the refinement of the country’s churches that started to be seen about the 1820s and continued through the end of the century. As congregations became more affluent, they desired in their churches many of the comforts and style they enjoyed in their homes—rather adramatic shift in attitude from the earlier Calvinistic insistence on simplicity and the avoidance of worldly trappings that was dominant in most Baptist and Methodist congregations.

The Bridgeton Trinity Methodist church (Cumberland County) is a variation on the basic in antis plan that is common in the state. The building is a fascinating one in its combination of elements from different architectural traditions, particularly the combination of Greek Revival and Neoclassical elements, in addition to the twin lancet Gothic windows that are slightly recessed. Notice the widely-spaced sets of four guttae (square “pegs”) in the soffit of the pediment—an unusually variation in place of the dentils commonly found on Greek revival buildings. It clearly was influenced by Philadelphia architectural traditions, and most likely is the product of a Philadelphia architect. The prominent location, across from the county courthouse, and the size and style of the church indicates how far the Methodist church had come in a generation; in the early decades of the century, when they were little more than a recently-formed counter-cultural sect, they would have built a small wooden-frame church on the outskirts of town.

Hightstown's First Baptist church (top of the page) is the product of a very early congregation, organized in 1745, most likely a daughter congregation of the Old School Baptist church in Hopewell. Although the tower and steeple are the features that immediately catch the eye, a closer look reveals a basic Greek Revival façade, with its shallow-pitched roof, wide cornice, accentuated pediment, and corner pilasters. The round-arch windows are borrowed from the Romanesque, so we have an eclectic style. The church was built in 1857, just as the popularity for Greek Revival had largely faded in favor of the Gothic and the Romanesque. The belfry-clock-steeple are not original, but replace ones damaged by lightning some years ago.

The Methodist Episcopal Church of Centreville (Mercer County) is a beautifully-maintained vernacular church, erected in 1865, that combines several Greek Revival elements—the shallow-pitched roof, accentuated pediment and wide cornice. By the 1860s, architects and builders decided the pronounced pediment and the substantial entablature over the entrance was ceremonially imposing, so we see that feature rather commonly throughout the state, but especially south of Trenton. The church is strikingly similar to the Methodist church in Allentown, which is not far away—almost certainly by the same builders, Elias and Benjamin Rogers, brothers from Allentown who also built the Baptist church there.

 

This large, exceptionally-well maintained Greek Revival building in Hamilton Square (Mercer County), is the Presbyterian congregation’s third church, erected in 1867 across the street from the previous building. It is a stuccoed brick building, 40'x 76', and at one time had a 120 ft. steeple, but that was destroyed in a hurricane in 1877 and was replaced by the shorter belfry seen today. The congregation’s first church was a frame building, replaced by a brick one in 1837. It was heated and had carpeting by 1862. The congregation shared ministers with Allentown and Dutch Neck for years, but large revivals in the 1850s brought in additional members. The church has two stories and a basement. The front elevation is defined by several Greek Revival elements—the shallow-pitched roof, pediment, cornice and pilasters. The new belfry, however, draws from the Queen Anne idiom, a late Victorian style popular in the 1870s, and the elongated round arch windows were a convention of the times. Major additions on the north and east sides were completed in 1929, 1954, 1967, and 2004. The structure has also been renovated approximately every 20 years since it was built. The pews, heating system, lighting, stained-glass windows, organ, and carpeting in the sanctuary were all added or replaced at some point. Both the pulpit and the carved arch over the chancel area were carried across the street from the 1837 sanctuary, and both survive to this day. The original finish is said to have been brownstone, which was common at the time.

Cedarville's Methodist church (Cumberland) is a large meetinghouse with a Greek Revival look because of the prominent pediment and pilasters, but the double brackets are an Italianate influence common throughout the state just after the Civil War. It was built in 1868 and sits across the street from the Presbyterian church. It owes something to the "mother" church of the Methodists—old St. George's Church in Philadelphia, which apart from the architectural details is very similar in its massing. Cedarville is not a large town, but there are also Baptist and Episcopal churches in town. It is one of relatively few old Methodist churches in the southern part of the state that have retained the original wooden clapboards. The congregation is to be commended for the excellent condition of the building. HABS

This large brick Methodist church in Florence (Burlington County) is a nice late-century variation on the Methodist tradition of following the basic plan of their "mother" church, although by this time (the 1880s) many later elements have been adapted and integrated into the form. There are more than a dozen examples in the state, all a little different but generally very recognizable. Some are brick, some wood. All are characterized by a shallow-pitched roof, an accentuated pediment, pilasters at the corners, and tall rectangular windows. There is often a wide cornice, frequently with a row of dentils, but occasionally with spaced brackets. Most have a single entrance with a Neoclassical door surround, but some have three doors. The buildings are invariably symmetrical. Architectural elements that reveal its late-century design include the broken return on the pediment, the round arch windows with drip molds, a tripartite central window, and the large oculus with six-petal mullions high in the gable end. Notice that the arches on the second story are different from those on the ground floor. The brickwork on the front of the building is tighter and more even than on the sides, which was typical of the period. It would be hard to call this a Greek Revival building in the presence of so many other elements from later styles, but one can see a more-or-less steady progression from the earliest forms to this.

Reviewing these churches we can see the accuracy of Kennedy's statement that "the Greek Revival in America was seldom very Greek and almost never scrupulously exact in its use of antique models."


Last month's feature article was adapted from the initial chapter of my forthcoming book on the churches and meetinghouses of Mercer County, titled Asserting Legitimacy, Maintaining Identity: the religious architecture of Mercer County, New Jersey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book will be published this month by the Wooden Nail Press.

The 302 page book includes more than 200 photographs, tables and drawings, an outline of architectural styles, a summary of the religious denominations operating in the state during the early centuries, a glossary of architectural terms, an extensive bibliography, and index. The book will be available from Amazon.com, and the publisher's website, http://woodennailpress.com.