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First Presbyterian Church
Salem, Salem County
Salem's First Presbyterian church's design is often called a high Victorian style, but that's somewhat misleading. The round arch windows and mannered blind arcading along the raking cornice makes this a Romanesque church, which was more acceptable to Presbyterian congregations who wanted something ornate and medieval without the association with Catholic or Episcopal building traditions. The church was built to a plan I believe was created by Samuel Sloan, a noted Philadelphia architect, for it appears in one of his books, although the credited architect is John McArthur, Jr., another architect from Philadelphia. McArthur studied with a very important Philadelphia architect, Thomas Ustick Walter, but not with Sloan. It was not uncommon for an architect to work up detailed plans from those found in published plan books such as Sloan's—in fact, that was one of the purposes of those books.
The congregation was organized in 1821 and this church built in 1856.
The highly stylized blind arcading and elaborate paneling is often seen in mid-century plans for upscale churches, but is rarely found in actuality, as budget constraints required some compromise with the architect's plans. The several pinnacles and other decorative elements are probably very close to Sloan's original drawing. The builder was Augustine Van Kirk, who had a reputation for being the finest builder in the region.
Derry says that following the Revolution, Presbyterians in Salem helped to rebuild the Episcopal church that had been destroyed during the war with the understanding that they would be permitted to hold services there when no Episcoplal minister was present. However, they were locked out when a new Anglican priest forbade anyone not ordained by the Episcopal Church to hold services in an Episcopal church. Plans were made immediately by Presbyterian sympathizers and other citizens for a new church, funds raised, and the building completed seven months later, in 1821. That brick building was the congregation's first, and it was modified extensively until the 1850s when it was clear the congregation had outgrown it and desired "a more commodious house."