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  early churches of New Jersey

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Walpack Center Methodist Episcopal Church
Walpack Center, Sussex County

 

The Methodist church in Walpack may look fairly conventional, but inside is a feature unique in the state—the walls, ceiling and even the staircases are covered with fresco-like painting. Technically, I think the term is secco, for painting on dry plaster that has been prepared with a wash, but in any case I have not seen or heard of anything like the extent of these decorations elsewhere in the state. They are really dazzling, with some colors remaining as vivid as the day they were painted.

The Baroque device (about five feet in diameter) seen on the left is the painting in the very center of the ceiling, from which may have hung a large chandelier (or oil lamp—the building was not electrified until 1947). The vertical strips are lathes that were attached to the ceiling and walls so they could be covered with a fibreboard to provide insulation and deaden the terrible acoustics of the original interior. When some of the wallboard was removed, the paintings were revealed.

In fact, the large side walls in the auditorium are still covered with the wallboard. The congregation has long since disbanded, although some former members still live in the region. The Army Corp of Engineers took over the town twenty-some years ago in the now abandoned Tocks Island Dam project. When that was finally killed, the Department of the Interior was put in charge of the buildings and lands acquired by the government. So the question of restoration or even preservation is up in the air over authority as well as the cost. The Walpack Historical Society for the moment is considering the options.

The name of the artist in unknown. There is evidence that the painting was done by the time the building was dedicated in 1872, which prompts the additional question of how long it would have taken an individual, working on his back in Sistine Chapel/Michaelangelo fashion, to complete the work just on the ceiling. In the shallow alcove behind the altar there is a trompe l'oeil painting of a classical portico, but that gets a bit lost when confronted with the spectacular ceiling.

The Methodist class was organized in 1834, a period that saw other Methodist congregations founded in the region—in Centerville (now Layton) and Hainesville. At that time it was called the Pleasant Valley Episcopal Church (there is no indication it was formally affiliated with the Anglican Church). The first meetinghouse was erected of stone in 1837, and in 1871 it was declared unfit for worship and a new building was authorized. The congregation advertised for bids, providing only the barest of specifications (which was fairly common at the time). There was originally a 60 foot spire atop the belfry but that was repeatedly struck by lightining and removed sometime in the early 1900s. In 1872, the congregation changed its name to the Walpack Center Methodist Episcopal Church, which is what is incised on the cornerstone.
     

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