During the preparation of my book on the old churches of the state, four nineteenth-century churches in Hunterdon County gave up the ghost, merged with others or simply disbanded and put their old buildings up for sale. None of those buildings were particularly distinguished architecturally; no Continental, or even Hessian soldiers were ever quartered there, and none were the salient for the antislavery movement of the 1840s and 50sso historically as well as architecturally, one might argue there was little worth preserving. And yet, that trend should be of concern.
In dozens of other communities, many
were built to accommodate 600 to 800 people, now seat the 30 or 40 mostly
older women who show up on an average Sunday. Many of the churches cut
costs by sharing a minister, as they did in the nineteenth century,
but still lack the financial strength to perform basic maintenance and
repairs. In Newark, Hoboken, Jersey City, Trenton and Camden, many of
these formerly grand structures now house Pentecostal and Evangelical
sectsI heard a rockin' coming from a fine old 1874 Presbyterian
church in East Orange, now sheltering a Haitian congregation, although
it, too, falls far short of filling even the front and center sections.
Some of these congregations look well-established and settled in "for
good," but others appear transient, leaving the future of the church
in doubt. Many old buildings now house social services agencies and
child care centers, who don't usually have the money to make drastic
alterations, but others have been gutted to be used simply for the space
they enclose. A few, like St Joseph's in Newark, have been carefully
reworked for new uses, but leaving much of the interior intact. On the
other hand, there are examples like Christ Church, also in Newark, which
have been so thoroughly "renovated" that it is painful to
In my home county of Hunterdon, 23 of
the surviving 101 churches dating back to the nineteenth
century no longer hold religious servicesthey serve as manufacturing
operations, town halls and fire halls, retail operations, a museum
a bread-and-breakfast. They still exist, so we should, I suppose, be
grateful. And yet, I
think few of us are not troubled by this sort of adaptive reuse. One
problem is that many
lack even a passing mention in the various township histories. They
are forgotten and undocumented, but perhaps were no less influential
in shaping the character of the people and the society that erected
Clearly, a significant part of our cultural and historical heritage is at risk, and much of it will disappear. Only the facade remains of an architecturally important church in Newark, from whose steps President Lincoln addressed a huge crowd in 1861. Throughout the state, the elaborate scrollwork, cornices, corbels and dentils, testifying to the skill and imagination of generations of European immigrants who built the Greek and Gothic Revival buildings in Lincoln's lifetime, are now covered by aluminum siding. Seven Presidents worshipped at a wonderfully eccentric church in Long Branch; only rats and raccoons attend today, although the organization recently was awarded a major grant for restoration. Residents of New York City didn't know what they had lost when the old Penn Station was torn down until they saw the photographs of Berenice Abbott, and were haunted by the impossibility of bringing it back. So let us capture as best we can what remains.
This section, in particular, is devoted to those churches that are at risk. But we'd like you, our visitors, to participate in the process by nominating your favorites. My friends who care about old churches and I cannot be everywhere, cannot know of the churches and synagogues in your community that are being advertised in the commercial real estate section, or are simply slowly deteriorating from lack of a sound roof and a coat of paint.
For the moment, the criteria I have used when selecting churches for
inclusion in this initial list are rather simple; the building should
- Architecturally interesting, or of some historical significance
- Lacking a congregation with the financial resources to maintain the building
- In deteriorating condition
- located where the property has high commercial value
In addition to the churches noted above, there are several I would nominate as endangered; unfortunately all these buildings were on my initial list in 2002 and little seems to have been done. It appears that we may take one listed church off the original endangered list; the Methodist church in Jacobstown has been acquired by the Rose of Sharon Evangelical Lutheran Church and hopefully will be maintained by a congregation that recognizes the architectural and historic merit of the building. Another church that was originally pictured here, the Methodist church in Imlaystown, has now been beautifully restored, apparently as a residence. The President's church in Long Branch has received a major grant for restoration and we are hopeful that much work will at last remove that building from our endangered list.
Lucy's Roman Catholic church, Jersey City
Beth Israel synagogue, Atlantic City
Immaculate Conception, Trenton
Unification chapel, Elizabeth
St. John's Episcopal church, Jersey City
Seventh Day Baptist church, Plainfield
St. James Chapel, Elberon
Lots of preservation grants have been awarded to churches in the last few years, but it is expensive to do the research necessary to support an application, and few congregations have members with the knowledge to do the research and prepare such an application. Preservation New Jersey issues and annual 10 Most endangered sites" list which gets a lot of media attention and, together with their other efforts, probably aids in the preservation efforts. But there is simply not enough money to save everything, so the granting agencies and foundations must be selective.
Please send the name and location of an at-risk church. We'll photograph it, research its history and post it for all to see. We might even help save one or two.