No. 80 March 2010
The authoritative source on early churches of New Jersey

About this site
We've created a database and photographic inventory on more than half the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each month. We welcome and solicit all contributions and suggestions from our visitors.

How to use this site

Architects & builders
Consult the database
Annotate the database
Upload a photo
Suggest a church for inclusion

List of churches, by county

Photographic notes
Links to related sites

Endangered churches

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 50s—so 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 churches which were built to accommodate 600 toPlainfield - 7th Dat Baptist 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 sects—I 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 see.

In my home county of Hunterdon, 23 of the surviving 101 churches dating back to the nineteenth century no longer hold religious services—they serve as manufacturing operations, town halls and fire halls, retail operations, a museum and 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 them.

Newarl -South Park PresbyterianClearly, 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 be:

St. 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.