No. 24  April 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

We are pleased to note that the site has been issued a ISSN (Internal Standard Serial Number), the purpose of which is to provide an accurate citing of serials by scholars, researchers, abstracters & librarians.
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We've created a database and photographic inventory containing 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.

Because the emphasis in this website is on the architectural aspects of the early churches of New Jersey, we've noted the architect or master builder wherever that information was available. We have compiled a directory of individuals and firms who worked in the state, and offer it now, even in incomplete form, for suggestions, corrections and additions.

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— Highlights

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When Friends Part

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A History of Warfare

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1895 church, Dover

Vintage photo of the month

Head of the River ME

Endangered churches
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Feature of the month

Bare ruined choirs

In Tuscany a couple of years ago I came upon an old stone abbey, San Galgano—reputedly founded by Charlemagne (which is nonsense, but makes for a better story). It dates to the 14th century, as I recall, but built into its walls were stones, many with carved faces and other symbols, from earlier structures, perhaps predating Charlemagne's eighth century visit to /conquest of northern Italy. I am no expert on Romanesque or Gothic architecture of that period, but I did find something rather strikingly out of place—the building was clearly French Gothic rather than the style typical of that era in Tuscany, which favored the Romanesque. What was most enchanting, however, was that the nave of the abbey was open to the sky. The walls were still standing, but there were none of the usual statues of saints and bishops encumbering the place. The building had been stabilized, but little or no apparent restoration.
     That approach to preservation is typical of many of the ruined abbeys and monasteries of England (in contrast to the missions of California, which in some cases, have been completely rebuilt). I remember in particular Fountains Abbey, Tintern Abbey and Glastonbury Abbey, which is supposedly the burial place of King Arthur and Queen Guinivere. Instead of the gravel flooring found at San Galgano, Glastonbury has a great carpet of grass, rolled and manicured, it seems, for centuries. The abbeys and many of the cathedrals had been destroyed by Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, not more than a generation before Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 73, of the “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” And Tintern Abbey is of course known to all English majors from Wordsworth's poem.

Now the point of that too brief excursion into Tuscan and English history and literature is to bring into relief some of the pleasure one might find in the ruins of a few of the 19th century stone churches in New Jersey. They lack antiquity and an appropriate bard, of course, as well as size, workmanship and legends, but they seem to me to be worth a visit, for several possess a charm lacking in many of their more intact brethren. So this month's feature will take you on a little tour of six of the ruined churches of the state.

We'll begin in Newark in Lincoln Park, an area that was once very fashionable but was allowed to deteriorate and only recently is coming back through the efforts of a number of local residents. Lincoln Park is also graced by the most ornate of the city's six Dutch Reformed churches, the Clinton Avenue church, built in 1870, but our subject is the older South Park Presbyterian church, erected in 1853. Lincoln spoke to a throng from its steps in 1861, from whence came the name of the park. (It is notable however, that New Jersey voted for Lincoln's opponents both times he ran for President.) As the area drifted downwards, the congregation moved away, and from 1974 to 1989, this fine Renaissance Revival building housed the Lighthouse Temple, and in 1992 a fire destroyed the nave. Only the façade remains, but that façade with its two classical towers (tempiettos) was apparently regarded as one of the premier examples of the style, as the building is featured in several books on American architecture—one of the few buildings in the state that receives any attention from architectural historians. The architect, John Welsh, also designed the First Reformed church in Jersey City and the High Street Presbyterian (now St James AME) church.

If changing demographics and fire brought about the destruction of South Park, fire alone did the job for Jersey City's North Baptist church. Only the façade, the tower and the chapel next door remain of this imposing building, erected in 1885; the nave is completely gone. The variegated stone in the arches and other details testify to the past affluence of the congregation. The adjacent chapel remains in good condition, at least from the exterior. When I last visited the site three years ago, it appeared that someone had staked out the entry foyer and was living there. The style is basically Romanesque Revival, but typical of the period, there are also Gothic and Italianate elements. And this one was built of brick, not stone.

Next, we'll head west about 40 miles into the extreme southern part of Morris county until we come to Long Valley, once known as German Valley, sited on the South Branch of the Raritan River. Settled by German immigrants sometime before the Revolutionary War, there were both Reformed and Lutheran families in the valley so they jointly erected a stone church in 1774. Such "union" churches were not uncommon in New Jersey, and one frequently finds a church that was at one time shared by Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran, and later, Methodist congregations. There is a newer (1832) Lutheran church almost across the street from this ruin, but no longer a Reformed church in the immediate vicinity. This time, not fire, but water was the culprit. There was a hole in the roof to allow smoke to escape, but that also let water in, and the roof deteriorated and fell. Large pieces of one wall are missing, undoubtedly the result of “quarrying” by locals to build their own foundations and structures. The church is fenced off, but one can see all that is there from the nearby road. Still, it is pleasant to think of the walls stabilized and a grass carpet which allowed visitors to walk through and experience the dimensions of a church built by the first settlers to the area.

Only a couple of miles away lies another ruin of another German Lutheran church, although one not nearly so old. The Mt. Bethel Evangelical Lutheran church was built in 1844, apparently out of spite by a New York minister who was denied the pastorship of the well-established Lutheran church in nearby New Germantown (renamed Oldwick because of anti-German feelings in the wake of World War I). When the minister moved away, membership declined and the building was sold to a Methodist congregation, which defaulted and the building was then acquired by the Spruce Run Lutheran church, also in Hunterdon county. Spruce Run operated it as a sort of outpost from 1864 until 1896, when it was apparently abandoned. Virtually unknown to all but a few residents, it was referred to as the "Swack church" from the name of the mason who built it, a local character called “Stuttering Jake” Swackhammer. There are a number of grave stones in the adjacent burial ground, which is occasionally cleaned up by the Boy Scouts, but some residents would like to see the two standing walls torn down, citing the apparent danger of an attractive nuisance.

Several miles further into Hunterdon county and we will come across the ruins of the Bethlehem Baptist church, built in 1858. Its stucco-over-stone construction is typical of many of the 19th century churches in the western part of the state. The congregation was a flourishing one, but members gradually left to form three other congregations in villages about five or six miles away. The building was abandoned about 1900. Eventually the roof rotted and collapsed, but the walls are largely intact, and some of the detail of the wall behind the altar can still be seen. I understand that the cost of stabilization is high, so there is local sentiment to tear the building down, because, the thinking goes, "since we can't afford to maintain it, some day someone is going to get killed climbing around there." That would be a pity (tearing it down, I mean). The building is clearly visible on the south side of Interstate 78 a few miles west of Clinton.

There is happier news when we complete our journey by traveling north about 30 miles into Warren county, north of Blairstown. I was photographing the old church in Millbrook and was unaware of the existence of another old church in the area when I first came upon it, located on a prominent rise on one of the really obscure (to me) backroads in an area of many obscure backroads. A hamlet (Spring Valley) grew up in the 1840s, apparently around a mill and then a Christian (Campbellite) church, which was erected about that time. The stucco-over-stone walls have been well stabilized by the Hardwick Township Historical Society and the building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places, again, a credit to the Historical Society. One can wander among the grave markers and through the building, also open to the sky. One would not wish for any greater restoration.

These churches are no longer endangered—they are past that; still, it would be a loss to see what remains disappear. Unless more interest is taken, neglect and weather will eventually bring down the remaining walls of most of the churches featured here. Yet I am drawn to these ruins in a way that Shakespeare knew when he closed that 73rd Sonnet with the line, “to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”



Copyright © 2003 Frank L. Greenagel