No. 28 August 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Variations of the Gothic

The Gothic influence in America, exemplified in the painting of the dour farm couple posed in front of their Gothic house (by Grant Wood), has been pervasive. When I first began to photograph the old churches of the state six years ago, I thought anything built between the Civil War and the end of the century was Victorian, unless it had pointed arch windows, in which case it was Gothic. Having visited some 900 churches, and half as many books, I realize what an erroneous misconception that was. But what is the Gothic idiom? As a photographer, I have little need of the fine distinctions of the architectural historian—between Georgian and Federal, for example—but I do find that tracing the development of a style is fascinating, and looking for patterns and influences even more so. Sorting out the varieties of Gothic in the state, therefore, has been irresistible.
       In this article, the first of two on the topic, I’ll sketch the varieties of Gothic, which to my photographic eye, includes four major themes: (1) the early Gothic, covering the period from the 1820s to the mid-1840s, (2) the Gothic Revival, introduced by the Episcopal church in the 1840s and which remained popular well into the twentieth century, (3) the Catholic Gothic, which seems to me distinct from the English Gothic of the Gothic Revival, and (4) the permutations of the Victorian/romantic Gothic, which started out as board-and-batten and evolved into the Carpenter Gothic and then into the Stick style by the end of the century.

The incorporation of Gothic elements in early New Jersey religious architecture has no particular coherence—for the most part there is a single element in common, a lancet, or pointed-arch window. That feature was shunned by the Puritan church of New England and the Quakers in the mid-Atlantic states, but other denominations seemed to have no prejudice against it. We can find a handful of late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century examples that would never be labeled Gothic, but they include pointed-arch windows: the stone Reformed church in Neshanic (1772) (Somerset County), six Reformed churches in Bergen County built between 1773 and 1819, Old Greenwich (1835) (Warren County), the wood framed Zion Lutheran church (1820) in Saddle River, the Greek Revival St James Episcopal church (1836) in Piscataway, and the vernacular Presbyterian church in Kingwood Township (1837) (Hunterdon County). In New Haven, Washington and New York, there were fully realized Gothic churches, with buttresses, pinnacles, elaborate tracery, and lancet windows in the 1820s, but that style did not arrive in this state until later. There were no Catholic churches in New Jersey in this era, so, with the exception of the Puritans (the Congregational and Presbyterian congregations founded by settlers from New England) and the Quakers, there does not appear to be any liturgical or denominational significance attached to the Gothic style . . .yet.
       In the late eighteenth century in England, the son of a former Prime Minister, a novelist and a bit of a dilettante, Horace Walpole, the 5th Earl of Oxford, borrowed from any Gothic source he could find in remodeling an old country home. That manor, which he named Strawberry Hill, was much admired and copied in England, and its influence soon was seen in homes in the Philadelphia area. Its asymmetrical features included towers and battlements, as well as Gothic windows, arches, and gables. It had an enormous influence, which shows up in two fine examples of fantasy Gothic or mock medieval churches, one in Hope (Warren County) and another in Trenton.
St Luke's church, erected in 1832, was the design of William Bulgin, its Episcopal minister. It has several early Gothic elements, including the two quatrefoils insets, the tracery in the windows and doorway, and the pinnacles on the elaborated belfry. The dominant element, of course, are the battlements of the façade, which one hardly expects to see on a religious structure. But battlements are also the dominant feature of St Michael's church, also Episcopal, in Trenton. Official sources say this church on Broad Street was built by 1753, but that is highly improbable, as far as this façade is concerned. A date between 1813, when the earliest church on this site was entirely rebuilt and 1853, when major renovations were made, is more likely. The crenellated battlements and curious curve above the window can be traced with much confidence to Strawberry Hill.
       Fantasy Gothic did not last, except for armories and a few libraries, but other elements of the Gothick (as Walpole termed it) were incorporated in cottages and residences in the state from the 1830s—gables, towers, asymmetrical floor plans, and lancet windows, were to persist and morph into the elaborate barge boards, porches, and balustrades of the later Victorian or Carpenter Gothic styles.
       Thus, the Gothic idiom in religious architecture in the state up until the 1830s was generally limited, with the exception of St Luke's and St Michael's, to a few pointed arch windows. But in the same decade (1832) that those churches were erected, an Episcopal congregation in Middletown built a simple wood-frame meetinghouse with Gothic windows and a tower with Gothic pinnacles (above). Charles Strickland, an important Philadelphia architect, designed a small Gothic-style church for an Episcopal congregation in Salem in 1838, and two years later, a similar one in Bridgeton, for a Presbyterian congregation. Both are based on a design he did for a church in Delaware a couple of years earlier. None attempt to reproduce any actual historical church, but draw freely on Gothic elements. They are basically symmetrical, Wren-style churches with a tower centered on the nave and a single entrance through the base of the tower. There is no transept and no chancel, and except for the fact that they were built of stone, there are few major differences between the Middletown church and the Strickland churches. But Strickland's buildings are clearly in a Gothic mode, whereas the earlier buildings simply have a couple of Gothic elements.
       In 1843, another Episcopal church was erected, a favorite of mine in Rahway, that is also in the same mode as Strickland’s buildings—an early Gothic and clearly a forecast of something to come. The following year, an Episcopal congregation in Mt Holly erected a fine, Gothic church—St. Andrew's—not an authentic medieval building, but certainly all elements of the building were within the Gothic idiom.
With the design of architect John Notman's St Thomas’ church in Glassboro in 1846, we see the first example in this state of a turn to archaeological methods in what has come to be known as Gothic Revival. There are not only more of the Gothic elements to be found there, but there is some indication that Notman drew explicitly on a specific English church for his inspiration. Notman had done an earlier building in Burlington based on a specific English church, but there is evidence that the plans for St Thomas preceded that of Holy Innocents chapel, so I have given it pride of place until further evidence comes to my attention. St Thomas signaled a significant change in religious architecture in the state—a conscious attempt, particularly within the Episcopal church, to build authentically in the style of the thirteenth and fourteenth century English parish church. That style persisted well into the twentieth century, and spread well beyond the Episcopal denomination. Indeed, it became the dominant style for colleges for generations.
       I shall use the term Gothic Revival in its restricted sense of a building that incorporates authentic medieval elements and methods, including a chancel separated from the nave (often by a transept), an altar oriented to the east (with the main entry on the south rather than opposite the altar), lancet windows with stained glass, buttresses, elaborate open timber work in the ceiling, and the use of stone in preference to wood or brick. Architects associated with this style include Richard Upjohn, John Notman, and Frank Wills. Among the outstanding Gothic Revival churches in the state are: Burlington's St Marys, Newark's Grace and the House of Prayer, St Mark's in West Orange, St Peter's in Spotswood, and St Peter's in Perth Amboy. Note that all are Episcopal churches. Presbyterian and Methodist congregations certainly built Gothic-style buildings from mid-century on, but I know of none that are derived directly from English parish churches. In fact, most appear to combine elements of the Romanesque Revival with Gothic, and one could argue whether a church is basically Romanesque or Gothic.
       I have dealt with the Gothic Revival in previous issues, and will not cover the same ground again, except to note that Upjohn adapted the board-and-batten construction of residential designs by A. J. Davis of Llewllyn Park fame (even more famous is Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, NY), to provide the verticality he sought when attempting to translate a stone design into a modestly-priced wooden church. The board-and-batten style for religious buildings is considered by architectural historians to be part of the Gothic Revival; it is clearly a part of the Romantic tradition that will flower in the middle decades of the century as Carpenter Gothic, and morph into the end-of-century Stick style.

The Gothic and the Romanesque soon displaced Greek Revival as the dominant style in religious, academic, and civic architecture. Because Gothic is a more expensive style to build, and required greater craftsmanship, especially when using stone, the Gothic influenced, but did not displace, all other styles. It was one of several revival styles, including Greek, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Egyptian, that flourished in the nineteenth century. In next month's feature, I will cover one of the other Gothic themes that served widely for the remainder of the century.



Copyright © 2003 Frank L. Greenagel