No. 5 August 2001
to use this site
of the month
Anyone who has spent the last five years photographing and researching the state's old churches is bound to have some favorites; I do, and the urge to write about one of them from time to time, and to display more than a single image, is irresistible. Burlington's St. Mary's is one of those favorites so this month's feature is more of an indulgence than an attempt to explain some aspect of the state's churchscape.
This is the second St. Mary's church on the site, built within view of the first, which was erected in 1702. Planned in 1846, the drawings date from 1846 to 1853, but the church was largely constructed between 1846 and 1848. Richard Upjohn, the English-born architect, had measured drawings of St. John's Shottesbrooke, a 14th century English parish church, in hand when he began, and a clear directive from Bishop George Washington Doane, head of the Episcopal Church in New Jersey, to produce a church that embodied not only Gothic elements, but which embraced the liturgical aspects of the medieval Gothic churches of England.
Upjohn used a cruciform plan, with stone spire directly over the crossing; his design for Trinity church in New York City, built a year or two before St. Mary's, has the tower aligned with the axis of the nave, and in most of his other churches, including Grace Church on Broad Street in Newark, the tower stands beside the nave. In many churches the transition from the square base of the spire to the polygonal shape of the shaft is awkward or abrupt, but Upjohn handles the transformation gracefully, with a slightly concave curve. The altar is in the east, with the south door as the principal entrance. The roofline of the chancel is the same as the nave, an unusual feature in a parish church, and the transepts are slightly wider than the nave, also unusual. Although there are no aisles, the church seats 800 in the nave, transepts and the three galleries. The material is local sandstone. Neither the interior or the exterior is excessively ornamented; later architects often gave undue, and unnecessary, prominence to the buttresses, but St. Mary's is clearly high church style. The hammerbeam supports for the roof and the quiet loftiness of the crossing, with the four pair of double windows placed in the corners of the tower, are among the finest features of the building, although to focus on a single element or two is to miss the graceful proportions of the whole.
The church was severely damaged by fire in recent years, but has been perfectly restored. It is worth a journey, especially in May when the trees are just budding out and the leaves don't obscure your view of the entire building. While in Burlington, you can also see the original St. Mary's (the oldest church in the state), a fine Friends meetinghouse, the important Chapel of Holy Innocents on the grounds of St. Mary's School, and an early AME church.
A few weeks ago I visited Trinity Church in Princeton, designed by Upjohn's son in 1868 and was struck by the remarkable similarity in the crossing between the two churches, which initially seemed were not very much alike at all. Upon reexamination of the two churches, there is a substantial similarity in plan, except for the tower and Trinity's rusticated stone, which became popular with the Romanesque Revival in mid-century.
For additional information about the rise of Gothic architecture, and the role of St. Mary's in that development, see Phoebe Stanton's book, The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture.