No. 9  December 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

Less is more: the influence of St. James the Less

Tracing one's roots is no less fascinating in intellectual or artistic history as in genealogy, although the records one examines are of a different order. Where did this idea, be it a musical tradition, philosophical orientation, scientific inquiry, or style of architecture, first show up and how did it spread? What are its central themes and variations? In an earlier issue we looked at the rise of Gothic Revival in American religious architecture, and this month we'll revisit that period, focusing on one of the most important churches in the country, one just across the river in Philadelphia.
The ultimate roots of one stream of Gothic Revival lie across the Atlantic, in England, so let's begin in Cambridge in the early 1840s, when a group of English churchmen decided to influence Anglican church building in "the colonies," by making available measured drawings of specific English parish churches, mostly built in the 14th century. They did so largely in reaction to what they perceived as a growing secularism in the Anglican church, exemplified by the widespread use of Greek Revival, and to a lesser extent, the fanciful medievalism of some architecture of the 1830s (see St. Michael's church, Trenton), with its octagonal towers, crenellated parapets and applied ornaments above pointed windows.

In 1843, a leader in the Episcopal church in this country asked friends in the Cambridge Camden Society to help him obtain plans for a simple church in correct ecclesiological taste, which might be used as a pattern for small, impecunious parishes that were springing up in the US. He was sent plans and drawings of St. Michael's, in Long Stanton, Cambridgeshire, built about 1230, and those designs were used in the construction of St. James the Less, located near Laurel Hill cemetery in Philadelphia. Although American architect William Notman is occasionally credited with the design, probably because he had a hand in design of the cemetery, the actual drawings were probably prepared by one G.G. Place and revised by William Butterfield, the official designer for the Camden Society.

Notice particularly the bell cote, the pronounced westfront with the strong vertical buttresses and flared corner buttresses, the south entrance, and the steep slope to the roof, features that we will see repeated in Episcopal churches, and even in some Presbyterian and Catholic ones, during the next several decades. The Anglican church was especially concerned that the chancel be separate from the nave, and that it be well-proportioned, meaning deep. St. James the Less "was a careful and expensive reproduction of a medieval model, [and] it established the authority of the English parish church styles which had been tentatively introduced by [New Jersey Bishop George Washington] Doane."

While St. James was going up, architect Richard Upjohn was building St. Mary's church across the river in Burlington. Certainly he visited St. James several times, for there is a remarkable change in his style that dates to that period. "The parish churches that emerged from Upjohn's office after 1847 provide ample evidence that he knew St James the Less. The proportions and the relationships between the parts of a building and the feeling for materials in his work change abruptly in 1847 and 1848." And it was Upjohn, who designed several churches in this state, who was largely responsible for the popularity of Gothic Revival for smaller churches.

Only three years later we see one of Upjohn's smallestchurches in the state, built to the basic design of St. James. Matawan's Trinity Church was built in 1850; it "repeats, in brick and brownstone, [St James'] bellcote, buttressed west front, and intimate scale." Although it now serves as a restaurant, even the interior has been reasonably well preserved.

Christ Church, in Elizabeth (often cited as one of the finest Gothic Revival churches in the country, but now torn down) was designed and built by Upjohn in 1853; its front bears unmistakable resemblance to St. James. Woodbury's Christ Church, erected in 1856 in Salem county, also bears a strong resemblance to St. James, as does a German Lutheran church in Camden, built in 1857.

Trinity Church, Woodbridge, organized c 1698, erected this building in 1860 after the second one burned. Tradition has it that Richard Upjohn designed the church, although the architect on the site was Harrison Condit of Newark. The interior bears few marks of Upjohn's style, but the plan and exterior are certainly similar. Upjohn often made his plans available for a modest fee, or none, which may then have been revised and carried out by local architect/builders.

In 1867, a Presbyterian congregation in Stockton (Hunterdon) erected this stone building that owes much to Upjohn, and more than a decade later, two Catholic churches, one in Bound Brook (Somerset) and another in Boonton (Morris), erected churches that owe a similar debt. There are dozens of churches across the county whose lineage can be traced back through Upjohn to St. James and ultimately to St. Michael's, including another I just learned about in Toronto that was built in 1858 by an important Canadian architect from plans supplied by the Cambridge Camden Society.

The important aspect of St. James, according to knowledgeable critics, is not simply the general design, but the feeling for the materials and the articulation of ornament and scale. The careful and expensive reproduction of a medieval model represented by St. James established the authority of English parish church styles. Let us therefore be grateful for Less.




Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel