No. 42  December 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Historic Trust awards millions to 22 old churches

The New Jersey Historic Trust has awarded $132 million in grants to 329 preservation projects over the last four years. They just announced a new round of grants for repair and stabilization for 85 sites, including twenty-some historic churches. That's a good enough excuse to focus on several of those buildings, particularly ones that have not been featured here before.

The Old Manahawkin Baptist Church in Stafford Township, Ocean County, has been beautifully maintained as the town's Community Center. It is a meetinghouse which combines elements from several styles—a Greek Revival pediment, Italianate brackets in the cornice, and a little railing around the lower tier of the belfry that comes directly from the Georgian idiom.

In 1780 the Fairton Presbyterian Church was erected—unusual because there was very little construction of any kind in a state devastated by fighting armies and Tory-Patriot raids. It is a symmetrical two-story stone building with nicely proportioned windows, obviously influenced by builders familiar with the Georgian style, although one would hesitate to describe it as Georgian because of its simplicity. It is still used for occasional services, but the congregation long since moved into a larger church. Somewhere there is an account that British soldiers appropriated the building materials that had been assembled for the church, and the congregation was obliged to delay construction until they could collect more stone and timber. The building is surrounded by an extensive cemetery and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cumberland County.

The proper name of this odd church is Saint James Chapel, but it is widely known as the Church of the Presidents because seven Presidents, beginning with Grant, attended services there at one time. The church was erected in 1869 and was designed by the New York firm of Potter and Robertson, and is on the National Register. In spite of that, it has been allowed to deteriorate seriously. It's a pretty strange mixture of styles, but interesting.

St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New Brunswick was organized in 1829, a time when Catholics did not yet have full political and religious rights in the state. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1856, but the building was not completed until 1865. It sits across the street from Rutgers University and its fine Gothic tower is visible from much of downtown. Patrick Keeley, an Irish immigrant who became the foremost designer of Catholic churches in this country, was the architect. He designed several other Catholic churches in Jersey City, Newark, Mt Holly, Washington, and Hoboken, and about 600 more throughout the country. Keeley credited Richard Upjohn, a major factor in the Gothic Revival style in this country for his inspiration.

There are two large Methodist churches in Salem, the newest of which is the Broadway Methodist Church, organized in 1850 and built in 1858. It is prominently located on Salem's main thoroughfare, almost across from the courthouse, which befitted the Methodist's status in 1858 as the largest denomination in the state. The pediment is unusually heavy—a fashion at that time, with substantial brackets and supported by pilasters with accentuated capitols. This was a very upscale design, and was certainly influenced by St. George's, an important Methodist church in Philadelphia.

I have no information about the First Presbyterian Church in Rumson, but photographed it last winter because of its rambling late Victorian style. The porte cochère on the right served to announce to passersby that this was a church whose members were accustomed to arriving in carriages. The religious architecture of the last half of the nineteenth century is much richer because of the social messages it was able to convey about the taste and status of its members through its scale, its location, the materials used in its construction, as well as its architectural style.

Here's a list of the other eighteenth and nineteenth century churches that were awarded grants by the trust:
 • Beverly, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church (Burlington County)
 • Voorhees, Glendale Methodist Church (Camden County)
 • Deerfield, Presbyterian Church (Cumberland County)
 • Swedesboro, Trinity Episcopal (Old Swedes) Church (Gloucester County)
 • Bayonne, First Federated Church
 • Jersey City, Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church
 • Jersey City, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church
 • Lambertville, Centenary Methodist Church (Hunterdon County)
 • Tewskbury Township, Zion Lutheran Church (Hunterdon County)
 • Hightstown, First Methodist Church (Mercer County)
 • Middletown, Christ Church (Monmouth County)
 • Salem, Memorial Baptist Church (Salem County)
 • Bernardsville, St. Bernards Episcopal Church (Somerset County)
 • Elizabeth, First Presbyterian Church

Grants ranged from $9,000 to $500,000, and all were awarded on the basis of competitive bidding. The documentation requested as part of the application is extensive, and I'm sure it was difficult for some of the smaller organizations to provide, but those plans and historical records are an additional benefit to this program, beyond the tangible benefit of preservation.

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Copyright 2004 Frank L. Greenagel