No. 54 December 2005
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Greek Revival, revisited

One of the earliest examples of the Greek Revival style in the state is the Miller Chapel at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Erected in 1830, it has the full portico that we associate with the Parthenon. That is not the dominant variation of Greek Revival here (which we will explore shortly) but certainly one of the best and easily the most recognizable. Greek Revival has been called our first “national style.” How it came to America is a curious and somewhat convoluted history, but one filled with fascinating personalities and details. Although Thomas Jefferson is usually credited with its introduction here, it's a much richer history that begins with a small group of English hedonists known for their drinking and debauchery in the 1730s. The Society of Dilettanti were wealthy, educated aristocrats who held notorious parties—a “mixture of ripe learning and ribald tomfoolery.” Most of them had traveled in the Mediterranean, and brought back marbles, medals, papyri and other collectibles, as well as measured drawings and sketches of the architectural ruins of Greece, Italy, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. They sponsored expeditions and published lavish editions of these drawings (this was a hundred years before photography was invented). By 1780 or so, a few buildings in England exhibit strong Greek Revival elements—fluted columns, a low-pitched roof and a heavy cornice. These were major departures from the Georgian/ Palladian style that dominated religious and public architecture of the period. Unlike the Georgian style, however, we did not pick up Greek Revival from the English. Nor directly from the Greeks, in case you were in doubt. We got many of our ideas about Greek Revival from the French.
     Some of the influence may be traced to Jefferson's time in France. He visited Nimes where there was a major Roman building he wrote glowingly of; but he was a bookish sort, and apparently was more influenced by the the oversize volumes that contained drawings of Greek and Roman antiquity. The French had been a little slower than the English to tour Greece and Roman areas or to amass collections of antiquities (until Napoleon did it in a grand way, stripping whole civilizations of their treasured objects). But the French adopted the Greek style, in dress and architecture, even more enthusiastically than the Brits. And when the Revolution in 1789 caused hundreds of aristocrats to flee France, many came to America, bringing their tastes and in a few cases, their architects with them. George Kennedy's book, Orders from France, tells us that “from 1790 to 1830 and beyond, the backwoods of America were full of [royal] imposters and mountebanks—and highly competent, well-trained French civil engineers.” Benjamin Latrobe (an Englishman trained in France), and Pierre L'Enfant are names well-known to anyone slightly interested in American building, but Pierre Pharoux and Joseph-Jacques Ramée cannot be found even in the most comprehensive of encyclopedias, and both designed grand houses and villas that were much admired and copied. By 1800 there were at least two major public buildings (one in Philadelphia and the other in Wilmington) that were clearly in the Greek Revival mode, as well as a dozen grand villas, several in upstate New York.
     It took twenty-some years for that style to migrate to New Jersey—we had few merchant princes at the time and little need for grand public buildings. The earliest Greek Revival building in the state that I can date with any confidence is the First Baptist church in Middletown (1832). It employs a barely recessed entry with two columns that is known as in antis, on what is otherwise a standard meetinghouse plan. Note the pitch of the roof, which is much too steep for a true Greek Revival building. The in antis feature was to become the most common form of Greek Revival used in this state's religious architecture, and I have seen examples of it from Connecticut down to North Carolina. It does not appear to be used in the northern tier of the state or below Mt Holly, however. I'd like to look briefly at four other nineteenth century churches that are either clearly in the Greek Revival style or that incorporate Greek Revival elements.

First Presbyterian Church of Cranbury
Charles Steadman of Princeton was possibly the architect for this early Greek Revival building, erected in 1839. This has a much wider and deeper recess for the entry than the Middletown Baptist church, the roof line is very shallow, and there are the oversize rectangular windows we usually associate with Greek Revival. Steadman's name is associated with a similar church in Princeton, but I suspect the basic design came from an early planbook by Asher Benjamin. The multi-tiered steeple harkens back to a different period, and, in fact, may be a later addition. Doric columns are employed here in contrast to the more common Ionic columns. The congregation was organized before 1788. The church is listed on the National Register. Other fine examples of this style can be found in Trenton, Mt. Holly, Harlingen, Chester, Raritan, and Sykesville.

Trinity ME in Bridgeton
The building is a fascinating one in its combination of elements from different architectural traditions, particularly in one that was erected in 1850-54. It clearly was influenced by Philadelphia architectural traditions, and most likely is the product of a Philadelphia architect. It incorporates the shallow-pitched roof, the emphasized pediment, the columns and pilasters and tall windows of the Greek Revival, but there are several Italianate details--especially the entrance entablature and the highly stylized guttae and mutales give the appearance of the brackets characteristic of the Italianate style. The in antis entrance has essentially disappeared, and the elongated windows are now the lancet style introduced by the Gothic Revival. The building sits directly across from the Cumberland County courthouse.

New Asbury Meetinghouse, Cape May Courthouse
Built in 1852, this simple meetinghouse has none of the elements we've seen above but it does incorporate a symmetrical gable front with a shallow-pitched roof. There's no pediment, no columns or pilasters, but a Georgian window at the top of the gable and the traditional separate entrances for men and women. I should hesitate to call this Greek Revival at all but many architectural historians call rather similar structures, especially some of the early modest houses in Princeton, "Greek Revival," so I have included it here, having expressed my own reservations. The Methodist Episcopal congregation was organized in 1812 and the church is located on Route 9 in South Seaville.

Cedarville Methodist Episcopal
This large meetinghouse has a classical look because of the prominent pediment and pilasters, but the double brackets are an Italianate influence common throughout the state just after the Civil War. It was built in 1868, and the design is a wooden variation of a brick plan that was very popular among Methodist churches in the state beginning about 1850. I believe the original inspiration might be the George Street Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia, but I have also seen a photograph of an c.1825 Methodist church in Dorset, England which may have provided the initial design. Compare this to the Broadway Methodist church and the Mt Pisgah AME churches in Salem.

     All but the New Asbury meetinghouse are pretty clearly the work of an architect, but there are a half dozen vernacular buildings in the state that start from one of these versions, including a very early black church (Witherspoon Street Presbyterian) in Princeton. With the exception of the Cedarville variation, Greek Revival was no longer used in the state for religious purposes by 1856 or so. It was superseded by the Gothic and the Romanesque Revivals, which many churchmen argued was closer to true Christian principles than the pagan Greek temples. But this quick review shows that we did more than just populate the state with wooden Parthenons in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

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Copyright 2005 Frank L. Greenagel