No. 32 February 2004
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250


  
   
   
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Feature of the month

Builder’s Guides

What a surprise to encounter a polished Georgian entrance in an uncoursed stone building, erected in 1819, well off the major roads in Hunterdon County, by a denomination that eschewed as too worldly almost everything about contemporary life, including singing, education, and missionaries. It is perhaps impossible at this point to reconstruct why they felt a stylish entrance for their meetinghouse was acceptable, but we can with some confidence figure out how, in an area with no architects and no tradition of fine homes or public buildings, that was accomplished.
     
The Old Stone Meetinghouse in Locktown is not an anomaly. Not only did remarkably accomplished churches get built by the middle of the eighteenth century, but they sported fashionable detailing in the door and window treatment, the altars, cornices, and other cabinetry. Old Swedes in Gloucester, the Reformed Church in Hackensack, and the First Presbyterian Churches in Elizabeth, Newark, and Bloomfield come immediately to mind. This sophistication is to be found in numerous churches by the waning years of the century, and even in some of the backwaters by the early decades of the next. All of these buildings were probably considered provincial compared to what was current in London, or even New York and Philadelphia, but they were anything but crude imitations, as anyone who has ever visited the restored First Presbyterian Church in Newark can testify. We do not have to wait until the prosperity brought by the opening of the canals and railroads in the decades just before the Civil War to find accomplished work, not only in the grand mansions, but in relatively small rural churches. Yet we know that there were few architects practicing in the state until well into the 1800s. How did this happen? The answer lies in the pages of a builder’s guide.

By the time of American Independence, English books on architecture were generally a staple in the library of the gentry. Although gentlemen-architects of Thomas Jefferson’s caliber were unusual, most wealthy planters and merchants were well-acquainted with the architecture of England and Italy, and almost certainly would have taken an active role in the design of their own houses. By 1740, the Carpenter’s Company in Philadelphia had a library of architectural books which they lent out to guild members, but the average rural carpenter-builder would not have had access to those books, of course. What that local carpenter-builder would have had, however, was a pocket-size builder’s guide—a handbook with elementary arithmetic and geometry, cross sections of moldings, cornices, pediments, and pedestals, and hints that allowed him to reproduce the fanlights, cornices, and other details characteristic of Georgian architecture.
     An early builder’s guide was Batty Langley's The Builder's Jewel, published in 1741, followed by William Pain’s The Practical Builder in 1774. Americans soon got into the business; Asher Benjamin’s, The County Builder’s Assistant (1797), drawing heavily from Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, ultimately went through six editions. A New Jersey architect, Minard LaFever, published The Beauties of Modern Architecture in 1835, and it leaned to the up-and-coming Greek Revival.


By 1800, the handbooks were plentiful and many of the details which grace the modest early churches can be attributed to the influence of those books. The Greek Revival details (especially the non-functional mutules and guttae of the cornice) of the portico added to the Second Presbyterian Church in Hackettstown (1838) clearly bear evidence of a builder’s guide, almost certainly Asher Benjamin’s, rather than a regional building tradition or local model. The Locktown meetinghouse door surrounds might have come from William Pain’s book, and so might the doors and windows of the Reformed churches in Millstone and Blawenburg. We know that details of the cornice of Springfield’s Presbyterian Church came from Pain. There wasn’t a builder in south Jersey who didn’t carry around a copy of a book on the Georgian style of Philadelphia, and books on Greek, Palladian, and Gothic architecture typically went through many editions.

What those builder’s guides lacked was much of a background on architectural history, and very few of the early ones had more than a couple of basic plans or elevations of the front façade. It was assumed that the builder/contractor and the owner or building committee would work out those details.

These carpenter’s handbooks were particularly important in America. Since there were few professional architects, most buildings in the colonies were designed by owners assisted by carpenter-builders, who together would lay out the chief elements of a plan and structure. The handbooks were used less for plans of buildings or elevations of whole façades than they were for details, particularly such features as doorways, mantelpieces, cornices, windows, and cabinetwork.
              [from Hugh Morrison, Early American Architecture (Oxford, 1952)]

Some of the later books reproduced barely disguised drawings of influential churches, such as Robert Upjohn’s Burlington masterpiece, St. Mary’s. Because the builder’s guides focused on details, and because they did not treat anything of the history or architectural tradition, but prescriptively laid down the proper proportions of the five classical orders, we have many a church with a Greek Revival portico and Gothic arch windows (Piscataway), or an Italianate belfry on a basic Greek Revival building like the Presbyterian church in Cranbury . . . and the a few like the Baptist church in Pemberton that seem to cram in something from almost every style. In the hands of the trained and clever, we have some wonderful, eclectic buildings, particularly later in the century (and some monstrosities like the Roseville Methodist Church in Newark). It is fair to speculate that the reason for some of the eclecticism of our rural churches are due to the borrowing of one element from a Neoclassical plan, another from Greek Revival, and a third from the Gothic.
      Although builder’s guides and plan books were common throughout the entire nineteenth century, by the middle of that period, church building was specialized enough to offer sufficient projects for several architects, and even to support a contractor in the state who did nothing but build and erect steeples. When an architect was engaged, I assume there was less reliance on the builder's guides. By that time there was also a substantial building tradition—models to observe and draw on, and experienced builders and carpenters who perhaps could be consulted.
     
Builder’s guides were eventually followed by plan books, some dedicated to religious architecture, and by pattern books of model cottages, villas, and mansions. Pre-eminent was probably Andrew Jackson Downing’s Cottage Residences (1842), but it was quickly followed by many others. By mid-century, the builder’s guides had become pattern books, often with detailed floor plans, elevations, a list of materials, and estimates of the total cost of construction. They were designed for homeowners, not builders. Robert Guter and Janet Foster’s wonderful book on residential pattern books, Building by the Book, demonstrates the pervasive influence these pattern books had on domestic architecture in so many of the towns of the state.


 

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