No. 10  January 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

Mine is larger than yours

With the exception of the Quaker meeting houses and some of the "bank front" churches in urban areas, most mainstream Christian houses of worship have a tower or steeple. The height of the steeples were sometimes twice or three times the nave, even in churches built in the early years of the 19th century, but because the steeple rose to a point, often above several elaborate and successively smaller tiers, it did not have the mass of the square towers of later years. In this issue we'll look at several square towers, especially ones that seem disproportionally large in relation to the nave.

All of the towers pictured here rise directly from the ground, and most are set off to a side of the nave; indeed, the tower of the First Presbyterian church in Morristown [left] is connected only by an enclosed arcade to the main body of the church. Most of the towers have a top tier with multiple arches, and most also show tall slit windows reminiscent of the defensive towers in the town of San Gimigiano, in Tuscany. The roof in most cases is steeply pitched, although that would have been inappropriate for the Renaissance style of the Immaculate Conception church in Montclair, which has a neo-classical cupola. [right] Several have a distinctive band or distinctive course, which was common to the period, probably to to break up the large expanse of brick or stone. The shaft of the tower is a uniform width (or nearly so) from the ground to the topmost tier, so the effect is one of mass rather than delicacy.

All of these churches were erected between 1892 and 1899, which suggests it might have been an engineering issue that prevented earlier builders from constructing equally tall towers. But a more likely reason is the growing affluence of some congregations during this decade, and the consequent desire to make the church stand out—to give it a presence. No church records suggest that congregations were in a contest to see who could build the largest or tallest, but it appears that something like that was going on, with each successive building a little taller or grander than the previous one. Most of these churches show the influence of architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and the style is known as "Richardsonian Romanesque." The emphasis is on overscaled entrances, chimneys, gables, and towers, generally in an asymmetrical arrangement, and rusticated stone for trim was a common feature.

A dramatic lateral expansion of the churches during this period provided space for additional activities and functions, so it is doubtful that the height of the tower served an functional purpose, although I am told that several steeples today hide cell phone transmission equipment; the rental income from the phone company pays some of the expense of maintaining the tower. Old engravings of the skylines of early cities often show a dozen or more steeples, much the tallest buildings in town. By the end of the 19th century, that was no longer true, as civic and commercial buildings often reached five stories and more, and greatly exceeded that in the following decades. So the same spirit of expansion and the limitless confidence of the era which prompted the earliest skyscrapers might well have given rise to the ecclesiastical towers. Bigger was apparently better, in religion as in commerce.

Top to bottom, the churches are: St John the Evangelist, Jersey City, b.1892; First Presbyterian, Morristown, b.1893; Church of the Immaculate Conception, Montclair, b.1892; First Methodist Episcopal, Trenton, b.1894; St. Lucy's Church, Jersey City, b.1895; Memorial Presbyterian, Dover, b.1899; First Reformed of Raritan, Somerville, b.1896.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel