31 January 2004
Architects & Builders
you identify this church?
photo of the month
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Four very interesting churches in Somerset and Union counties are credited to an architect named Teal, or perhaps Teale. Three churches list their architect as Oscar S. Teal, and the other says their architect was O. M. Teale. If the churches were widely scattered in location and time, we’d be cautious about inferring that it was the same architect, but Mr. Teal or Teale did his work within a ten year span, and all four churches are located with five miles of each other, two in Plainfield , one in North Plainfield, and the other in Bound Brook. All were built between 1886 and 1896, so my instinct says they are very likely the same person. But let’s take a look at their work, which ought to yield some indication about the identity of the architect.
In literary criticism there are scholars who do a close content analysis, using a computer to compare diction, grammatical elements, sentence length, and other stylistic attributes, then use the statistical data to conclude that so-and-so did or did not write the material in question. It’s been used to admit some recently discovered poems to the Shakespeare canon, and to reject others, as well as to sniff out the authorship of the book, Primary Colors, a roman á clef about the Clinton campaign whose author was listed by the publisher as Anonymous. That kind of approach might be fruitful with religious architecture as well, so let me produce the evidence and let you draw your own conclusions.
The First German Reformed church is a small, sophisticated design for a German-speaking congregation in North Plainfield. It was erected in 1886, and is the earliest structure I know of by Teal. Church tradition says architect Oscar S. Teal was so impressed by the piety of the congregation that he refused to accept any money for his work. A skeptical mind ought to reject that assertion out of hand, but it was not unknown for an architect to do so—Richard Upjohn gave away (or sold very cheaply) his plans to impecunious Episcopal congregations (an oxymoron, some might say, sort of like military intelligence or Microsoft security). The church is now home to a Spanish speaking congregation, and its exterior does not appear to have changed at all in a hundred years. The church features a stylish combination of wood and brick, Tudor half-timbering in the gable, and a well-proportioned employment of tower and gables. Clearly an accomplished performance, and not merely a pastiche of late nineteenth century elements borrowed from this church or that.
Four years later, according to a document on display in the church, an O. M. Teale, designed the Seventh Day Baptist church in Plainfield, less than a mile away. In my view, this is one of the most fascinating churches in the state, and too little known except to locals and architectural historians. It has no antecedents (in the state) and no progeny. The basic plan is that of a baptistery—a round, domed building common in Italy but rare in this country. But the building also includes a porte-cochere, Gothic-arch windows with an elaboration of treatment that is reminiscent of some of the smaller Gothic churches of France, (originally) a red tile roof, a combination of rusticated stone and brickwork, and enough surface texture and decoration to satisfy a baker of elaborate wedding cakes. In addition, the building has one of the two authentic Akron plan auditoriums in the state (the other is an addition to Elizabeth’s Second Presbyterian church, which, it turns out, was also designed by Teale in the 1890s). There is a dazzling exuberance and delight in the working out of several of its elements, like the low-relief of the band of flowers encircling the mock service tower, and the clutch of herald angels at the top of that tower. Both the interior and exterior are studded with details to engage the eye. Photographically, it is a delight and a challenge, and altogether one of the most interesting churches in the state. Having noted all that, it is impossible for me to discern any stylistic linkages between this building and the German Reformed church, so our content analysis so far does nothing to help us.
A year later, in 1891, Oscar Teal designed the Unitarian church in Plainfield for a small, but obviously upscale congregation. To the best of my knowledge, this is the oldest Unitarian church in the state, although there is an older Universalist church in Ocean county. Rusticated stone, multiple windows, turrets, and towers placed asymmetrically, are among the several interesting elements of the building. Mostly notably, in my view, is the attention to detail, which is lavished on the church. But other than the unusually fine design of such minor elements as window mullions, there is nothing here in common with either of the previous buildings. Only a few architects practicing in Jersey moved easily from one style to another—most worked largely in the Gothic, or the Romanesque idiom; an exception was William Strickland, who designed churches in Salem and Bridgeton in this state, and moved among Greek Revival, Gothic, and even Egyptian styles with some fluency. It appears we ought to credit architect Teal with a similar adaptability.
Five years later, in 1896, the same Teal (Oscar) designed the First Presbyterian church in Bound Brook, five miles to the west. If nothing else, Teal was ecumenical in his choice of clients, in contrast to Richard Upjohn who worked almost exclusively for Episcopal congregations, and Patrick Keely and Jeremiah O’Rourke, who worked exclusively for Catholic parishes. The Tudor half-timbering makes the strongest impression here, but Teal combined that with the rusticated stone, asymmetrical arrangement, and tall square tower characteristic of late Victorian architecture for this very early congregation (founded in the seventeenth century). I find the mini-peaks at the top of the tower unfortunate, but similar elements are found on other late century churches, so the feature was well-regarded at the time. Incidentally, the sky in the photograph has not been manipulated— some days you just get lucky.
The 1901 book, History of Plainfield and North Plainfield, said that Teal was a New York architect. A search on the web for Teal and architect yielded nothing, and that is where matters were until the day after Christmas when I received an email from a reader unknown to me, an architectural historian from Cranbury, who suggested I might be interested in an article on Oscar Teale in the November issue of the Staten Island Preservation Society. Her timing was impeccable. That issue (online at www.preservesi.org) carried an extensive biographical sketch of Oscar Schutte Teale by Tamara Coombs, and what follows is a synopsis of information from her article.
Teale was born in Brooklyn, studied at Cooper’s Union and apprenticed to an architect. He established his practice in 1878 and had offices in New York and New Jersey throughout his career. To attract church business, he advertised in religious publications, and apparently was successful in that effort, as the Columbia University library has drawings of 46 of his churches, in addition to dozens of homes, schools, mausoleums, carriage houses, stables, and a hotel. Teale was an accomplished magician, which undoubtedly led to his serving as a pallbearer at Harry Houdini’s funeral, as well as the designer of Houdini’s memorial. He wrote a book, Twentieth Century Magician, in 1905, and became an instructor at Columbia’s Teachers College. Teale died in 1927.
Coombs notes that the range of his styles included Queen Anne, Second
Romanesque Revival, Beaux Arts, and eclectic mixes of elements
from those styles. The addition to the Reformed church in Staten Island
that provided the raison d’étre for her article
was an Akron Plan Sunday School, erected in 1898, now used as the headquarters
for the Society. Teale seemed to be partial to circular
and polygonal designs, which is certainly true of his Seventh Day Baptist
church. The interior of the two churches I have examined closely also
exhibit similar attention to detail and craftsmanship. One thing is certain
addition to the proper spelling of his name: I shall have to visit the
library at Columbia and examine the drawings myself to see what other
work he did in the state, for New Jersey is definitely the richer for
the efforts of Oscar Teale.