No. 73 January 2009
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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We've created a database and photographic inventory containing more than a thousand of the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each month. We solicit all contributions and suggestions from visitors.

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Freehold - First Baptist

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Feature of the month

demolition derby or adaptive reuse?

I was preparing an article on architect Patrick Keely for this issue when I read in the New York Times about the closing of a church in Brooklyn—“a church that held the neighborhood's heart.” That followed another article a few weeks earlier about the demolition of a 125-year old church in Queens, and an e-mail from a occasional correspondent about the impending demolition of a church in Monmouth county, and a similar fate that probably awaits an exceptional old church (right) in Mercer county. A Google search on the term “church demolition” turns up 11,400 entries, most of them in the last few years. It's almost as though there were an epidemic.

Extent of the closings
It's difficult even to estimate the number of churches awaiting demolition or available for sale. One can assume the number is staggering given the information coming out of major U.S. cities. In 2004 the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced the closing of 65 to 80 parishes throughout the community it serves over the coming years. In March the Archdiocese of Detroit announced a plan to close up to 63 parishes by 2015. These are the first closings since 1989, when 30 inner-city parishes were closed or consolidated. St. Louis saw 19 churches offered up for sale in 2005, bringing the total of closed churches to 55 since 1990. In several cases the parishioners have rallied in an attempt to raise money and save the building, but in many cases the church is sold and the buyer tears it down, or perhaps turns it into a residence, or a commercial use. Adaptive reuse is the term, particularly when the old buildings retains its historic features more or less intact. Sometimes the interior is gutted and the exterior relatively untouched, or the interior may be left relatively intact, as is the case of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic church in Newark. Occasionally even the interior is kept basically intact, which is the case of Trinity church (left) in Matawan, now Bart's Restaurant. When the building is maintained as a museum, of course, even the religious objects (stations of the cross, baptismal fonts, etc.) remain intact and in place. Here we'll focus on adaptive reuse, not the sale of a church to another denomination, in which case the construction may be minimal, or the saving from demolition of a church, which is not a reuse at all. I'll sketch out what I have learned about the buildings that no longer hold religious services.

Reasons for the closings
From conversations I have had there are many, many more active congregations that will eventually close their doors and fold, or merge with another congregation. Inner city parishes with declining memberships can’t afford their buildings, maintain them properly, or fill them with people. Small churches in rural areas are beset with declining populations of older members and lack the day-care facilities, youth and social programs that that have enabled others to flourish. This story is not only a tale of inner city and urban areas. From the windy plains of North Dakota comes a similar plaint—“much of the rich cultural and architectural heritage of North Dakota is captured in the strength and beauty of its historic church buildings. Unfortunately, demographic, economic and technological trends, have left many of these important buildings in jeopardy.”

What is the fate of these buildings?
Considering only the churches erected before 1900 in New Jersey, 193 of the 1,200+ churches in my database no longer hold services. I have not kept count of those that have burned down or been demolished in the last 10 years, but it is probably not more than a handful. Five of the 1,200 are in ruins, and 16± are empty, or appear to be so, but not abandoned. 53 are now residences, and about 20 have been converted into community centers, senior centers and YMCAs. One is a bank, another a liquor store , one a supermarket, and one a bed-and-breakfast. Four have been converted to schools or school offices, four others are restaurants, five are now Masonic Halls like the former First Baptist church in Montclair (left), and another five are public libraries. So there appears to be a positive record of reuse. But let's consider the matter a little further.

problems with adaptive re-use
In many cases, especially the large stone Catholic, Presbyterian and Reformed churches of Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties where the demographic changes have been most severely felt, the great vertical enclosed space may not be suitable for many purposes. The windows are not located optimally, and extensive repairs may be needed. That may be aggravated by the fact that the church wants money that the sale of the land would bring, which seems to be the case in New York City more than in New Jersey. The cost of building new is likely to be less than restoring a nineteenth-century Gothic Revival church, and certainly the maintenance and utility costs will be lower. So purely on an economics basis, the case for adaptive reuse is going to be difficult to make.

adaptive reuse examples
But churches and synagogues do have a cultural value; they do anchor neighborhoods, and they represent workmanship and values that we often seem to have lost. So we ought to applaud and recognize the efforts that have resulted in successful reuse, as was done with the old Baptist church (1879) in Allentown. In a number of other cases, the new use is a museum or ancillary chapel, so that adaptation required was not extensive and the new use quite consistent with the original purpose. Elizabeth Stoddard Chapel (1888) in Succasunna, the delightful stick Church of the Holy Innocents (1881) in Beach Haven (right), now the visitor's center, the Fisk AME church (1882) in Fair Haven and the school in the former Friends meetinghouse (1859) in Cinnamonson are good examples.

Other buildings required substantial rework. The Westminster Presbyterian church (1890) in Bloomfield now serves as the Van Fossen theater for Bloomfield College, the Moravian community's Gemeinhaus in Hope has been beautifully restored and adapted by the Hope Bank there. In Rumson, St. George's on the Hill Episcopal church (1874) was turned into classroom and other space for the Rumson County Day School. And in the last few years a dilapidated weed-overgrown wooden-frame Methodist church (1866) in Imlaystown (right) has been restored to an excellence it perhaps has not seen in the last hundred years. The Methodist church (1875) in Rocky Hill, once used as a theater has been beautifully restored as an architect's/planners' office. St Peter's church in Medford, a small board-and-batten relic of the 1870's, was in the process of restoration and adaptation as a doctor's office when I last saw it several years ago.

bad examples where the building's character is lost
Not all adaptive reuse stories are happy ones, of course. There are many bad examples where the adaptation has been badly botched—better to have torn down the building than what was done to it. The worst example, in my mind, is in Newark's Ironbound District—what was Christ Church, an 1850 design of Frank Wills, one of the pre-eminent Gothic Revival architects in the county, has been turned into church offices. The modifications to the exterior have destroyed any of the Gothic elements except perhaps the steeply-pitched roof and the remains of the buttresses.

Theoriginal Methodist church in Lambertville (left) became a lecture hall, a theater and who knows what else. It was a frame shop when I last saw it. I've never been inside but the exterior has been changed beyond all recognition, although one can still see the stone wall of the rear part of the building. The Pinebrook Methodist church in Montville is now the Milano Restaurant, the Beth Israel synagogue in Atlantic, boarded up on my last visit, was a boardinghouse, which may have been an euphemism for its real use. When Chubby's Pizzeria in Somers Point burned down, that perhaps was a more fitting end for the Methodist (or Baptist) church is once was. The Green Bridge Methodist church, now a multi-family dwelling a mile or so from where I live in Phillipsburg was once a large and stately building. The First Baptist church in Vineland, although retaining much of its exterior character is now a cocktail lounge and rooming house.

Newark's South Park Presbyterian (1853) is just a fragment of the original, but what a fragment! Lincoln addressed a crowd from its steps in 1861, and it is often portrayed in books on historical American architecture. It is one of the few New Jersey churches that is often pictured in books on architectural history. The task is to preserve the standing façade without rebuilding the church. And to what purpose? I have seen examples in Europe where all that remains is the portico; the rest has been turned into a small park or a free-standing monument, like a Roman triumphal arch. Here is a case where some sort of preservation simply needs to be made.

I want to call your attention to a new wiki I have created for the old churches, synagogues and meetinghouses of Cumberland County. Used a wiki (like Wikipedia) to make it easy for readers to comment, add to or even edit the information. I'm going to encourage churches to add a link to their own website, photos and other historical elements that may interest a wider audience. Initial readers have already added four more and identified one that had bedeviled me for years. Churches are organized by municipality. Here's the URL: My purpose is not to supplant this website  but ion the hope of encouraging a wider participation in gathering information. I find I simply do not have enough time to get to all the local libraries to look up dates and names in the 21 counties of the state. If the Cumberland wiki saves me some time, I'll construct a similar one for other counties.




Copyright 2008 Frank L. Greenagel