No. 69  July 2008
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

An architectural debt to Philadelphia

When the first Continental Congress met in 1774 in Philadelphia, Carpenter's Hall was made available to the delegates. The Carpenter's Company, a quasi-medieval guild that controlled construction in the city was already 50 years old then, but the building itself, designed by member Robert Smith, was erected between 1770 and 1773. Smith was one of the country's first professional architects, and he was responsible for two churches in this state as well as for Princeton University's Nassau Hall. Smith was not the only master builder/architect to come out of the Carpenter's Company, but he is the most famous, and as such, a most fitting way to begin this month's feature, which is a tribute to the architects of Philadelphia.
      While Bergen, Hudson and Essex counties usually looked to New York City for inspiration and talent, south Jersey looked across the river to Philadelphia. No wonder, for that city was already the major metropolis of the colonies, and, if I recall correctly, the second largest English-speaking city in the world (after London). It was noted for its stylish Georgian and Baroque buildings, many of which were the product of immigrants from London who apprenticed there and a few may have worked on Christopher Wren's churches. Members of the Carpenter's Company were certainly schooled in building practices and plans of the period, and its library contained most of the early builders' guides that were to prove so influential over the next 80 years.

Robert Smith (b.1722-d.1777) designed the original Presbyterian church in Princeton, which was later replaced by the present Greek Revival building, and he designed the first addition to [old] St. Mary's church in Burlington in 1769, as well as a number of the early churches in Philadelphia, including St. Peter's Church, Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church and Old St. George's Church.
     Smith was born in Scotland; although father was a baker, he was apprenticed to a builder. He arrived in Philadelphia by 1748, already recognized as a master. By 1753 he had designed the Christ Church steeple in Philadelphia and both Nassau Hall and the President's House at Princeton. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin, and an ardent patriot during the Revolution. He was a member of the Committee of Correspondence from the First Continental Congress (1774), and in 1775 presented to the Committee of Safety "a model of a machine for obstructing the Navigation of the River Delaware." The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on 13 February 1777, "last Tuesday morning Mr. Robert Smith, architect, died at his house in Second-street, in the fifty-fifth year of his age.... Several public buildings in this city, and its environs, are ornaments of his great abilities."
Works: Shrewsbury, Christ Church • Freehold, St. Peter's Church

William Strickland (b.1787-d.1854) was an exceptionally talented and versatile architect, born in Middletown, New Jersey. His father was a master carpenter who moved the family to Philadelphia in c. 1790 and became a charter member of the Practical House Carpenters' Society in 1811. Strickland worked as an apprentice/assistant to Benjamin Latrobe (designer of the U.S. Capitol building) for a time, but during the War of 1812, Strickland was primarily concerned with defense work, using the engineering skills that he had gained with Latrobe. After the war he secured several more commissions, culminating in the structure that would be a turning point for both his career and for the course of American architecture— the Second Bank of the United States. In 1818 Strickland won the competition with a design based on the Parthenon. That design turned out to be a seminal work in the history of neoclassicism, and specifically the Greek Revival, in the United States. By the mid-1830s Strickland began to lose major commissions to his former student Thomas Ustick Walter and to emigre architects such as John Notman. In 1845 he moved to Nashville where he designed the Tennessee State Capitol.
Works: Bridgeton, Second Presbyterian • Salem, St. John's Church

John Notman (b.1810-d.1865) was responsible for the nearest thing to an authentic English Gothic parish church in the state—St. Thomas' Church in Glassboro. He was born in Scotland and apprenticed to a builder there. He came to Philadelphia in 1831, and by 1839 had secured an important commission to design a villa for New Jersey's Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane, in Burlington. A few years later Doane asked him to design the Glassboro church in a Gothic manner, then a chapel at St. Mary's Hall in Burlington, for which he was instructed to follow a specific English model, reputedly the first such attempt for a church in this country. Notman planned the first architect-designed, park-like rural cemetery at Laurel Hill, Philadelphia, but is sometimes wrongly credited with designing St. James the Less church, located nearby. His most famous building is St. Mark's Church in Philadelphia. He was one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, and a leading advocate of the English Gothic style. He is likely the architect for the Sunday School/Chapel at Trinity Church in Princeton.
     According to Constance Greiff's biography, Notman "introduced the Italianate villa to the United States at Burlington." Notman first appeared in the Philadelphia city directories listed as a carpenter, a title he did not change until the directory of 1841. Two of Notman 's projects were published in Downing's A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841). From that point he was recognized as one of the country's leading architects and he was one of founders of the American Institute of Architects.
Works: Glassboro, St. Thomas' Church • Burlington, Chapel of the Holy Innocents, St. Mary's Hall • Trenton, St. Paul's Church

Thomas Ustick Walter (b.1804-d.1887) was the son of a bricklayer and served an apprenticeship with him in expectation of becoming a bricklayer/ contractor, too. But he eventually trained in the office of William Strickland and by 1831 had begun to practice architecture, first gaining local recognition with his Gothic-style and Greek Revival buildings. Hundreds of commissions followed in the 1830s and 1840s, including ones from Venezuela and China. Walter won the competition for the design for the extension of the United States Capitol in 1850; the wings and the dome of the Capitol shaped the image and iconography of American governmental building for a century to come. He was a founder of the American Institute of Architects.
Works: Bridgeton, First Baptist • Mays Landing, Presbyterian

Samuel Sloan (b.1815-d.1884) like many, apprenticed as a carpenter and worked under the direction of an accomplished architect (John Haviland). He was originally listed as a carpenter-builder, but by 1850 or so, he was thought of as an architect. He based his practice in Philadelphia, but designed buildings all over the country, and his influence was spread by his influential plan books. John McArthur based his design of Salem's First Presbyterian Church on the plans of Sloan, in my reading. Sloan also designed the Masonic Building in Lambertville.
     Early in his career Sloan began to publish the series of books that would make him one of the most prolific American authors on architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. The Model Architect appeared in 1851 . City and Suburban Architecture in 1859, which was followed by Constructive Architecture that same year. Sloan's Homestead Architecture came out in 1861, and American Houses, a Variety of Designs for Rural Buildings, also in 1861. Sloan also reached thousands of potential customers through the pages of Godey's Lady's Book which began to publish his designs in 1852. He is probably better known for his publications than for his buildings.
Works: Salem, First Presbyterian

Edwin Forrest Durang (b.1825-d.1911) ] was born in New York City, and by 1855 he appears in Philadelphia city directories as an architect. Durang specialized in ecclesiastical design, most notably for the Catholic Church. In 1896 he designed the Catholic church in Lambertville, 30 years after he had completed the Methodist church there. His most important work is the Church of the Gesu, an elaborate baroque design in Philadelphia. He partnered with his son, and the practice continued well into the 20th century.
Works: Lambertville, Centenary Methodist and St. John the Evangelist

Isaac Pursell (b.1853-d.1910) may have designed only a single church in New Jersey—an exceptional late-Victorian Baptist church in Freehold. He was based in Philadelphia, apprenticed to Samuel Sloan, and designed the very substantial St. Paul's Reformed Episcopal church there. Pursell was born in Trenton, and after his apprenticeship opened an office in Philadelphia in 1878. For many years Pursell was part of the effort on the part of the Presbyterian Board of Church Erection to publicize acceptable plans for churches and church manses; many of his design appeared in the Board's annual reports and were constructed across the United States. Pursell's church designs exhibit the English Gothic Revival style used for St. Martin's Episcopal Church (Philadelphia).

David Gendell (b.1839-d.1925) was a favorite architect of Baptist congregations in the Philadelphia area, which obviously extended into New Jersey. Gendell was born in Philadelphia, the son of a carpenter/builder, foundryman and owner of an architectural iron works. He served an apprenticeship with Thomas Ustick Walter, and then launched an office with his father, for the first time listing himself as an architect. He was a devout Baptist, and this is reflected in the several projects which he designed for Baptist-affiliated congregations.
Works: Lambertville, First Baptist • Newark, South Baptist

Frank R. Watson (b.1859-d.1940) specialized in church building, generally for Catholic parishes. He was born in Philadelphia, and after high school he entered the office of Edwin F. Durang, an eminent architect concentrating on Catholic church projects during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Watson spent five years with Durang before establishing his own firm in 1883. While not limiting his practice to Catholic projects, Watson became well-known for his church designs. So successful was he that he opened a branch office in Atlantic City in 1898.
Works: Bridgeton, Berean Baptist Tabernacle • Camden, Centenary Methodist • Atlantic City, Church of the Ascension

I have no confidence whatever that my list of the New Jersey projects is complete for any of these architects. Information about the contractor or architect is hard to come by, even when one has ready access to the church records. The architect, contractor or builder was simply not regarded as important enough to merit mention in the permanent record. I find it more than a little ironic that the only reason some of these buildings will be remembered is that they were designed by an important American architect. In a couple of cases I know of a church is now on the National Register and has obtained funding for needed repairs only because of the architect.
      There are a handful of other Philadelphia architects who worked in New Jersey that should be covered; I'll come back to them in a later issue, but the most prominent deserve some attention here: Henry Dagit, Wilson Eyre, Hazelhurt & Huckel, John McArthur Jr, and Horace Trumbauer—all did religious projects in New Jersey. Some information about them can be found in the section on architects and builders.

I am indebted to Sandra Tatman & Roger Moss for much of the biographical information in this article, which extend and correct data I had assembled from several sources. Their more more extensive biographies can be found at That site also includes a list of projects for each architect, although it leaves out many New Jersey churches.




Copyright 2008 Frank L. Greenagel