No. 60 June-July 2006
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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Feature of the month

Walpack Methodist — a church with a unique interior

Most Jerseyans could not locate Walpack on a map since it is not an exit on the Turnpike. Even if one were given a clue, say, "Tocks Island Dam," the chances are that only a few would connect it to Sussex or Warren County. The village was scheduled to be submerged under many feet of water by now, but public opposition finally got the dam cancelled and most of the remaining buildings, including the Walpack Methodist Episcopal church, are now the property of the Department of the Interior and managed by the National Park Service. A pleasant success story for historic preservation, you say. But there's more.

The acoustics of the old church, constructed in 1871-72, were apparently terrible, and as it was unheated, it was cold in winter. The solution in 1947 was to install some wallboard over the plaster walls and ceiling. Hidden underneath that wallboard was a remarkable secret—glorious paintings on every flat and curved surface, including the coved ceiling, the choir loft and the stairwells. Even today not all of the wallboard has been removed, and the NPS is urging that a new, better brand of wallboard be installed to preserve the fresco-like painting. But that's getting ahead of the story. Let's take a look at a few of those designs.

In Snell's History of Sussex and Warren Counties (1881), he notes that the interior was "handsomely painted and frescoed." Technically, I think the term for the work is secco, for painting on dry plaster that has been prepared with a wash. Some of it has obviously chipped off, so it is not part of the plaster itself, which is the mark of true fresco. This corner decoration in the ceiling is typical of much of the work. The bright blues, especially, are dazzling, apparently as vivid as the day they were painted. No one I spoke to at the Walpack Historical Society had any information about the artist, or even the style, which I have loosely, for want of a better term, called Baroque. There is some likelihood that the decorations had deteriorated from humidity by 1947 because it does not appear there was any great outcry from the congregation over the "renovation."

The device (about five feet in diameter) seen on the right is the located in the very center of the ceiling, from which may have hung a large chandelier (or oil lamp—the building was not electrified until 1947). The vertical strips are lathes that were attached to the ceiling and walls so they could be covered with wallboard.

What is known is that when the original stone meetinghouse was declared unfit for worship, the church advertised for bids in 1871, and a man named Williamson of Branchville (Sussex County) won the contract with a bid of $5,200, which did not include pews and other furnishings. Major construction was apparently complete by October of that year , and when the building was available for services in March 1872, an additional $1,800 had been spent (if I have my figures correct). There is evidence that the painting was done by the time the building was dedicated in 1872, so, presumably, the cost for the artist was included in that amount. Further, it suggests that the work was done between October and March. That raises an interesting question: how long it would have taken an individual, working on his back in Sistine Chapel/Michelangelo fashion, to complete the work just on the ceiling? And then there was the work on the walls, on the choir loft, and the two stairwells. In the chancel, a shallow alcove behind the altar, there is a trompe l'oeil painting of a classical portico, but that gets a bit lost when confronted with the spectacular ceiling.

What is to be the fate of this work, which is unique in the state as far as I know? I was told that the NPS got estimates ranging from $700,000 to more than a million for restoration. It is probably out of the question to expect government funding, so the NPS has proposed to cover the paintings again, but with a better brand of wallboard. The Historical Society would obviously like to see it remain visible and restored (in some fashion), and has some hope that the work might be done for a fraction of the NPS estimate.

I hope that some readers of this website might be of help on a few fundamental questions: Is the style of the work an identifiable one—perhaps something taken from a pattern book of the period? Are there other churches in the region that have been decorated in this fashion? I have seen the fine trompe l'oeil in the Congregational church in Chester, but are there any others of this extent? What kind of work would the artist have done when he was not employed working on church walls in secco—an itinerant painter, perhaps? In which case there are probably other churches in the region with something similar. Any assistance would be much appreciated, I know, by the members of the Walpack Historical Society, and I will relay all messages to them.

* * * * *

In the May issue I provided a booklet on my favorite churches in PDF format that could be downloaded; it was a fairly large file (a bit over 3MB) so I did not expect more than 40-50 downloads. In fact, it appears that about 250 people downloaded the file, and very few of them were from EDU domains. No one contacted me about the booklet, so I am much in doubt as to what to make of that figure. But the number is sufficiently large that I may try it again sometime.

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Copyright 2006 Frank L. Greenagel