No. 26  June 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

a photographic expedition along Route 322   

As a change of pace from my usual approach of focusing on an architectural style, I thought an account of how I find and photograph old churches in the state might be of interest. Having photographed more than 900 churches thus far, it gets increasingly difficult to plan a productive journey, even to towns I have not visited. State Route 322 offered an opportunity. It begins at the Commodore Perry Bridge in Gloucester County, heads east southeast through Mullica Hill and Glassboro, both of which I have worked, to Williamstown, and thereafter parallels the Atlantic City Expressway to the sea. I explored a stretch of it recently, ranging north and south of the highway about as wide as Sherman did in his march from Atlanta to Savannah; I found 19th century churches in Cross Keys, New Brooklyn, Winslow, Hammondton, Folsom, Weymouth and Estell Manor. Route 322 once was the principal highway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and so the portion between Williamstown and the Mays Landing area is studded with roadhouses and taverns, most long since abandoned. Many motels/small family parks, also in disrepair and disuse. Clearly, when the traffic disappeared those businesses were no longer viable. I'd like to return sometime and concentrate on the commercial buildings of that stretch of 322, documenting the decline that resulted from the shift of traffic to the Expressway.

The day began about 5:30 am when Bill Woodall, a photographer in his own right and technical advisor for all three of my websites, picked me up for the drive to Williamstown (Gloucester County) which had been suggested by one of the visitors to this site. The First Methodist church is impressive, with its clock and cupola, unusual features for a large meetinghouse with Greek Revival and Romanesque elements, as though the congregation couldn't make up its mind what style should be used. I had just set up my large view camera when a fellow came over and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he related a little of the history of the church, which he said was built in 1860 for $6,763, and went inside to copy a page from a book. He also said the six-foot tall clock was second-hand; that the church acquired it from a bank in Woodbury. Nice detail and very thoughtful of him to provide the printed documentation.

From Williamstown, we went to Cross Keys for another Methodist church, this one built in 1875, and arrived just as vans were discharging small children for their nursery school/day care. Aluminum sided, too, but nice lines, with double brackets and an open belfry, which had been added in 1904. Notice how the small windows in the stone foundation are aligned with the tall ones of the nave.
      We back-tracked to New Brooklyn, where we found another Methodist church, built in 1860, that looked like a small schoolhouse. It was unimpressive, so I did not set up the big camera but used my Nikon. It's disheartening to find so many of the early churches clad in siding that covers the texture of the clapboards and the details of the cornice.

Hammondton (Atlantic County), has four old churches within a two-block radius. We started with St. Mark's Episcopal church, where we spoke to Rev. Charles Sasso-Crandall, the Vicar of St. Mark's, who explained that the church was purchased from the Unitarian congregation which had built it in 1870. That was very curious, since it bears all the marks of an Episcopal church — board-and-batten construction, open timberwork ceiling, elaborate doors & hinges — nothing that has ever been found on a Unitarian church in this state. I asked if there was any published history and he said he would send me a copy, so we exchanged business cards. He was a bit embarrassed about having a business card, but was in so many situations where it seemed one was needed, that he had some printed. He mentioned that the Unitarian congregation had been founded by people who came down from New England, but that religion hadn't taken hold so the building was sold to the town's Episcopal congregation, whose own building was being shaken apart by railroad traffic. He said the congregation had added the chancel and much later, some new stained glass windows. It makes for an interesting story, but, frankly, the Unitarian role in the design of this building surely had to be minimal. In my opinion, it was seriously remodeled, or even rebuilt by the Episcopal congregation about 1870, inside and out. Unitarians may well have had a role in a previous building, but not in the one that stands today.

Across the street was the Hammonton Baptist church. It has nice lines and an unusual hipped roof, but is all aluminum, even the textured shingles of the tower. From a distance — say a block or two away — it looks very fine, but up close it lacked any charm and might as well have housed a barbershop or drycleaners. Why don't congregations realize what they are doing to these fine old churches when they cover up the original workmanship, textures and materials?

The Presbyterian church of Hammondton was much more interesting. A slate shingled tower and a red brick building, erected in 1896, I learned from the church secretary, who told me it was built as a mission church for Italians! My impression was that Italians were Catholic, even in south Jersey. Oh well. It now has a largely Hispanic congregation. The Methodist church was across the street, and it, like most of the ME churches we were to see that day, was encased in aluminum — even to the ornate English Gothic tower, with its tracery and pinnacles. No cornerstone, but a woman painting the railing said they just celebrated their 160th year, which would place it in 1843. That was certainly the founding date — not when it was erected. I suspect the church was built in the 1870s or 1880s. We also drove by a much newer Catholic church, but saw no evidence of any 19th century Catholic church; perhaps they were all Presbyterians in those days.

The Jacobus Lutheran church in Folsom was founded in 1848 and built in 1853. It has its original scalloped shingles on the tower — a very intricate pattern, and its original beaded siding, and is deservedly on the National Register of Historic Places. To me, it looks more Scandanavian than German. Adjacent to the church was another old Lutheran church, St. James, founded the same year and apparently built in the same year as the Jacobus church. It seems there was a disagreement in the congregation and one group split and built another church, less than 100 yards from the first. It, too, had a great shingled steeple, but what may have been a stone church in a Greek Revival idiom has been stuccoed over.

We drove down Route 559 looking for the Old Weymouth Meetinghouse (1807), but the road to it came out at a reverse angle from the highway and I failed to see it, so drove toward Rt 40 where we found another old (1834) Methodist meetinghouse in Estell Manor. After photographing the Estell church, which was built by the owner/manager of the Estelle Glassworks for his workers — and is, by the way, a great building and listed on the National Register, we retraced our route to the Weymouth church — it was, after all, built in 1807 and such antiquity deserves some respect — and this time, from this direction, the road was obvious. Set in a number of still-bare oaks, it is a wooden meetinghouse with two doors (the Estell Manor church has a single entrance) and a small fan decoration high in the gable. Otherwise unadorned except for the painted panels on the doors. Nice, but to me, not as interesting as the Estell Manor church. I don't think I can identify any characteristics that would enable me to date a small meeting-house built prior to the 1820s or 30s. In the adjacent burial ground we came across a half dozen wooden grave markers — nothing legible and badly weathered, and an equal number of hammered iron markers, all clearly legible. I photographed several of them, as they were the first I'd seen. Bill says there are some in the Presbyterian cemetery in Basking Ridge.

I noticed that our return would take us near Chesilhurst (Camden county) which was an early black community and had an AME church that is listed on the National Register. What a disappointment — it's a yellow-stone building of no distinction, erected in 1969-1973, according to the newest of the cornerstones. The other cornerstones embedded in the wall read 1933 and 1898. There is no reason for this building to be listed on the NR; if that listing was done before the current building/rebuilding, it ought to be delisted, or the designation means nothing.

By mid-afternoon the sky had changed and the light was very flat — time to quit. We had seen a dozen churches, including four excellent ones, three of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. This kind of photography is so different from photographing in the southwest, where you might hike 3-4 miles over fairly rough terrain to get to a single old Anasazi structure, then walk around the site for a while, studying it, judging the light and perspective, and maybe waiting a hour or more for a shadow to move or a cloud to come into view. Drive-by shooting is certainly more productive, but in many ways, less satisfying. If I were not trying to photograph and record all the old churches in the state, I would take a different approach.



Copyright © 2003 Frank L. Greenagel