No. 36 June 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

desacralizing the landscape

The recent announcement that the Archdiocese of Newark is considering abolishing a number of parishes ought to cause some concern among the state's preservationist friends, for most of the buildings of parishes that are merged into others will come on the market, and roughly half will be converted for uses other than religious services. That's been the history of the roughly one hundred twenty churches from the eighteenth and nineteen centuries that are no longer used for religious services. A dozen of those buildings were erected in the eighteenth century, but most were built after the Civil War and their architecture is often less valued than the earlier Georgian and Federal styles of the early Republic. One in nine of the 920 buildings I've inventoried has been converted for use as a residence, Masonic Lodge, theater, community center, or sits unused, waiting to be sold or torn down. This figure does not include several churches and chapels that were reconfigured for use as the parish hall, Sunday School, or for church offices when the congregation built a new church.

Churches, like other solidly-built structures, have long been adapted to other uses once the congregation outgrew them or dwindled away. It is unusual to read early accounts of a congregation demolishing their old church, but common to find them selling it to someone who dismantled it, hauled it away and rebuilt it as a barn, as did the Presbyterian congregations in Knowlton (Warren County) and Morristown. It took several weeks to take Morristown's braced frame Presbyterian church apart to be reassembled for a barn in Passaic county (it may still exist). The original Methodist Episcopal church in Mechanicsville (Whitehouse, Hunterdon County) was sold in 1876, disassembled and rebuilt a few hundred yards east, where it served as a blacksmith shop for 65 years until, in 1940, it was converted into a home for the Whitehouse Chemical Fire Company. All over the state, old churches have been converted for use as community and social service centers, restaurants, Grange and Masonic lodges, town halls and fire halls, libraries, a variety of restaurants, apartment houses, a bed-and-breakfast, a pizza parlor, as well as museums, historical society headquarters, and a variety of other industrial and domestic uses. Nine of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, which in itself, unfortunately does little to protect them from demolition or serious alteration.

Adaptive reuse is the term used by preservations and architects when addressing how to reconfigure an old building that is no longer used for its original purpose. Some of these adaptations have been very well done—Bart's Restaurant in Matawan, a fine Gothic Revival church designed by Richard Upjohn is one of the best examples I've seen. But many reuses, if they don't actually disguise the building certainly fail to acknowledge its history. Indeed, I have spoken to many current occupants who were not even aware of the original function of their building. Even when the structure must be seriously altered to make it conform to construction codes or to render it functional in its new use, it seems to me that a certain respect is due any building that has survived a hundred years, whether it was erected as a church, a grand villa, a railroad station, or even a brothel.

When the vitality of the Quakers waned in the mid-19th century, a number of their meetinghouses went unused for many years, including the Stony Brook meetinghouse just outside Princeton, and several were sold off; at least nine Quaker meetinghouses, several dating from the eighteenth century, are now used for other purposes. Two of the early meetinghouses in the state serve as residences: the Upper Springfield Friends meetinghouse (1727) and the Copenny Friends meetinghouse (1775), near Jacksonville in Burlington County. Both were built of brick in traditional early Quaker style and both are on the National Register. There are no markers to note the history of the buildings, perhaps out of respect for the owners' privacy. One of the more appropriate reuses is the Hicksite meetinghouse in Crosswicks, which now houses the Chesterfield Historical Society.

There are only seven Jewish synagogues remaining from the nineteenth century; it may be that one stills holds occasional services, but the rest have long been converted to other uses. The Prince Street synagogue in Newark—the only one remaining of the fifty-three that were built in that city before 1900—was just barely saved from the wrecking ball and is now an environmental center. Unless something has been done with the Beth Israel synagogue in Atlantic City since I was last there, it is still a boarded-up rooming house in serious danger of demolition.

One of the earliest German New School Baptist congregations in the state built a solid stone structure in Wertsville (East Amwell Township, Hunterdon County) in 1834. The congregation dispersed by the early part of this century and the building was more-or-less abandoned. A few years ago I came across it just as it was being renovated as a residence. Obviously a vernacular building, it has several details, like the oculus in the gable end, that are of special interest. In Mt. Olive Township (Morris County) an early Presbyterian church, built about 1860 as far as I can determine, was converted into a stunningly attractive home. Another Presbyterian church, built in 1888 in Cokesbury (Tewksbury Township, Hunterdon County) was converted into a dwelling in the 1960s after the congregation dwindled down to a few families, most of whom left to join the nearby Methodist church, from whence the founders originally came. An interesting Methodist church in Ebenezer (Warren County) has been lovingly restored as a residence with minimal exterior alteration.

There are four churches that have been converted to theaters and playhouses—the Third Presbyterian church in Elizabeth, the Messiah Church in Trenton, the Rockaway Valley Methodist church in Morris County, and the Baptist Society meetinghouse that was built in Larger Crossroads (Somerset) but moved in 1880 to Chester in Morris County to serve first as a Methodist church, then as a school, as the municipal building, and now as the home of the Black River Theater. In a subsequent article I will focus on these, and a couple other churches that once were used as theaters.

Long before I started this project I used to meet with my advertising agency (Ritta & Associates—consider this an enthusiastic endorsement) in a converted church in Teaneck (Bergen County) and I've broken bread in two residences and two restaurants that used to be churches, so I am willing to concede the merit as well as the necessity of such adaptive reuse. And let us hope that there will be more, for there are too many churches that were built simply as preaching stations and not adaptable for the multiple functions that churches are called on to serve today. There are too many churches that were erected as a convenience for parishioners who didn't want to walk more than three miles to attend services. And there are too many large churches where the affluent and socially-prominent congregations departed for the suburbs and left the shell to be inhabited by enthusiastic but small Latino and Caribbean congregations without the financial resources to maintain the building.

Looking ahead
Every year since I began this project I have seen or heard of two or three churches that have been sold for use as residences, retail shops or offices. Most of the time, a church will pass to other congregations, especially in urban areas where the demographics of the neighborhood have changed. In some cases, apparently, there are deed restrictions that prohibit the use for anything other than a house of worship. Some large churches with a high cost of upkeep will have another fate. Where the value of the property is significant, they will be converted or torn down. Visit them while you can.
Top-to-bottom: The Moravian Gemeinhaus in Hope is now a bank, Trinity Church in Matawan is a restaurant, The Hicksite Friends meetinghouse in Crosswick is occupied by the local historical society, Beth Israel synagogue is unused, the Presbyterian church in Mt Olive is a residence, the Methodist church in Rockaway is a playhouse, St. Peter's in Medford houses professional offices, and Frenchtown's Presbyterian church serves as the town's municipal offices and library.



Copyright © 2004 Frank L. Greenagel