No. 12  March 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

The many forms of  "Akron Plan" churches

Many churches erected in the last two decades of the 19th century describe themselves as "Akron Plan"churches. Most of them had a corner entrance and were usually built of rusticated stone, like the Reformed church in Whitehouse Station, so popular for late Gothic revival churches and courthouses in this country. I saw nothing particularly novel about any of those buildings, but when I investigated, I found that there were apparently thousands of such churches built in this country between 1870 and World War I.
     I was led to the story of a Methodist Episcopal church in Akron, Ohio that was built in 1866-1870, designed by George Kramer but with the plan specified by the church's Sunday School Superintendent, Lewis Miller. It seems Miller wanted flexible space that would provide small meeting rooms for the Sunday School classes, which could open up into the regular auditorium so the classes might participate in a portion of the regular services. Sunday School students, sorted by age, would enter their classrooms and Miller would begin with a prayer and scripture reading; the shutters would then be closed and the day's lessons would proceed. At the end of the lessons, the doors would be reopened and the concluding part of the general session would be available to all.
     Kramer designed an amphitheatre, rather than a building with a rectangular nave, and a stage, with two tiers of small classrooms encircling the stage. The altar was essentially eliminated, and the choir loft was moved from the rear center of the gallery to the front of the church. Sliding or folding doors or partitions shuttered the classrooms from the main auditorium, but they could be opened at appropriate times. An expert on ecclesiastical architectural history has noted that it was "supremely adaptable space for other groups in the church. Weekday prayer meetings for men or women, missionary support group meetings, plays upholding Christian values staged in the auditorium, temperance meetings, ice cream socials, church fellowship suppers, and ladies circles could all be accommodated in the same flexible structure."**
     The only New Jersey church that might aptly be described as an Akron Plan church is actually an addition to the Second Presbyterian church in Elizabeth. The original church was erected in 1828, and the addition sometime in the 1890s, I believe. It appears there are at least eight small rooms on the second tier, and a like number on the main floor. The room itself is magnificent, with its dark wood and colored glass partitions.
     There is another example of an "overflow" room opening onto the main auditorium, although the tiers of classrooms are missing. The Seventh Day Baptist church in Plainfield, one of my favorite churches in the state, and a most unusual design, has placed the pulpit where it is visible from the main auditorium and the overflow room. It makes use of the amphitheatre seating in the main auditorium, but there is an open floor (no fixed pews) in the adjacent room.
     Many churches use an amphitheatre style, with curved pews and aisles that radiate from the pulpit, and I suspect that is how most congregations understand the term "Akron Plan" today. Often the floor is ramped slightly, and the model seems to have been the late 19th century theater or opera house. The Methodist church in Flemington is a fine example, and I am certain there are many more throughout the state.
     The din of the classroom in the Akron Plan was undoubtedly a disturbance to the congregation and the flexibility probably proved illusory; whatever the reason, there are few "true" Akron Plan churches in the state.

**James, Hudnut-Beumler, www.materialreligion.org/mansions/mansions.html


 

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