No. 33 March 2004
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Where are all the architects and builders?

One of the ongoing frustrations of attempting to trace influences and patterns in the design of old churches is the paucity of information about the architects or builders of those structures. Many of the early wooden frame churches undoubtedly were planned and erected by members of the congregation, who had experience building barns and other domestic structures, which, after all, were not much different from the earliest meetinghouses. But it is also evident that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, several of those churches presented engineering and construction problems well beyond the experience of the average carpenter or stone mason. Even some that didn’t clearly are based on a common plan, or shared an architect or builder. The unusual First Baptist Church in Washington (Warren County), erected in 1886 is not a distinguished building in any sense; I initially assumed that the shed front, the entry vestibule, and perhaps even the hipped roof were later modifications of a traditional vernacular church. From an old photograph I learned that was not the case; except for enclosure of the belfry and the aluminum siding, the church today looks very much as it did when it was erected. What is most intriguing, however, is that 26 miles away, literally on the boundary of Sussex and Warren counties, a scaled-up version of the First Baptist—the Yellow Frame Presbyterian Church—was erected in 1906. Nothing I have found in the published record provides us with an architect or builder’s name, but a linkage between the two churches is certainly beyond any doubt.

In Burlington County, a committee from the Chesterfield Friends Meeting (Crosswick) visited meetinghouses in Pennsylvania in 1773 and instructed that a specific meetinghouse (Buckingham, in Bucks County) be copied; the Presbyterian church at Schooley’s Mountain (Morris) and the Reformed church at Six Mile Run (Somerset) were explicitly copied by other congregations. There are other reports of similar visits and borrowings in several congregations in the region by the mid-nineteenth century. But visits by committees of laymen don’t solve engineering and construction problems, although they may account for some of the striking regional similarities that cut across denominational lines.

The dozen virtually identical Greek Revival churches erected between 1846 and 1856 (mostly in Somerset County, but with versions in Hunterdon, Essex, Monmouth, Mercer, Warren, and Burlington) were surely the result of a common plan, architect, or builder. Similarly, there are more than a dozen churches in the central part of the state that follow the design of the Presbyterian church in Westfield, closely or generally, all built within a dozen years of that church; we are justified in expecting to find some connection beyond that of the visit of a building committee. The late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Reformed churches in Bergen County (Bergenfield, Dumont, Hackensack, Ridgefield, Ridgewood, and Saddle River), the Reformed church in Marlboro (Monmouth), and the non-longer extent Reformed church in Somerville were all built to the same plan, and doubtless some of them shared a builder, master carpenter or master mason. I have no doubt that more of those names (Aaron Westerveldt and Peter Durie are identified) might be found in church records (and I hope that someone will be prompted by this article to do some of my work for me), but I have found nothing in the published record that would enable us to track the influence and linkages.

The probability is that few early churches built before, say, 1840 in the state needed or engaged an architect until a larger size, and the shift from a wooden frame building to stone (and somewhat later, to brick) probably required something more than local artisan knowledge. The church’s building committee often contracted for a “neat and plain” building, or, later, one “in the Gothic manner,” or “of the Romanesque order.” A Presbyterian congregation in Delaware Station (Warren) contracted for a “modern church in a semi-gothic fashion.” Those instructions were open to interpretation, sometimes as the work progressed. An experienced master carpenter or builder might well draw on his previous work, or on the work of others as Richard Upjohn drew heavily on St. James the Less in Philadelphia for many of his later designs.

There is a profile of a leading Somerset County citizen in Snell’s 1881 History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties—one James P. Goltra, who married into the family of a Presbyterian minister and lived in Basking Ridge, of whom it was written that he “built many churches in Bernards Township and surrounding townships.” The one church we can identify for certain that he built was St. John’s Episcopal church in Somerville [1851] (since replaced with a newer building). Goltra was born in 1792 and lived to almost eighty, continuing to work “until near the end of his life,” and he brought up his son in that work. It is easy to imagine how regional similarities in church design might arise when the instructions to the builder were very general, the builder had experience, and the congregation’s building committee undoubtedly knew of the builder’s other work in the region. An architect, or set of architectural plans, is not necessary for the equation.

Until the early-to-mid nineteenth century, there were few, if any individuals in the state who called themselves architects; the medieval term master builder had gone out of fashion, but the leading carpenters or masons responsible for much of the specific design did not yet use the term architect to describe themselves. Robert Smith of the Carpenter’s Company of Philadelphia, was probably the earliest individual known to be a professional architect in this area; Smith designed Christ Church in Shrewsbury [1769] and  St. Peter’s Church in Freehold [1781], as well as Nassau Hall in Princeton, but he is a rarity in the state. The earliest names mentioned with respect to construction of a church are usually builders, carpenters, or masons—occasionally priests or members of the congregation—not architects. Asa Dilts of Somerville is mentioned as the builder of the Presbyterian church in Pluckemin [1851], the addition to the Lamington Presbyterian church [1855], the Reformed Church in Readington [1865], and the First Baptist Church of Raritan [1872]. Henry W. Leard of Princeton is credited as the architect for the fine board-and-batten Reformed church in Rocky Hill [1856]; earlier Leard had been listed as a builder for the restoration of Nassau Hall in Princeton. Similarly, William Kirk is noted as the builder for the Presbyterian church in Basking Ridge in 1839, as well as the Old Bergen Reformed church in Jersey City, also erected with a full Greek Revival portico in that year; in 1848 he gets credit as the architect for the first of three Reformed churches in Newark, including the Second Reformed Church [1848] and the North Reformed Church [1858], both exceptional Gothic structures. Major Aaron Hudson was a prolific carpenter-builder, who by the time of the 1850 census was called “architect.” Hudson is responsible for the Presbyterian and Catholic churches in Mendham (Morris) and the Reformed church in Pottersville [1869] (Somerset). Only Upjohn’s name would be recognizable, even to most architectural historians; although others are credited with several churches in the state, only Hudson, Kirk, and Leard seem to have had a local architectural practice.

There were few architects in the state until the middle of the nineteenth century, yet buildings got built, and not just small domestic ones and barns—some very substantial and sophisticated churches were built in the last three decades of the eighteenth and the first several decades of the nineteenth century. The many commemorative church histories, issued on the 100th or 200th anniversary of the church’s founding, rarely mention the architect or builder, but usually note the cost and who was present at the dedication. So one of the tasks in my goal of inventorying all of the early churches of the state is to identify the architects, builders, master carpenters, and master masons who gave form and texture to the churches. In that I shall need all the help I can get.



Copyright © 2004 Frank L. Greenagel