No. 2 May 2001
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early churches in New Jersey
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The Beginning of Gothic Revival in New Jersey
The Cousins' War: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America
Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth
County, New Jersey, 1665-1865
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First Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth, before 1899
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of the month
The old churches from the other side
The most recognizable
church in America might be best known only from the rearSan Francisco
Mission at Rancho de Taos, New Mexicothrough
the photograph of Paul Strand and the paintings of Georgia OKeefe. I suspect
very few people could describe or even identify the front of that church,
which is rather similar to several other early Spanish missions. The adobe
walls, annually renewed, have become one of the American icons which all
photographers of the Southwest pay homage to. When I was well into this
photographic project I reviewed several hundred photographs of churches
and noted that many of the older photographs were of the rear, or of a
side entrance, whereas the great majority of the contemporary photographs
are of the front elevation. In this month's essay, a short excursion around
to the rear is our topic.
In many Gothic Revival buildings, the asymmetrical
nature of the church sometimes obscures what is front and what is side,
but, for the most part, the principal entrance and tower have been designed
less for liturgical reasons than to present an impressive, or at least
attractive facade to the passersby, which is perhaps why they retain the
attraction to photographers. The rear of the building would be seen from
the burial ground and perhaps from the horse barns in rural areas, but
until 150 years ago, there was apparently little attention given to the
design of the back of the building. Even today, there is often an out-of-sight,
out-of-mind attitude, for I have seen maintenance
equipment, old grave markers, fencing, and recreational equipment piled
against the rear wall. In some cases, of course, the rear was meant to
be seen, as it was in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark. But that is
an exception. In my exploration
of the churchscape, I invariably examined the rear, if I could get to
it. I was curious to see if it was simply the back of the building, reflecting
nothing of the structure's function, or if I might learn something from
whatever was there. And, of course, I hoped to create another image equal
The Quaker meetinghouses did not offer
an auspicious opportunity, as they were rarely more the back of the building,
albeit just as nicely finished. If there was a door, it rarely had a pent
roof, and the skirt roof of some of the meetinghouses never completely
encircled the building, although it might extend around three sides. The
meetinghouse in Mount Laurel (Evesham Friends) shows evidence
of an attached structure, perhaps the horse barn, but usually there was
nothing in the rear except a small door. Some of the other meetinghouses,
like the one in Burlington, have recently added the same kind of classrooms
and meeting rooms found attached to the side or rear of most other churches
built in the last hundred years.
The rear of the stone and wooden frame
buildings of other early churches
seemed to be of even less concern. The 1828 brick Presbyterian church
just outside Oxford, in Warren County, is as plain as the Quaker meetinghouses.
In several cases I have noted that the roughest stones are often found
in the rear, as in the Presbyterian church in Deerfield, where the best
shaped stone was reserved for the front and the side seen from the road.
When the Reformed Church in Dumont needed to extend their building, they
took stone from the rear to match that of the sides, and used newer stone
to redo the rear. But few congregations seemed as thoughtful.
About 1845, with the commencement of substantial
Catholic churches and with the Ecclesiological movement's influence on
the Episcopal churchesamong their precepts was a separate extension
to distinguish the chancel from the navewe see a significant increase
in the attention paid to the design of the rear of the church. That extension
or serious effort to treat the rear as something more than the back wall,
may be seen first in Catholic and Anglican churches, and a bit later,
a more modest rear extension in mainline Protestant churches, even when
the altar was not a significant part of the liturgy.
's Saint Peter's Church (Perth Amboy), erected in 1852, there is a deep
chancel, in accord with Ecclesiology standards for Anglican churches,
but in Hampton (Hunterdon County), the extension, which might have been
a later addition to this 1837 stucco-over-stone Musconetcong Valley Presbyterian
church, is little more than a bump on the back wall.
The chancel of another stucco-over-stone Presbyterian church, in Blairstown,
built in 1870, is, I suspect, a design element, since from the scale of
and its location, the rear was as likely to be seen as the front. The
pediment of the "chancel" is as carefully constructed as that
of the front of the church. The two other structures as the rear are probably
of later origin, although there was no one around the day of my visit
The Reformed church in High Bridge (Hunterdon
County), designed by George Post, a fairly important New York architect,
and erected also in 1870, flaunts its highly styled chancel, which provides
needed balance to the tower and entrance extension. I believe this is
where liturgical reasons were less important than the fact that the rear
of the church was going to be as visible as the principal side.
The English, and a few American, advocates
of the Gothic style were highly attuned to every aspect of church design,
including what they regarded as the east elevation, since the altar, they
felt, should be oriented to the east. But few writers on church architecture
since have paid much attention.