Issue No. 2   May 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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We've created a database and photographic inventory on more than half the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each month. We welcome and solicit all contributions and suggestions from our visitors.


Last month's feature
The Beginning of Gothic Revival in New Jersey

Book reviews
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

Can you identify this church?

Vintage photo of the month

First Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth, before 1899

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Next month's Feature:
architectural oddities: unusual church designs

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Feature of the month

The old churches from the other side

The most recognizable church in America might be best known only from the rear—San Francisco Mission at Rancho de Taos, New Mexico—through 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 to Strand's.

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 churches—among their precepts was a separate extension to distinguish the chancel from the nave—we 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.
In '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 the church 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 to ask.
      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 another instance 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.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel