No. 8  November 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Wooden Friends; frame Quaker meeting houses

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Deutsche Kerke, Camden

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First Presbyterian, Atlantic City

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Feature of the month

"Not so wide as a church door, nor so deep as a well"

Even in Shakespeare's day, church doors were expected to be wider than the average door, although not as wide as barndoors. Like the window treatment and the cornice, doors (which importantly includes the door surrounds) are one of the best clues to the style of architecture and therefore to the date of the building. Nine out of ten church doors in the state are double doors, hinged right and left, each side about as wide as a standard dwelling door. With few exceptions, like the Old Tennent [Presbyterian] meetinghouse near Freehold, most doors are paneled, usually painted white or red, and rarely have a window panel. But this is New Jersey, so exceptions abound. In this month's feature, we'll examine the doors and entrances of almost a dozen old churches.
     One of the simplest doors in the state can be found on the Old Tennent Meetinghouse
(1751) ; everything about it is strictly functional, with only the sparest decorative element to the hinges. In some of the early churches in New Mexico, the stout door may have a peephole, for the churches were often designed during the Spanish colonial period to provide a defensive shelter for the parish's Puebloan Indians against raids by hostile Apaches and Utes. The doors to some of the surviving blockhouse residences in New England were designed for similar purposes, but there was no necessity for defense against hostiles when the Scotch Presbyterians erected this church, so we can, perhaps, lay the pure functionality of the design at the feet of a parsimonious congregation.
     Almost one hundred years later, a Methodist congregation in West Portal (Hunterdon) erected this small church that might be mistaken for a schoolhouse except for the stained glass windows. Windows in a church door are unusual,and these doors open into a small vestibule, which is fairly common even in the smallest churches in the state. There are no religious motifs or symbols worked into the scrollwork above the doors, and the hinges by this time have been hidden.
     The equally modest wood frame church in Imlaystown (Monmouth), built by a Methodist congregation in 1866, is similarly bereft of any decorative elements which might mark it as the entrance to a sacred place. It may be doubted that the Methodists of that era considered the building itself as particularly sacred, since it was heavily used for all kinds of social, civic and educational activities throughout the week.
     In 1864, a Christian congregation in Locktown (Hunterdon) erected this fairly large meeting house style church with a set of glass panels in its front doors. The tower, which may have been added later, is canted 45 degrees to the plane of the front of the church, also unusual for that period. But lest it appear that rural Baptist, Christian and Methodist churches, in particular, employed fewer of the stylish modes of architectural and decorative elements of the day, we'll turn to some exceptions now.
     Just a few hundred yards from that Christian church lies an Old School Baptist church, (left)built in 1818. This was a congregation opposed to Sunday School, missionaries, church music and many other practices that had become standard by that date, yet there we see two very fashionable Georgian-style door surrounds, similar to that employed on an upscale Presbyterian church erected in Bridgeton (Cumberland) 26 years earlier (below right). Those Georgian touches would normally have been considered much too worldly by most Baptist congregations. A Reformed church in Blawenburg (Somerset), erected 12 years later in 1830, employs a similar door. Over a period of 40 years, the Georgian-style door was used in a large brick Presbyterian church, a small, unstuccoed stone Baptist meeting house, and a large shingled Dutch Reformed church. Undoubtedly it was used earlier than 1792 and later than 1830, as well.
     The Ecclesiology movement in the later 1840s brought some unity to religious architectural elements, such as the Gothic arch, that had been used previously, but not consistently or particularly well, in Reformed as well as Episcopal churches. The entrance to the church was no less a concern to Ecclesiologists like Bishop George Washington Doane, who consecrated most of the Anglican churches built in New Jersey at mid-century, than the chancel and transept, all of which had liturgical implications to the movement. Christ Church, (left) erected in Woodbury (Gloucester) in 1856, copied several elements from the highly influential St. James the Less in Philadelphia, including this modest front entrance. Note the Gothic arch surrounding the door, the ornateness of the door itself and the elaborated hinges, all characteristic of Episcopal churches erected after 1850.
      Shortly after the Civil War, New Jersey communities had achieved an unprecedented prosperity, which shows in the extent and the expansiveness of the era's churches. The First Baptist Church of Freehold is a delightful wooden Gothic Revival building, erected in 1869. The window over the door seems to be a stylized trefoil design, the roof over the window and door employs some of the open timbering associated with the Carpenter Gothic phase; the elaborated door hinges, even on this side door to the church, adorn Episcopal, Reformed, and Presbyterian, as well as Baptist churches throughout the state.

     In the last years of the 19th century, Catholic parishes were building substantial stone and brick churches from the Hudson to the Delaware. In Lambertville on the Delaware, a Catholic parish built a large stone Gothic church, St. John the Evangelist (left), in 1896. The doors are buried rather deep in the Gothic arch, formed by pedestals, granite or marble columns and elaborately carved capitals. Notice also, that the door is not set at street level, as has been the case for most of the churches we've seen, but several steps up, a feature also found on the dual doors that provide entrance to St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Newark (right), erected in 1899-1900. The panels on the Lambertville church have been elaborated with moldings, while the much plainer doors of St. Stanislaus are each hung with three substantial decorative hinges.
     In a feature we're planning for next year, we'll look at additional entrances from the last half of the nineteenth century, noting what they can tell us about the cultural and architectural traditions that built them.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel